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Gay marriage is topic of forum

March 26, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

It was an evening of civil discourse about civil unions, with united minds calling for gay marriages.

Equality Maryland - a statewide gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender civil rights group - invited people to Hagerstown Community College's Kepler Theater on Thursday evening to talk about an issue that's erupting across America.

When Equality Maryland Executive Director Dan Furmansky asked who was in favor of gay marriage, almost all of the 80 or so people in the audience raised their hands.

During a closing question-and-answer period, at least two people spoke out against gay marriage, but the tone on both sides was courteous all evening.

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Panelists said the reasons to allow gay marriage - which is illegal in Maryland - are many, such as insurance benefits, the ability to make health decisions for a gravely ill spouse and hundreds of other federal rights. Many speakers said it was a matter of equal protection, as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Vermont has legalized homosexual civil unions, which offer certain rights, but only within the state.

John Lestitian of Hagerstown spoke about the inequity he endured after his partner of 13 years, James Bradley, died last year.

Bradley's will was missing a signature, which complicated the transfer of property. Lestitian said he is now selling their house and moving.

Also, it was only through "serious negotiations" that he was allowed to claim Bradley's body, said Lestitian - who is Hagerstown's chief code enforcement officer, but stressed that he was at the forum as a city resident and not in his official capacity.

The Rev. Valerie T. Wills of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Hagerstown - who has been married to the same man for 36 years - said inequality in the law causes her "agony" when she marries gay and lesbian couples, "but not as much as it must cause them."

She said the true question about marriage is not a person's sexual preference, but whether he or she is "committed to another, through all the vicissitudes of life."

"I know that when I die, (my husband) will be able to lay me to rest," a right gay couples don't have, she said.

Maryland law states that a married couple must be made up of one man and one woman. Attempts during the current session of the Maryland General Assembly to add further restrictive language and insert a prohibition into the state constitution appear to be dead.

However, a separate bill was proposed to let same-sex couples make health-care decisions for each other.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney David Rocah, one of four panelists, said the fight for gay marriage is making its way through various courts, but a lawsuit isn't always the best answer.

"The most important battle is the battle in the court of public opinion," he said. "It matters if we can convince people we're right - and we are right."

Lestitian said he disagreed with that premise.

"This isn't a battle," he said. "This is about building a community and understanding. Let's keep a check on our emotions and let's honor each other."

Other audience members rose and told other stories.

A 9-year-old boy from Baltimore said he can't understand why people don't treat his family, with two mommies, fairly. A man said he was once married to a woman and had a son, but he was lying to himself about his sexuality.

Two audience members said they were opposed to gay marriage.

Quoting several Bible passages, Rob Smith of Hagerstown said a heterosexual family is God's way.

People may ask if the Bible is true, but "it's survived over 2,000 years," Smith said. "It's the best seller out there."

"I am compassionate ... but I really do think it's a sin," he said during an interview in the hallway.

Thomas Horvat of Sabillasville, Md., told the audience that he respects all human beings, but homosexuality ignores biological reality. Men's and women's sexual organs are positioned as they are so a married man and woman can "be of one flesh."

In a rare confrontational moment during the forum, Smith called on the Rev. Don R. Stevenson of Christ's Reformed Church in Hagerstown, the moderator - who spoke of tolerance - to resign.

"You're an agent of Satan," Smith said.

"My wife tells me that, too," Stevenson joked.

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