Posted: June 20, 2013
A POCKET HISTORY OF DELAWARE AND GAY RIGHTS
By Celia Cohen
Four years ago Delawareans could be fired from their jobs for being gay, and there was nothing they could do about it.
Then came the revolution.
There were four votes in four years in the General Assembly, and progress for LGBT people -- the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender set -- stopped moving in light years here in Delaware and advanced in the legislative equivalent of the blink of an eye.
The exclusion was eroded with a vote for gay rights. Next was a vote for civil unions. Then a vote for gay marriage. Finally a vote for transgender rights, the last frontier.
It was a long time coming.
Along the way, there were more than a dozen roll calls, a pivotal decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, rude setbacks, cardinal commitments from governors, the central advocacy of groups like the ACLU and Equality Delaware for new laws and the Delaware Family Policy Council against them, and 10 other states legalizing gay marriage, not to mention Joe Biden's impulsive support for it.
The first gay rights bill was proposed 15 years ago, naked and shivering, with Bill Oberle, then a Republican state representative, as its lone sponsor.
Oberle was a master legislator, but this bill at this time was beyond even his considerable skills. Other legislators fled from it, people made groundless accusations about Oberle's own sexuality, and the bill died of deliberate neglect.
Still, it was a start. Oberle was back the next year with a new version. This time he had seven co-sponsors and got it to a vote in the state House of Representatives, where it was defeated. He tried again two years later and won approval in the House by a bare majority, only to have the state Senate kill it in committee.
Then there was an early breakthrough. Ruth Ann Minner, in her first term as the Democratic governor, endorsed the bill in 2003. No civil rights bill in Delaware had ever made it into law without the backing of the governor, so it was important.
It was also a courageous move for a governor whose base was downstate, where the voters like their politics conservative, and it was one of the things, along with her support of a smoking ban and a sexual assault on a prison counselor, that nearly cost Minner her re-election in 2004.
Coincidentally, the next month after Minner's endorsement, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas sodomy law used to arrest two men who were engaged in sexual conduct in 1998, just about the time Oberle was introducing the first gay rights bill.
Antonin Scalia, the conservative justice, warned in his dissenting opinion of the coming of a "so-called homosexual agenda." In retrospect it looks like a so-called self-fulfilling prophecy.
Back in Legislative Hall, there was a showdown. On the next-to-the-last night of the 2003 legislative session, the House had enough votes to pass a gay rights bill, but Wayne Smith, then the Republican majority leader, was its chief opponent, and he put it in peril by delaying and delaying and delaying its consideration.
Bobby Quillen and Pam Maier, both of them then Republican representatives whose votes were critical for passage, were seriously sick, Quillen with cancer that would kill him a year later and Maier just plain sick.
Amid outrage and resolution, they stuck it out, and the bill was approved. Their heroics went for nothing, however, when a stubborn Senate would not even let the bill be introduced on the last night of the session. The legislature quit for the year with the bill undone.
As the sessions rolled by, the Senate took charge. An iron quadrangle of Democratic downstate conservatives who held the power there -- Thurman Adams, Nancy Cook, Jim Vaughn Sr. and Bob Venables -- took turns to smother the gay rights bill in one committee or another.
The country was changing, though, and so was Dover. By 2009, Legislative Hall had a new Democratic governor and a new House Democratic majority -- with both Jack Markell and Speaker Bob Gilligan committed to a gay rights bill -- and the iron quadrangle in the Senate was being depleted through death and defeat.
The gay rights bill became law that year, and the other three bills have followed.
It is another mark of political change that Republican backing, so essential in the early years, has dwindled to the single votes of Mike Ramone in the House and Cathy Cloutier in the Senate.
Where once there was nothing, there is now everything. The wonder of it was caught by Karen Peterson, the Democratic senator from Stanton, as she turned the debate on gay marriage into an opportunity to expand to the entire world the circle of people to whom she had come out.
"I never imagined that in my lifetime, society would recognize same-sex marriage," she said.
1998: The first gay rights bill, H.B. 466, is introduced on Jan. 29 by Bill Oberle, a Republican representative. It goes nowhere
1999: Oberle introduces a gay rights bill, H.B. 11, with seven co-sponsors on Jan. 28, but it is defeated in the House
2001: Oberle tries again with another bill, H.B. 99, on Jan. 25. The House approves it 21-20 on March 27, but the Senate buries it in the Small Business Committee, chaired by Bob Venables, a Democratic senator
2003: Oberle is back with a new version, H.B. 99, on Feb. 13. Ruth Ann Minner, the Democratic governor, endorses it on May 15. The House approves it 21-18 with 1 NV and 1 absent on June 26, but the Senate runs out the clock by ignoring it on June 30, the last legislative day of the year. It is buried throughout 2004 in the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Jim Vaughn Sr., a Democratic senator
2005: Oberle comes with another bill, H.B. 36, on Jan. 27, and the House passes a substitute version 22-18 with 1 absent on March 24. It goes into the Senate Judiciary Committee under Vaughn on April 13 and stays there
2007: Dave Sokola, a Democratic senator, takes over the prime sponsorship by introducing a gay rights bill, S.B. 141, on June 14. Nancy Cook, a Democratic senator, provides the decisive opposition on June 20 to keep the bill in the Senate Insurance & Elections Committee
2009: With the Democrats in the House majority, Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic majority leader, introduces a gay rights bill, H.B. 5, on March 10, and the House passes it 26-14 with 1 absent on March 26. It is confined to the Senate Executive Committee chaired by Thurman Adams, the Democratic president pro tem
When senators threaten to end-run the committee and bring out the bill, a deal is struck for Sokola to come with a new bill, S.B. 21, on June 4. The Senate passes it 14-5 with 1 absent and 1 vacancy on June 24, the House passes it 26-14 with 1 absent later the same day, and Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, signs it on July 2
2011: Sokola introduces a civil union bill, S.B. 30, on March 22. The Senate passes it 13-6 with 2 absent on April 7, the House passes it 26-15 on April 14, and Markell signs it on May 11
2013: Melanie George Smith, a Democratic representative, introduces a gay marriage bill, H.B. 75, on April 11. The House passes it 23-18 on April 23, the Senate passes it 12-9 on May 7, and Markell signs it immediately afterward
Margaret Rose Henry, a Democratic senator, introduces a transgender rights bill, S.B. 97, on May 29. The Senate passes it 11-7 with 2 NV and 1 absent on June 6, and the House passes an amended version 24-17 on June 18 and returns it to the Senate, which approves it 11-9 with 1 NV on June 19. Markell quickly signs it
Here is the way current legislators voted on the passage of gay rights, civil unions, gay marriage and transgender rights
*Hocker and Lavelle voted on gay rights and civil unions as House members
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
Source: General Assembly