NEW YORK — Of America's 7,382 state legislators, only 85 are openly gay or lesbian. They are, however, playing an outsized and often impassioned role when the agenda turns to recognizing same-sex couples with civil unions or full marriage rights.
In Hawaii and Illinois, gay state representatives were lead sponsors of civil union bills signed into law earlier this year. In Maryland and Rhode Island, gay lawmakers are co-sponsoring pending bills that would legalize same-sex marriage. In New York, a gay senator, Tom Duane, is preparing to be lead sponsor of a marriage bill in his chamber later this session.
"For my colleagues, knowing that I am not allowed to marry the person that I love and want to marry, that's very powerful," said Duane, a Democrat from Manhattan. "It's more difficult for them to take for granted the right they have to marry when I don't have it."
The gay lawmakers have impact in two important ways. Their speeches, often evoking personal themes, can sometimes sway wavering colleagues, and they can forge collegial relationships even with ideological foes through day-to-day professional and social interaction.
Rep. Deborah Mell, a Chicago Democrat elected to the state House in 2008, made a point of bringing her partner to legislative functions, and a year ago announced their engagement on the House floor.
Her fiancee, Christin Baker, was on hand when Mell gave an emotional speech Nov. 30 during the civil union debate. One of Mell's points: Current law would bar doctors from consulting her if Baker, her partner for more than seven years, became seriously ill.
"The more visible we are, the better," Mell said in a telephone interview. "When you look someone in the eyes, it's a little harder for them to deny that we should have the same rights."
Also speaking in that debate was Greg Harris, another gay Chicago Democrat, who urged his colleagues to be "on the right side of history."
The vote was 61-52 to allow civil unions, the Senate followed suit a day later, and Gov. Pat Quinn signed the bill into law on Jan. 31.
Harris – who is HIV-positive – said last week he felt pressure delivering that floor speech.
"What you say or don't say can win or lose a critical vote," he said. "There was a palpable sense that one way or the other, history was going to be made and everyone on the floor was going to be remembered for that vote."
In Hawaii, where a civil unions bill was signed into law last month, one of the key players was House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, a gay Democrat.
Oshiro stood up in the closing minutes of the 2010 session to force a House vote on the measure, which was approved but vetoed in July by Republican Gov. Linda Lingle. In September, Oshiro won a primary election over a former Honolulu councilman who strongly opposed civil unions, then beat a Republican in November – ensuring the bill would re-emerge this year with a supportive Democrat, Neil Abercrombie, taking over as governor.
For Oshiro, the key moment was deciding to make a personal plea to members of his Democratic caucus to overcome their doubts and agree to a vote on civil unions in April 2010.
"I was thinking I wouldn't be able to really look in the mirror, knowing I had just let it fade," he said. "Ultimately, the caucus supported bringing it to the floor, even if some of them didn't support the bill.
"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 Washington, D.C., 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, 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," Madaleno said.
Timing is uncertain for a vote in the Maryland House, which has six openly gay members. But freshman lawmaker 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 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.
Plante described Fox as "very pragmatic" and said he clearly has the potential to influence some colleagues during the debate on the bill. However, Plante asserted that its chances of passage remain questionable, notably in the state Senate.
In 2009, New Hampshire's 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 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, 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.
Pierce serves on an election law committee chaired by David Bates, prime sponsor of one of the repeal bills.
"We acknowledge we fundamentally disagree on that question," Pierce said. "But it doesn't have to dissolve into being uncivil. ... We treat each other with as much respect as anybody."
He said he had only one conversation with Bates on the marriage issue last year, recalling that the Republican had told Pierce not to take the repeal effort personally.
"I said, `Of course it's personal. You want to delegitimize my relationship with my partner of 18 years, and my two kids,'" Pierce recalled.
Bates, whose repeal bill is now scheduled for consideration next year, said he and Pierce work together well in the Legislature despite "diametrically opposed opinions on marriage."
As for the impact of Pierce's 2009 speech, Bates said, "It played upon the sympathies of individuals who don't think the matter through."
According to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which recruits and supports gay political candidates, the number of openly gay and lesbian legislators nationwide has increased from 44 in 2003, when it started counting, to 85.
Chuck Wolfe, the fund's president, said gay legislators were having an impact even in relatively conservative states where gay marriage has no short-term prospect of winning approval. He cited the example of Arkansas Rep. Kathy Webb, whose heartfelt arguments played a role in the rejection of a bill to bar gays from adopting or foster-parenting.
Gay lawmakers "are people, as opposed to issues," Wolfe said. "The impact of having one of your colleagues directly affected by the legislation on the table is very powerful."