Hearts were sinking and heads were spinning outside the state capitol that overcast afternoon last February.
Equality New Mexico’s lead lobbyist Linda Siegle stood just outside the east exit of the Roundhouse and nervously adjusted her glasses. With exhausted melancholy, she asked for the final vote on Senate Bill 12, “The Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act,” which would have granted same-sex couples the same benefits and protections as married heterosexual partners under state law.
Before the session, Siegle had been optimistic, but not wholly confident, this would be the year the bill finally passed. The House was a sure thing, the progressive Democrat coalition in the Senate had grown and Gov. Bill Richardson indicated he was ready to sign the legislation.
None of that was enough.
“Twenty-five to 17,” Santa Fe City Councilor Patti Bushee answered Siegle without making eye contact, adding that Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Los Alamos, had switched his vote to no at the last minute.
Siegle had spent the wee hours of the previous evening adjusting the bill with hopes that minor concessions would neutralize the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops’ opposition, yet had spent the morning bracing for defeat. While supporters held out hope, Siegle was one of the few who knew, with certainty, the bill would fail.
What she didn’t expect was the bill to fail by a larger margin than in years past. Hearing the news, Siegle ran her fingers over her mouth. Behind her stood Steve Loomis, a military veteran discharged for being gay, and Rachel Rosen, a lesbian who can’t legally describe herself as a widow.
“The non-discrimination act, which we finally passed in 2003, took 12 years,” Siegle told the press cameras and the two dozen or so people gathered. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to work on this for 12 years…Remember what happened to you today because people in this building said you are not equal, you are not worthy, you don’t deserve the same rights that many of them enjoy.”
With many successes behind it, relationship recognition may be the New Mexico LGBT community’s last great civil rights hurdle. Last February’s defeat, once again, of a domestic partnership bill, is a reminder that the final stretch to full marriage equality won’t be easy.
LGBT rights activists in New Mexico are also grappling with the same topsy-turvy national debate as everyone else. The gay community is caught in a dizzying one-step-forward/one-step-back shuffle as individual states and the Obama administration grant and revoke and promise and backpedal.
As Santa Fe prepares for its annual Pride festival (June 27 at the Railyard Plaza, with associated events scattered around town the entire week), many in the LGBT community wonder why New Mexico isn’t keeping up with states such as Vermont, Massachusetts and even Iowa, which have passed laws or ruled in favor of marriage equality.
The fallout from the 2009 legislative session suggests gay-rights supporters can’t simply blame the opposition: The community itself is fractured.
Critics are pointing fingers at the leadership of Equality New Mexico, an organization that has fought on the front lines for 15 years, but is now mired in debt and lacks an executive director. EQNM’s failure during this year’s session has prompted critics to question whether future political strategies—on everything from messaging to negotiations with the Catholic Church to the 2010 election cycle—need an overhaul.
“There’s a lot of mistrust because so much is going on behind-the-scenes,” Democratic blogger Barb Wold, a “dyed-in-the-wool” lesbian and outspoken critic of the current strategy, tells SFR. “I think the main problem is that we seem to be frozen in time. We’ve used the same approach over and over again…and year after year, we don’t get it.”
Earlier this month, EQNM called the LGBT community in for a summit at which these conflicts were aired heatedly and with a wide range of opinions. What emerged was a precarious consensus: More members of the community need to stand up and get involved, and EQNM must be prepared to let them participate.
“Everybody wants to be a piece of this,” Mauro Montoya, a gay activist and former lawyer who was tapped to lead future meetings on strategy, tells SFR. “[EQNM] was treating people very arrogantly, like, ‘We’re the experts; you don’t know what you’re doing’…I think what we’re going to do now is have another strategy from the bottom up. We’ll keep the lobbyists, but they won’t be directing this.”
But some longtime activists are skeptical of these complaints. EQNM board member Todd McElroy characterizes critics as merely impatient.
“I guess in our fast-food culture, people expect to drive through and get it in a bag 15 minutes later,” McElroy says. “That’s just not the way it works.”
The question is: What will?