Gay legislators having impact in marriage debates

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“That was my one ‘ask,’” he said. “The governor vetoed it, but it really set the stage for this year.”

Hawaii and Illinois are now among seven states that allow civil unions or their equivalent — state-level marriage rights in virtually everything but name. Five other states and the District of Columbia let gay couples marry outright, and Maryland and Rhode Island would join that group if pending bills win approval.

The Maryland marriage bill cleared the Senate by a 25-21 vote on Feb. 24. The debate included a speech by the chamber’s only openly gay member, state Sen. Richard Madaleno, citing his partner of 10 years and their two children.

“He is my spouse in every sense of the word, but to the law, he remains a legal stranger,” Mr. Madaleno said.

Timing is uncertain for a vote in the Maryland House, which has six openly gay members. But freshman Rep. Mary Washington, a lesbian from Baltimore, has been anticipating the chance to speak in support of the bill.

“It will be an important moment in Maryland history,” she said. “I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to speak up, not just for myself but for the many families in Maryland who need protection.”

In Rhode Island, legislation to legalize same-sex marriage has failed in previous years, but advocates are optimistic this year because the new governor, independent Lincoln Chafee, is supportive. One of the bill’s co-sponsors is Democratic House Speaker Gordon D. Fox, who is gay; he has not yet set a timetable for voting on the bill.

“He’s passionate about this issue,” said Kathy Kushnir, executive director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island. “It’s not an abstract issue to him — he’s talking about his life, his family.”

Among the bill’s leading foes is the Rhode Island branch of the National Organization for Marriage, headed by Christopher Plante.

Mr. Plante described Mr. Fox as “very pragmatic” and said he clearly has the potential to influence some colleagues during the debate on the bill. However, Mr. Plante asserted that its chances of passage remain questionable, notably in the state Senate.

In 2009, the New Hampshire Legislature became the first to legalize same-sex marriage without ever facing pressure from marriage-rights lawsuits.

One of the emotional high points of that debate was a speech by state Rep. David Pierce, a gay Democrat from Hanover who is raising two daughters with his partner. He described telling his oldest child, 5 at the time, that “some people don’t believe we should be a family.”

Afterward, Mr. Pierce said, a fellow representative came over to say that the speech prompted him to change his vote in favor of same-sex marriage.

After last November’s election, the Democrats became the minority in both chambers, and Republicans proceeded to introduce bills aimed at repealing same-sex marriage.

Mr. Pierce serves on an election law committee chaired by state Rep. David Bates, prime sponsor of one of the repeal bills.

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