August 25, 2010
The Nation, Ads
In California, the argument over same-sex marriage continues to provide Hollywood-style drama. On the opposite coast, the Capitol — having no shortage of drama of its own — has contended with the issue with less fanfare. Unlike the Proposition 8 saga, LGBT equality in the District – in true legislative fashion – has followed a slower, less sensational course.
In Washington, DC, same-sex couples have had the right to marry since March of this year. On May 1st, Dennis, a youthful man in his forties who can trace his DC ancestry back to a Jefferson administration appointee, married his partner of fifteen years. “There’s no reason not to allow [same-sex marriage],” he says plainly. “If somebody loves and respects another person, they should be able to be together and get the benefits that others get.”
Through its rocky history, the District has managed to stay at the forefront of social change. Yet in California, the legal yo-yo has bounced back and forth between recognition and invalidation of same-sex marriages. The legal right for same-sex couples to marry, granted from May to November, 2008, was overturned by Proposition 8. The proposition was then shot down by Judge Vaughn Walker’s Perry v. Schwarzenegger decision in August, which was in turn appealed, leaving California’s LGBT community once again waiting at the altar.
Some, such as Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, claim Judge Walker’s stance is personal, not professional. However, the same arguments Judge Walker used in his decision have already held up to scrutiny in the District of Columbia. Lawyers arguing for the DC Marriage Equality Act (officially the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act) “…methodically knocked down every argument” raised by opponents of the measure, says Rick Rosendall, vice president for Political Affairs for DC’s GLAA (Gay and Lesbian Activists Association).
Since 1971, the non-partisan, all-volunteer GLAA has worked with communities and organizations such as the Covenant Baptist Church and the NAACP to build a legal framework for equal rights for members of the LGBT community. Their efforts to gain acceptance among the DC community at large have also become a priority. In the wake of the Marriage Equality Act’s passage, the organization continues to raise funds for outreach programs to heighten awareness of gay rights issues.
An important voice for gay rights in the Capitol, The Gertrude Stein Democratic Club serves as the voice of the LGBT community within DC’s Democratic Party. The group’s President, Jeffrey Richardson speaks encouragingly about the progress on marital rights. “The Club has been very actively engaged with the coalition efforts around marriage equality in the District,” he says. On issues like same-sex marriage and discrimination, as well as DC voting rights, the Stein Club has worked closely with its counterpart, the Log Cabin Republicans. “On those issues very local to DC, there is common ground,” says Richardson.
He attributes passage of the Marriage Equality Act to the long-standing cooperation between these group and others, including various religious and secular organizations working among the District’s diverse communities to promote LGBT equality. Without these groups, persons like Dennis would not have the chance at the stability and security that they currently enjoy.
While President Barack Obama was winning the state of California during the 2008 election, Proposition 8 was being passed ostensibly by many of the same voters. Analysts were quick to suggest that, while African-Americans and members of other racial minorities supported candidate Obama in overwhelming numbers, this same group stood against the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Rosendall argues that this is a media-perpetuated myth. He points out that it has been demonstrated by http://www.fivethirtyeight.com and others that the correlation between anti-gay rights legislation and religious and racial minority status is minimal – both in the District and among California voters in the 2008 election. “Some in the news media simply swallow what [gay rights]opponents say,” he says. He points out that racial minorities constitute a plurality of DC voters, yet the District’s City Council passed the Marriage Equality Act by a vote of 11-2.
Opponents within the Washington, DC metro area still constitute a vocal minority. Bishop Harry Jackson (Pastor of the Hope Christian Church) and conservative activist Alan Keyes are among those who argue that same-sex marriage should remain illegal. “Where procreation is impossible, marriage is irrelevant,” Keyes concluded when asked about the legitimacy of same-sex marriage.
Bishop Jackson adds that rights for the LGBT community cannot be equated with civil rights, as sexual behavior is a choice and skin color is not. Although the American Psychological Association and other scientific organizations deem homosexuality to be innate, Jackson defines homosexuality not as a characteristic, like race, but as a choice of action. “To say that same-sex marriage is a civil right is crazy,” he declared in an interview on the Inspiration Channel.
Though Keyes, Jackson and others condemn same-sex marriage, other religious leaders, such as Pastor Michael Bledsoe of DC’s Riverside Baptist Church, promote legal equality regardless of sexual orientation.
Pastor Bledsoe, also an Adjunct Professor at Howard University, calls himself a “small fish” in the District’s religious community, but he is representative of a large contingent of religious leaders who vocally support rights for non-straight citizens. He says defining marriage in terms of procreation is a “shallow view” that condemns childless married couples as “not living up to some standard.” He worries about those who “…dream of freedom for themselves while denying it to others,” and believes the fight against gay rights is born of fear or out of a desire to avoid larger discussions of sexuality.
“The Church is constantly throwing up stereotypes of promiscuous gay persons, while not wanting them to wed,” he says. He would prefer that religious leaders promote monogamous relationships as beneficial, whether between members of the same sex or opposite sexes. Marriage has a particular meaning in a religious context, he says, but marriage is a civil act.
Rosendall agrees. “A lot of people don’t understand that marriage is a fully civil institution; it does not belong to religion.” No churches are being forced to perform marriages for same-sex couples, he contends, but committed couples should be entitled to equal rights under the law. He explains that devising some other term or legal definition for same-sex couples is unnecessary, and would be tantamount to revisiting separate but equal Jim Crow laws. Rosendall points out that the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision found that “separate is inherently unequal.”
Further comparisons have been made between anti-same-sex marriage laws and laws prohibiting marriage between people of differing races. Until the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision, widespread and popularly supported anti-miscegenation laws kept interracial couples from marrying legally throughout much of the US. “The majority is not always right,” declares Dennis.
The District’s diverse, interwoven communities provide an ideal proving ground for the rights of marginalized groups. Progressive stances have made the District appealing to African-Americans since Reconstruction, and current stances on gay rights have made the District an inviting home for members of the LGBT community. “The majority of DC is black, and the majority of the gay community is too,” points out Rosendall. Consequently, Washington, DC’s close-knit African-American and religious communities are generally supportive. “When someone knows a friend or a neighbor who is gay,” says Rosendall, “they are less likely to vote against their rights.”
Regarding the gay rights movement as a whole, Richardson acknowledges there is “…a long way to go.” But he also believes that “…President Obama, as well as the National Democratic Party, is really committed to continuing to push the envelope.” The Obama administration’s actions regarding “don’t ask, don’t tell” discrimination in the workplace and hospital visitation rights “…are really major things that impact LGBT folks across the country,” he says.
Those are the rights which Dennis and his partner were not entitled to until this spring. They both believe — along with their friends, families, supporters, and community members – that those are rights they should not have to fear losing.