Final Countdown

Long presidential campaign offers emotional end for gay D.C.

It’s a pleasantly humid autumn night in the nation’s capital. But on this Tuesday, Nov. 4, along with the drizzle, there is electricity in the air. Across the area, GLBT people are gathering to watch election results. The epicenter is the Capitol City Brewing Company on Capitol Hill, the site of the election-watch party of the country’s largest GLBT-advocacy organization, the Human Rights Campaign.

By 6 p.m., crowds are already flowing into the cavernous restaurant. Looking into the open space from the second-floor railing, the scene could be described as a gay political Oktoberfest hall, with Anderson Cooper’s giant televised talking head replacing the oom-pah band at one end, HRC banners standing in for the German flags.

Pressed against the central ground-floor bar, three friends anticipate how they night might unfold, still awaiting the substantial election results.

”I’m very hopeful. I’m a little nervous. But it’s been a long time coming and I’m ready for tonight to happen,” says Jared King, 30, who moved to D.C. from the San Francisco area in 2004. ”I’ll either be cheering and exuberant, or crying.”

Like his friends, Alicia Madalena, a 26-year-old Virginia resident, and 37-year-old Chris Kaumo, of D.C., King’s a supporter of Democrat Sen. Barack Obama for president, versus Republican Sen. John McCain. At the gay venues, it’s nearly impossible to find anyone who isn’t.

”I couldn’t sleep last night,” says Madalena. ”I’m very anxious.”

”Obama’s campaign is more than just policy — it’s a movement,” says Kaumo, who works on Capitol Hill. ”I know it sounds cheesy, but there’s a whole movement inside there.”

Moving to U and Ninth Streets NW at around 7 p.m., another major watch party is well underway. Nellie’s Sports Bar has drawn in much of the Obama Pride contingent. And the place is packed.

Standing at the top of the stairs, Deirdre Willits, 33, a District resident, is adamant that she won’t be speaking about the election to the press. She’s certain she jinxed John Kerry’s chances in 2004 by offering an optimistic outlook during a watch party at Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café. Results are beginning to come in, but Willits remains mum. And she’s not the only person Tuesday night to lament past political ”jinxes.” Despite the polls in Obama’s favor, many people are less than confident. Tim Himes isn’t among them.

”He’s going to win,” says Himes, 43, of D.C. ”It’s going to be a landslide.”

The crowds at either venue — aside from the occasional waves of claustrophobia evidenced by random meltdowns through the night — seem happy simply to share the experience of this historic election.

Says Gregory Maley, 41, of Maryland, sitting with a group of people, ”I turned down some invitations to spend some time with some friends in a small party at home because I wanted to be out in the mix of people.”

One of those friends, Anne Brodsky, a Baltimore resident in her 40s, brings up another common theme: Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain’s running mate.

”I really don’t want to see her as vice president or as a future president,” she says across the table filled with plastic beer cups and bar food. ”I thought that pick was really an insult. It was pandering. She’s not the most qualified Republican woman out there. There are plenty more that I might actually have respected a whole lot more.”

”I think McCain would’ve done much better had he picked a different woman,” offers Michael Fetchko of Bethesda. ”[Sen.] Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) or [Sen.] Susan Collins (R-Maine) or [Sen.] Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). Those women must be pretty angry, looking at Sarah Palin, saying, ‘He chose her?”’

Returning to the HRC party, you know you’re close because Pennsylvania has been called in favor of Obama. The cheers resonate beyond the venues stone walls, riding the misty air for blocks.

Palin might seem an important point for Todd Metrokin of D.C. Many locals know the 39-year-old Metrokin as the victim of a homophobic attack that has helped unite the community to re-establish a bulwark against gay bashings. They likely don’t know he hails from Kodiak, Alaska. But he says neither he nor much of his family back home is thinking much about Palin. He’s more bothered by Prop. 8 in California, which would ban the newly won right to same-sex marriage.

”I’m saddened so much money was spent on that issue when there are so many important issues in so many other states,” he says. But around 9 p.m., he’s feeling better about Obama.

”I left [my home] at 7:45 and CNN was dubious. I show up here and they’re calling states and it’s looking a lot more positive, so I’m very happy.”

Upstairs at Capitol City Brewing, at roughly the same time, Ronna Bunn of Maryland is more cautious.

”I’m nervous. I don’t think we’re going to know till tomorrow,” says the 37-year-old. ”We have a lot of big states coming up. I heard we won New Hampshire, but that’s still not it.”

As she speaks, she’s interrupted by cheering from the floor, but she doesn’t have a clear view of the giant screen. Was Virginia called? Perhaps CNN simply flashed D.C.’s three electoral votes for Obama once again.

Between Capitol Hill and Nellie’s, another spot serves as a watch site for the gay community, quietly, without any of the fanfare seen at Nellie’s or with HRC. At the D.C. Eagle, off Mount Vernon Square, it’s a quiet Tuesday night with about a dozen guys at the downstairs bar. But nobody is playing pool. There’s not too much talking. And all eyes are fixed on the TV screens above the bar — all eyes except Philip Terry’s, a 43-year-old Maryland resident, bartender by night, consultant by day. He’s watching the bar — and MSNBC above the bar. And trying to pull up Prop. 8 results on a laptop. Terry’s been incredibly energized at least since August, when he attended the Democratic National Convention with H. Alexander Robinson, head of the National Black Justice Coalition.

Tonight, around 10 o’clock, he’s confident enough to say loudly to his patrons, ”It’s a lock.” By lock, Terry means an Obama win. How about a round for everybody if that’s confirmed outside the Eagle? ”We’ll see,” he answers with a grin. ”Ohio and Pennsylvania are in. There are no hanging chads. There’s nothing that could really flip this.”

Nearly 11 p.m., back at Nellie’s, Samantha Master, 20, a student at Baltimore’s Morgan State University and an intern for Equality Maryland, is at the entrance, standing in a light rain selling Obama Pride T-shirts for $10 to benefit the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. Through the door, you can see Paquita Wiggins, one of the leaders of the effort, on the staircase, multiple clipboards in her arms, recruiting for whatever happens next.

”I’ve felt a duty to vote ever since I was a child. Now I’m really, really excited to do so,” Master says of her first presidential election, into which she’s thrown herself with obvious gusto. ”When Barack Obama spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, I was enthralled. I remember thinking, ‘Maybe in 2012 he’ll win an election. Just give him some time.’ And when I heard he was doing it in ’08, I was just floored.”

A few feet away, outside on the sidewalk, David Mariner, acting executive director of The Center, D.C.’s GLBT community center, is chatting with friends. He asks aloud if anyone knows what’s happening in the D.C. City Council race.

Suddenly, a roar erupts from inside Nellie’s main room, catching the attention of anyone on the sidewalk nearby. Through the windows, there’s no mistaking the message on the giant screen. It’s 11 p.m. and CNN has called it: President of the United States, Barack Obama. Mariner’s eyes are fixated on the screen, through the forest of arms being pumped in enthusiasm inside Nellie’s. Horns blare in the street. Shouts come from all directions. Firecrackers can be heard exploding. All the buildup has come to this. The illuminated message of the win is reflected in Mariner’s eye, and there’s no mistaking the tear, either.

”I’m elated. I’m happy,” says Mariner, slowly absorbing this particular turn in America’s course. ”It releases months and months of pressure from the campaign, but it also releases years and years of living under the Bush administration. I’m thrilled.”

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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