Civil Strategy

Forum looks at advancing marriage equality in D.C.

California voters spoke Nov. 4 when they pulled the plug on marriage equality for gays and lesbians — won in the California Supreme Court less than a year prior — by voting in favor of Proposition 8. Rather than being the last word, Proposition 8 has served to reinvigorate the debate.

Locally, the debate surfaced as a sort of strategy session Thursday, Dec. 11, at the Human Rights Campaign’s Equality Forum downtown. A full house of about 150 turned out on a rainy night that could have killed interest in most other topics. But it couldn’t keep the crowd away from The Marriage Equality Community Forum, presented by The Center, D.C.’s GLBT community center.

”This is an opportunity for you all to raise your concerns about what marriage equality means,” said The Center’s president, Michael Sessa, explaining that while DC for Marriage, a group born in January, began as an independent grassroots effort led by Michael Crawford, it had recently joined The Center’s stable of community programs.

As Metro Weekly co-publisher Sean Bugg moderated, Crawford faced the crowd, along with Jon Hoadley, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, and Jeff D. Richardson, president-elect of D.C.’s Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. Bugg began by asking that participants maintain respectful tones — ”civil marriage, civil forum.” And for the most part, his wish was honored. But civility could not be mistaken for agreement. At the end of two hours, it seemed two camps were forming.

At one end, there were those who look to the Democratic Congress, President-elect Obama’s gay-supportive stances, the community’s energetic response to Proposition 8, the D.C. City Council’s and Mayor Adrian Fenty’s support for the GLBT community and collectively ask, ”If not now, when?” Their argument is that if ever there was a time for Washingtonians to seek marriage equality in the District, that time must be now.

At the other end, there was a more cautious feeling that an attempt to immediately secure marriage equality — rather than those rights by any other name — will put a spotlight on the District, particularly from Congress as it exercises its legal oversight over the city, inviting players nationwide to come here to do what they can to quash progress in the nation’s capital, be that congressional grandstanding for the folks back home, or fomenting community tension in hopes of drumming up support for a D.C. ballot measure similar to Proposition 8.

Local transgender activist Jeri Hughes summed up one side, saying from the audience, ”Marriage equality symbolizes so much of what we all face. [It’s] just discrimination. I don’t think we can afford to wait any longer. We have to be cowards not to move. I think we owe it to the whole nation to lead the way.”

Phil Attey, a longtime Democratic and gay activist, was in the cautious camp. ”I think we need to look at this in the broader context,” he warned, advising that a number of GLBT legal fights are on the horizon, which could leave the community beyond Washington too exhausted to help in what all sides agreed would become a federal fight.

Carlene Cheatam, a community organizer in D.C. since 1980 and one of the city’s most respected figures, voiced resentment that marriage equality in Washington is already being looked at as a national issue.

”This is the time in this process for us to be open to whatever anyone says,” she insisted, pulling back the reins.

But with gay Councilmember David Catania (I-At large) possibly poised to introduce legislation to pass marriage equality in the District, there was a sense at the Dec. 11 meeting that the community must be prepared to manage whatever may come next, rather than allow circumstances to manage the community.

While it was far too early Dec. 11 to hammer out a clear strategy for moving forward, what was clear was that organizers are calling for an ”all hands on deck” effort.

As Sessa told attendees, ”It’s not about what we are going to do. Michael [Crawford] has been phenomenal in leading this effort, but Michael is one person. Do not wait for someone to ask you to step up.”

Or, as Crawford himself put it: ”If you’re a DJ, we can use you. If you’re a barista at your local Starbucks, we can use you.”

For more information about DC for Marriage, visit dcformarriage.blogspot.com.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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