Showdown in D.C. over marriage equality

May 18, 2009

Derron Thweatt and Suzaana Elizabeth Rose examine the battle over legislation passed by the Washington, D.C., City Council that would officially recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

THE MOVEMENT for marriage equality took a much-anticipated step forward May 5 in the nation's capitol. By a decisive 12-1 vote, the Washington, D.C., City Council approved a proposal for officially recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Mayor Adrian Fenty signed the bill as promised. But because of D.C.'s unique status of being subservient to the federal government, the measure could still be blocked by Congress.

This sets the stage for one of the biggest national debates on this civil rights issue since the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)--which bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, even when performed in states where they are legal--was signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1996.

Following a flurry of legal and legislative victories, gay marriage is now legal in five states--Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, Connecticut and Maine. But because of DOMA, other states aren't required--as they are in the case of heterosexual marriages--to recognize same-sex marriages performed in these states, and the federal government is explicitly barred from doing so.

Demonstrating for LGBT rights
Demonstrating for LGBT rights

The D.C. law would be a crucial first step in breaking this legal exclusion. But due to the irony that the capital of the "world's greatest democracy" still suffers "taxation without representation"--the issue that led to the American War for Independence--laws passed in D.C. go through a different process.

Once the mayor signs a bill, the legislation undergoes a 30-day review process in Congress, which determines whether a bill becomes city law. Thus, representatives from other states who disapprove of proposed laws can manipulate how the District is run.

In this case, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) is vowing to fight the bill recognizing same-sex marriages from across the country. Apparently, when Chaffetz talked to CNN about his commitment "to get government out of people's lives," he doesn't count members of the LGBT community--or, for that matter, citizens of Washington, D.C.--as "people."

The legislation passed by the City Council doesn't include a provision for performing gay marriages within the city; it only addresses the recognition of gay marriages performed out of state. But David Catania, one of two openly gay D.C. City Council members, has already talked about proposing a gay marriage bill by the end of this year if the current measure is approved by Congress.

WHILE THE 12-1 vote demonstrates overwhelming support for recognizing gay marriage, most of the media attention went to the council member who cast the sole dissenting vote--former Mayor Marion Barry. The media used Barry's vote to continue perpetuating the myth of a monolithic opposition to same-sex marriage in the Black community.

Barry originally voted for same-sex marriage recognition; however, within a few minutes, he claimed he didn't know what he was voting on, and asked to revote. His reason for voting against the measure, according to the Washington Post, was a decision "to stand with the 'ministers who stand on the moral compass of God.'" Barry went on to tell reporters that if the city council votes for a law later this year granting full marriage rights to same-sex couples, there may be "a civil war. The Black community is just adamant against this."

From Barry's recent appearance at a rally against gay marriage in D.C., it's clear that he consulted a group of anti-gay clergymen from several local Black churches on this issue, who he apparently believes represent his constituency as a whole. But D.C.'s sizeable Black LGBT community was clearly overlooked in his sweeping generalization of African American opinion on this issue.

Opinion polls throughout the country show that support for gay marriage is going up--it would be wrong to assume that the views of African Americans aren't shifting as well.

Ironically, Barry has long been a self-proclaimed supporter of gay rights. And as a former activist in the civil rights movement against Jim Crow segregation, he should know well that separate institutions for a minority population are by definition unequal--and that struggles against various forms of oppression are strongest when connected.

Even many single-issue LGBT political organizations have operated under the assumption that Black people are inherently conservative when it comes to LGBT rights.

It should go without saying that Blacks, like any other population, can have a wide variety of opinions on this and any other issue. While it is true that there are many conservative Black churches and individuals, that isn't a justification for extrapolating to the assessment of the Black community as a whole.

Instead of buying into the falsehood that African Americans are inherently homophobic, perhaps mainstream LGBT organizations should critically examine the often rich-white-male face of their campaigns, challenge the stereotypes of who is and is not gay, and reach out to members of other oppressed groups.

At a May 13 panel hosted by the local organization D.C. for Marriage, over 50 people gathered to discuss the latest updates on legislation and how we can win marriage equality in D.C.

One of the most powerful comments during the forum came from the audience, when Pastor Robert Hardies of All Souls Unitarian Church spoke of connecting this issue with others that affect the working class.

Sharing his own experience of organizing a meeting of D.C. pastors around the issue of marriage equality, Hardies said of his Black brothers and sisters within the clergy: "I would not have had the chutzpah to ask them to stand with me on the issue of gay marriage had I not been working with them for years on issues of living wage, urban education, housing" and other economic inequalities affecting their communities. The most important aspect of any struggle, Hardies said, was "solidarity."

As Hardies' experience illustrates, winning marriage equality in D.C. and across the country will require our movement to link arms against efforts by the right wing to keep people divided--recognizing, first and foremost, that an injury to one is an injury to all.

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