Delaware residents, legislators and human rights organizations say 2013 is the year for marriage equality in the state.
About 100 people gathered at CAMP Rehoboth on Baltimore Avenue to participate in a town hall discussion about the evolution of the gay rights movement, on a state and national level, and the progress many hope is forthcoming.
Equality Delaware President Lisa Goodman, who led the discussion, said discrimination was still legal in Delaware in 2009. That year, the General Assembly voted to include homosexuals in Delaware’s anti-discrimination laws, which took effect in July 2009. “And it was signed right here,” Goodman said of the bill.
The legislature passed a bill legalizing same-sex civil unions in April 2011; it went into effect Jan. 1, 2012.
Equality Delaware Board member Mark Purpura said after Delaware’s civil union bill passed, New York legislators approved marriage equality for same-sex couples. “It was really a momentum shift like we’ve never seen before,” he said.
Other nationwide events signaled a change in the tide for homosexuals, Purpura said, including the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which allowed gays, lesbians and bisexuals to serve openly in the military, and President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder’s 2011 decision to stop defending the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
Goodman praised Obama’s inauguration speech. “I started crying when he mentioned Stonewall,” she said. The Stonewall riots took place in 1969 in New York City; they are credited as being one of the most important events leading up to the fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in the United States.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision on the Defense of Marriage Act by June, Purpura said. Goodman and Purpura said they are confident the Supreme Court will declare DOMA unconstitutional.
“We have tremendous momentum for marriage since we passed the civil union bill,” Goodman said. “In 2013, we are going to marriage equality in Delaware.”
“I think all of us view marriage as the ultimate commitment between two loving people,” Purpura said.
The marriage bill would be similar to the civil union bill and would pose no threat to any house of worship that does not want to perform same-same marriages, Goodman said.
Purpura said if a marriage equality bill were passed in Delaware, couples that entered into a civil union could have the union converted to a marriage in the Office of the Clerk of Peace.
Sussex County Clerk of Peace John Brady, who attended the Jan. 31 event, said out-of-state same-sex marriages are currently recognized as civil unions in Delaware. He said in 2012, the Sussex County office performed 149 civil unions for female couples and 99 unions for male couples.
Goodman said Equality Delaware is confident it can get a marriage-equality bill passed in Delaware. “We think our chances are really good,” she said.
But, Goodman said, before you drink the wine, you have to stomp the grapes. “Your help is critical,” she said.
“No. 1, get connected,” she said. Follow Equality Delaware on Facebook and Twitter, Goodman said; social media keeps supporters up-to-date on pending legislation and opportunities to volunteer and provide financial support. “When the time is right, we’re going to need our community,” she said.
“Talk to your friends, your allies, your houses of worship,” Goodman said. “The district-by-district effort is really important.”
Equality Delaware also launched a video campaign in which gay and straight couples talk about why they support marriage equality. In one video, available at equalitydelaware.org, Leo and Peggy Strine, who have been married 50 years, say they are lucky to have found someone to spend their life with. “I think everyone should have that opportunity when two people love one another,” Peggy said.
An audience member who said he works at Dover Air Force Base said Equality Delaware should consider using members of the military in their campaign for marriage equality. “There are just so many couples in the Air Force Base,” he said.
Brady said Sussex County Council passed an ordinance in November that entitles veterans and members of the military to a free marriage or civil union. “I’ve done more civil unions than marriages for veterans,” Brady said.
Goodman said Equality Delaware has the support of Gov. Jack Markell, Lt. Gov. Matt Denn and leadership in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, including House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, who attended the event.
“Times change, and your friends get to places where they belong, and it’s wonderful,” Goodman said.
Schwartzkopf said some legislators want to vote for marriage equality, but they are afraid of being voted out of their district. “If you don’t contact these legislators and let them know, they’re going to think nobody wants it,” he said.
Schwartzkopf also said when calling legislators, it is important to respect their opinion. “If you go in there, and you push them and push them, they’re going to shut down,” he said. “You’re going to lose them forever.”
Schwartzkopf also warned against sending identical emails because they are often ignored.
“You don’t have to send me an email because I’m voting for it,” Schwartzkopf said. He was answered with clamorous applause.
“The people who live in Pete’s district need to sign up and do a phone bank,” Goodman said. “There are a lot of districts where you can do good work.”
Ryan Rowe, director of faith outreach for Human Rights Campaign, met with gay rights supporters of all religions after the meeting.
Ptery Iris, who attended the event, said she was glad to see Equality Delaware reaching out to houses of worship. She said she lost a teaching job in Delaware after breaking up a fight between two black males, one of whom was calling the other a “fag.”
Iris said the aggressor’s father was a preacher, who called other parents in the school. The next day, Iris said, she was fired. “We here in Sussex County do not live in an enlightened world outside Lewes and Rehoboth,” she said.
Iris said, “We don’t stand a chance in Sussex County against that attitude.”
Schwartzkopf said the Republican Party is strong in Sussex County, despite the statewide Democratic majority. “The battle will be won up there, not down here,” he said.