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Governor's gay rights bills raise hopes of Md. activists; But opponents coalesce into odd alliances in bid to reject legislation again


Standing in his boss' wood-paneled Cumberland office, Michael Engler could hardly believe what he was hearing. He was being fired.

"He told me I couldn't be effective in my job because I was gay," said Engler, who had been heading the subsidiary of a large Maryland investment firm. "That was it. I was out."

Boiling, Engler figured the logical next call was to his lawyer. But he was wrong.

Maryland is one of the majority of states that offer no special protection for gay men and lesbians against discrimination, a fact that for the better part of a decade has fueled a simmering debate between conservative groups and advocates for the state's homosexual community.

In Annapolis, that debate has been divisive and unproductive. Since 1991, campaigns to add homosexuals to the ranks of those shielded from bias have died quietly in committee.

But this year might be different. A pair of bills addressing discrimination and violence against homosexuals have been hand-delivered to legislators by the office of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, moving the issue to a prime place on his agenda.

During his State of the State address last month, Glendening declared its passage a major goal for this year's General Assembly session. He offered a personal appeal that drew on the hardships faced by his gay brother, a member of the Air Force who died of AIDS six years ago.

"I felt now was the time, coming in with a mandate from the voters, to take a stronger stand on an issue I felt strongly about," Glendening said in an interview last week.

The governor's involvement, coupled with the national attention that followed the beating death last year of a gay Wyoming college student, has galvanized supporters and opponents of the two bills.

In Baltimore, longtime gay rights activists are finding it tough to keep the brakes on their hopes.

"When the governor got involved this year, our feeling was that the people in Annapolis were finally recognizing that this is the right thing to do," said Catherine M. Brennan, a lawyer with Free State Justice Campaign, an organization lobbying for the two bills. "There was an immediate sense that this year would be different."

For the groups lining up against the measures, Glendening's interest has turned confidence to caution.

"When the governor decides he wants a bill to pass, he has a lot of tools and incentives at his disposal," said Champe C. McCulloch, president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and an opponent of the measures. "That's going to make things difficult."

The issue of gay rights -- as with other deeply personal matters that fuse with politics -- has forged some odd alliances in Annapolis.

There are business groups that fear exposure to a new generation of costly discrimination lawsuits. There are ultraconservative groups, which are part of a national effort that has campaigned against similar measures in other states. And there are religious activists, whose ranks span the political spectrum.

Joined in unbending opposition to the bills, for example, are Jim Rogers of Elkton, who has lobbied legislators on a host of conservative issues, and the former NAACP director for the mid-Atlantic region, Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat.

Rogers said plainly the legislation is "wrong."

"And we'll stand against it as long as we have life and breath," he added.

Burns, a pastor at Rising Sun First Baptist Church in Woodlawn, said, "If I want to hire someone who is gay or not hire them, I ought to have that right without being sued because of it."

He added: "And I don't want to improve the chances for someone who is of gay persuasion to ply their behavior."

To leaders of Maryland's gay community, these are bruising words. Several attending a meeting last week in the parish hall of Baltimore's First Unitarian Universalist Church -- which has a number of openly gay members -- said these sentiments illustrate precisely why added protections are warranted.

One of the bills they are supporting would strictly prohibit such practices as denying work to someone based on their sexual preference or refusing to sell a home to a same-sex couple. They are protections that exist in Baltimore and in Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

'Directly into the closet'

Michael Engler, now 45 and running his own investment firm in Baltimore, said he believes the rest of the state needs to catch up.

When he was dismissed from his Cumberland job in 1989, Engler said, he remained jobless for 18 months because his former employer refused to provide a reference. His story, which he has recounted to Assembly members at committee hearings in previous years, resonates within the gay community.

"When I went to work, my earrings came out, my tie went on and I went directly into the closet," said Gary Ivanish, 37, a former bank employee who abandoned the corporate world and invests from his Baltimore County home. "There are a whole world of pressures that come from fear you'll be found out and fired."

Only limited statistics are available to back up those fears. In the city, nine of the 100 discrimination cases fielded last year by the Baltimore Human Relations Commission were related to sexual orientation.

At the state Commission on Human Relations, which handles bias complaints based on such distinctions as age, race and religion, calls from gay men and lesbians are directed not to investigators, but to legislators.

"We don't keep track of numbers, but we get calls regularly," said Commission Director Henry B. Ford. "In my opinion, there is very clearly a problem, and it's going unaddressed."

Some legislators have their doubts. Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a Dorchester County Republican who sits on the committee that will hear the governor's bills, said that if there's a need for this legislation, he's missed it entirely.

"No one has ever come to my office to express concern about this or brought it up during our campaign," Colburn said. "Frankly, I just find it hard to believe there's a problem in Maryland."

This refrain also accompanies several senators' views of the related bill proposed by the governor, which addresses hate crimes directed at gay men and lesbians. It would add sexual orientation to the factors considered when determining whether special penalties are in order because a crime was motivated by bias.

"I don't think it's needed," said the Rev. Harold Phillips, pastor at Pleasant View Baptist Church in Cecil County. "There are already laws on the books to protect people from crime."

Opponents say pinning the proposal to the widely publicized murder of the gay Wyoming college student is solving someone else's problem, not Maryland's. But gay rights activists see the action of other states as a positive sign.

This year, 11 states are considering similar legislation. Twenty-two others have hate crime protections for homosexuals.

Liz Seaton, executive director of the Free State Justice Campaign, said she considers the national attention, coupled with Glendening's support, as keys to passage of the measure. Still more poignant, she said, will be testimony about the shooting and wounding Oct. 28 of a cross-dressing man in Baltimore.

'Wasn't bothering anybody'

Leonard Vines, 32, was walking through his Northeast Baltimore neighborhood, delivering the balance of his rent to his landlord at about 9 p.m., when he was approached by a group of men who taunted his woman's clothes, hairdo and manicured nails.

"They called me all kinds of names," Vines recalled. "I wasn't bothering anybody. There was no reason for it."

Vines was shot six times in the chest. Five of the bullets are still there. Gay activists, who rallied on Vines' behalf three weeks after the shooting, say the bullets are a reminder that such bias crimes are real.

They point to state police numbers showing that 34 of the 321 bias crimes reported in 1997 -- or 10.6 percent -- were linked to the victim's sexual orientation. Anne Griffith, who fields calls on a hot line for gay men and lesbians, says she believes that number is much higher and needs the state's support to decline.

"We've come so close in the legislature," said Griffith, who has one gay child and three who are straight. "We want all our children protected."

Glendening said he believes he can get that message to legislators.

"I'm going to people personally, and I think you'll see some changed votes," he said. "And not just because of my involvement, but because I think they are recognizing that there are a surprising number of people who have lived part of their lives in fear."

Pub Date: 2/07/99

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