Friends, Families Feuding Over Public List of Names to Maryland Anti Marriage-Equality Initiative
Bernard Bundy Jr. had a bad feeling in his stomach the morning of July 25.
Bundy, who lives in Alexandria but was raised in Maryland, was looking at a just-posted list of names of people who had signed a petition to force the recently passed Civil Marriage Protection Act, granting marriage equality to same-sex couples in Maryland, onto the state ballot for a November referendum.
The list of names and addresses, public information obtained from the Maryland State Board of Elections by the gay publication the Washington Blade, was posted on the Blade's website as a searchable database. A reader of the paper later crafted that information into an interactive online map showing the number of people who signed petitions in particular zip codes, which the Blade then also placed on its website.
''Something inside told me someone I knew would be on that petition,'' Bundy tells Metro Weekly. ''I was curious to know.''
To Bundy's disappointment, he found his mother's name on the petition.
''I was not expecting to see my mom,'' he says. ''There she was, ... but actually with a fake address.''
Bundy says his mother lives in Fort Washington, but that her address listed on the petition is in Temple Hills, Md.
''Her address was almost like two addresses in one,'' he says, referring to a series of numbers that randomly appear between his mother's listed address and Temple Hills. ''It's a false address anyway. She probably should have been disqualified. But it's in keeping with what she would do.''
Bundy says his mother, who has been struggling with mental health issues, is wary of telling people her real address. But he says when he saw her full name, he knew it was her.
In addition to his mother, Bundy also found an aunt and uncle, his godparents. Even more galling to Bundy, those godparents have an out gay son - Bundy's cousin - who has had a partner for more than 10 years.
After spotting his family members on the petition, Bundy phoned his cousin, who told him that they shouldn't take it personally.
While a signature advocates putting the marriage law to a vote and is not necessarily an endorsement of repealing the law, Bundy says he didn't bother to check for friends or former neighbors, since the experience was emotionally draining, bringing him to tears at times.
''It was a rough day,'' he says. ''I didn't work much that day. I was there physically, but not mentally, just thinking how much it hurt to see that. I even told my boss, 'I'm losing faith in humanity.'''
Bundy says his family is Catholic and very religious, but the idea that they would sign a petition aimed at putting gay rights to a vote, especially with openly gay family members, is sobering.
''Everyone has the right to believe what they believe,'' he says. ''But when it's your own family that's signing to take away your rights, it hurts.''
Bundy's unsure how to approach his relatives, because he's afraid of what the reaction might be. He says he doesn't want to be overly confrontational, but wants to say something before they head to the polls in November, ostensibly to overturn marriage equality.
For local gay rights activist Lane Hudson, the situation some Marylanders are facing is reminiscent of when many were pushing for the release of names of people who had signed to put California's Proposition 8 on the 2008 ballot, which allowed voters to remove existing marriage rights for same-sex couples.
A similar fight occurred in Washington State in 2009 regarding the release of names of signatories in favor of Referendum 71, which sought to repeal that state's domestic partnership law. The Supreme Court later ruled in 2010, in Doe v. Reed, that releasing the names of signatories did not violate their First Amendment rights.
''Generally, I think transparency is a good thing,'' Hudson says. ''If people are finding friends or relatives on the petition, that means they have the chance to change their minds.''
Hudson says people who sign petitions need to understand that their signatures can be made public, which may discourage some from signing. But he said that's a good development, possibly preventing initiatives that attempt to allow votes on minority rights, or, at least, exposing backers of such initiatives.
''We want to create a society where it's unacceptable to discriminate against LGBT people,'' he says.
Maryland transgender activist Dr. Dana Beyer, however, says that the posting of the names was not a wise or strategic move, and may have complicated the situation for pro-equality forces.
''Given what the coalition has stated, that they don't want to muddy the message, this does not help,'' she says. ''You now have an interested third party, the Blade, releasing those names and potentially muddying the message.''
Beyer says the pro-marriage-equality bloc has been trying to keep its message clear and simple, encouraging Marylanders to vote in favor of upholding the marriage-equality law. She says the Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition could have tried to challenge the petition signatures, but decided not to, in order to avoid being seen as undermining the democratic process - a decision, she notes, with which she disagrees.
''Just from past experience, we've never won at the ballot box,'' she says.
Beyer's perspective is that broadcasting the names would be helpful if it were part of a longer-term outreach strategy to change people's minds, but that with less than 100 days before the election, it's going to be hard to convince signatories to switch their position.
She also warns of possible backlash, wondering aloud if the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage (NOM) or the Catholic Church might argue that LGBT people are trying to intimidate others.
''The question is: Will this blow over or be used as a campaign tactic?'' she asks.
Blade editorial staff did not respond to a request for comment.
Kevin Nix, spokesman for the Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition, distanced the campaign from the Blade's decision to publish the names, saying the campaign has been focused on winning in November.
''Everyone is free to express their opinion, and this is precisely what some voters did by signing the petition,'' Nix said in a statement. ''We respect that. The publication of voters' names is not an effort this campaign supports or condones.
''Our focus is very clear: to win at the ballot box,'' Nix continued. ''We will keep making the case that affirming the new civil marriage law is a vote for stronger families and basic fairness. And we encourage our supporters to do the same - to talk to people who may still be evolving. What matters is having those conversations and meeting folks where they are on their journey on the marriage issue. That's how we win.''
Nix's words may serve as welcome guidance to Eric Wolvovsky. A Maryland native who lives with his partner in Silver Spring, Wolvovsky found two neighbors on the petition, as well as his parents' next-door neighbor and the family of a former babysitter.
''We were friendly to them,'' Wolvovsky says of his neighbors. ''But we never discussed the petition. It never occurred to us to talk to them about it. We assumed our very presence in the neighborhood was demonstration enough.''
Wolvovsky says he wants to confront his neighbors, but is trying to figure out what to say. He has vowed to become more involved in the referendum campaign, and wants to be able to communicate to his neighbors why marriage is important to him and his partner.
Wolvovsky also says he's stunned that people in Montgomery County, with a large gay population and reputation for being ahead of the most of the state when it comes to extending rights to LGBT people, could be opposed to same-sex marriage. He says that after spotting his neighbors as signatories, he's second-guessing how supportive his fellow Marylanders are of marriage equality and worries about what may happen in November on Election Day.
''A week ago, I would have said this neighborhood would have voted for equality,'' Wolvovsky says. ''Now I'm not so sure.''