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History Matters: The evolution of gay rights legislation in Delaware



When the Supreme Court ruled in June that same sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, the decision effectively ended the country’s patchwork system regarding gay marriage. Although legal in Delaware since 2013, married gay couples in the First State faced the uncertainty of not knowing if their marriage would still be legal if they decided to move or even visit another state.  

Gay rights have progressed at such lightning speed in recent years; it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always the case. 

After a severe gay bashing in Rehoboth Beach led to Delaware adding sexual orientation to the state’s existing hate crime law, legislation involving equal protection moved at a snail’s pace.

It took more than a decade for Delaware to pass an anti-discrimination bill that made it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation. The bill was first introduced in the House by former Republican Representative Bill Oberle.  In the years it took to pass the bill, advocates diligently lobbied for its support including Drew Fennell, former head of the Delaware ACLU, and Lisa Goodman an attorney who later became the president of Equality Delaware.    

Democratic State Senator David Sokola says witnessing anti-gay rhetoric during debate in 2009, convinced him to reach out to Bill Oberle and to take on a more prominent role as the senate bill’s co-sponsor.

After Governor Jack Markell signed the anti-discrimination in 2009, Equality Delaware’s Mark Purpura, Lisa Goodman and others debated over what their next step should be.

In March 2011, Representative Melanie George Smith and Senator David Sokola introduced a bill to create civil unions in Delaware. Representative Mike Ramone was one of the two House Republicans to vote in favor of the legislation.

“This was the first really different bill where it was clear that I was going to alienate a lot of people by supporting something that I thought was really important especially in my party,” says Ramone. “The biggest reason that was given to us to vote against the civil union bill was because it was a slippery slope to marriage and I was like, well that’s ok. I didn’t have a problem with that slippery slope. I believe we have more of an issue with our laws. Why do we give people benefits by being married with our government and our tax code anyway? Why do we get a benefit on our taxes because we're married and a single person doesn’t? I’m not sure that’s fair but that’s the way it is so if two people love each other, who are of the same sex and they’re living as a married couple would, why can’t we have a civil union where they are at least treated fairly by law?”

After such a long struggle with the anti-discrimination debate, the civil union’s bill seemed to fly through the legislature, moving from its filing date to final passage in less than four weeks. Governor Jack Markell signed Delaware’s civil unions into law May 2011 with public ceremony at the Queen Theatre in Wilmington.

“I’ll never forget the bill signing itself,” says Markell. “It was perhaps the most memorable of all the bill signings I’ve done. There was such excitement in the room; there must’ve been 600 people there at the Queen Theatre. We brought up the children of the same sex couples on stage and I said ‘you know I’m doing this in large part, for you. Now the law recognizes what you have always known, which is that your parents love is real and that you’re a family.’

The law went into effect January 1st 2012 and on that Sunday, Lisa Goodman and Drew Fennell became the first couple in Delaware to be joined in a civil union. After New Castle County Clerk of the Peace Ken Boulden issued the state's first civil union’s license to the couple, they headed to their ceremony at Wilmington’s Trinity Episcopal Church.

“We felt like our whole community was lifting us up,” Goodman remembers.

Delaware was the eighth state to offer civil unions or domestic partnerships to same-sex couples. In 2012, the state issued over 500 licenses.

But even before civil unions became effective, a dramatic shift in American’s attitudes about gay marriage was taking place. Equality Delaware’s Lisa Goodman says the advocacy group hadn’t planned on returning to the General Assembly to push for marriage so soon after civil unions had passed, but history intervened.

In 2013, the Supreme Court was deciding the case of Edie Windsor who sued the federal government after the Internal Revenue Service denied her refund request for the federal estate taxes she paid after her spouse, Thea Spyer, died in 2009.  It was a challenge to The Defense of Marriage Act, the law barring the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages legalized by states.

“We talked to a lot of legislators and said look, we believe that DOMA is going to fall, and when DOMA falls, the states that have marriage are going to provide an opportunity for their citizens to have protections at the federal level,” says Goodman. “The Supreme Court is going to announce this decision by the end of June. We need to do this now.” 

Delaware State Rep. Melanie George Smith introduced a bill that would extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in April 2013.  Democratic House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst voted to allow the bill out of committee along with State Democratic Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, and Deborah Hudson, a Republican. Seaford Republican Dan Short voted against it.  HB 75 advanced with Mike Ramone signing on as a co-sponsor. As the only Republican to support the bill, the New Castle County lawmaker found himself the recipient of a few vocal members of the opposition.

“Two men approached me and they were very aggressive and a little nerve racking; putting the Bible in my face and showing me why I was going to be damned to hell and why I was a rotten evil person,” says Ramone. “It went from trying to get me to vote with them to the moment when they realized where I stood. They didn’t threaten me or hurt me but in my life, threatening someone and insinuating they're going to hell is sometimes just as threatening.”

The Delaware House of Representatives approved the bill that would allow same-sex marriage in the First State by a 23-18 vote less than a week after the House Committee brought it to the full chamber. A week later, the Senate Executive Committee heard testimony on House Bill 75. David Sokola was again the chief sponsor and Senate President Pro Tempore Patricia Blevins was among the measure’s 23 co-sponsors.

But perhaps its most significant co-sponsor was Karen Peterson. Although the Democratic Senator had been with Vikki Bandy, her longtime partner and now wife for many years, Peterson had never come out publicly. That changed during Senate testimony.

“The debate went on for three hours and most people were respectful,” Peterson says. “I think what aggravated me the most was a priest from the Wilmington diocese that came to rail against the bill and I’m Catholic, and I said, ‘you know it’s interesting to me that the Bishop sent you here to condemn love but he didn’t send you last year to condemn killing when I introduced the death penalty repeal bill, so apparently loving is more important to you than killing,' and so this led me to talk about my own relationship."

The Senate Hall erupted in applause following Peterson’s speech.

The marriage equality bill passed the Senate by a vote of 12-9 with Republican Cathy Cloutier joining the Democratic majority. A half-hour later, Gov. Jack Markell signed the legislation into law on the main stairs in the lobby of Legislative Hall.

“Shortly after the bill passed we gathered there on the stairs going up from the first floor to the second floor at Leg Hall,” Markell recalls. “The place was packed, I was surrounded by the sponsors. It was a great moment and I think it was an historical moment.”

More than 2000 gay and lesbian couples got married in 2013, the first year same-sex unions were legalized in the First State. Equality Delaware asked Senator Karen Peterson and Vikki Bandy to become the first couple in the state to have their civil union converted into a marriage but it took a little convincing.

“When Equality Delaware asked us to be first, I said that’s fine except I would have worked the night before because that’s the end of session,” Peterson remembers. "I would be driving home when the sun came up and our wedding had to be at eight in the morning because people were lined up to be married but my wife Vikki said, 'you need to be the first because some of these other poor innocent people aren’t used to all the hate and they wouldn’t stand up to it as well as you would. You're used to it because you’re a politician,” Peterson ends with a laugh.

Also in 2013, Delaware imposed additional penalties for committing a violent crime motivated by the victim’s actual or perceived gender identity. SB 97 prohibits hate crimes on the basis of actual or perceived gender identity.

Equality Delaware’s Lisa Goodman says great strides have been made but there is still work to be done.

“People are still going to have to fight for the full realization of that respect,” she says. “We now have states where you can be married in the morning and fired in the afternoon. We still have a number of states in this country where it's legal to fire someone because they’re gay.  That work still remains to be done but boy; we’ve come a long way.”

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