Battening the Hatches

Gay D.C. is relatively well-prepared for a turn in congressional tides

If the Republican Party regains control of Congress on Nov. 2, already-stalled pro-gay legislation would be dead — at least barring an uncharacteristically bold lame-duck action by Democrats. On the bright side, the prospects are fairly good for the District of Columbia to defend its marriage-equality law.

LGBT activists in D.C. have struggled with our congressional overlords for decades. Congress used a legislative veto against our sodomy-law repeal in 1981, and an appropriations rider against our domestic-partnership law in 1992. After Congress stopped obstructing domestic partnerships in 2001, D.C. passed more than a dozen bills incrementally strengthening that law. Our final step to full marriage equality last year was taken with one eye firmly fixed on Capitol Hill.

This battle testing leaves us ready, in the event of a GOP congressional takeover, to fight opponents like Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who failed to get even a majority of House Republicans to co-sponsor the D.C. Defense of Marriage Act in the 111th Congress.

Our contingency planning has covered multiple scenarios including a ballot initiative on marriage. Congress has the constitutional power to impose initiatives on the District despite D.C.’s 1979 action prohibiting discriminatory ballot measures. Still, Republicans would have to contend with President Obama’s veto pen. D.C. activists have created a campaign organization designed to lobby Congress or fight a ballot measure as needed. We have built a broad-based coalition marked by strong leadership from the African-American and faith communities. Polls of D.C. voters have shown we can defeat an anti-gay initiative.

Even the National Organization for Marriage has helped prove the strength of our marriage victory. NOM targeted several pro-equality D.C. elected officials for defeat this year; yet every NOM-backed challenger in the Sept. 14 D.C. primary will have lost before this sees print.

D.C. residents have our differences; but as gay Democratic Councilmember Jim Graham says of his own Ward 1, we have a live-and-let-live attitude. A congressionally mandated ballot measure would only further unify D.C. voters, given the strong citywide resentment against congressional interference in our affairs.

To be sure, even if the pro-gay side wins a D.C. ballot initiative, that will not be the end of it. Our opponents will say voters were misled, or gay activists cleverly gamed the system. No matter how many ways equality wins — in the courts, in legislatures, or eventually in ballot measures — the homophobes will keep trying to move the goalposts. It is a common political ploy for people who lose an argument to cry foul or deny the argument took place.

The “gaming the system” charge is a favorite of anti-gay leader Harry Jackson, who used it on me during a televised debate in July 2009. I replied, “When you participate in the political process, you are exercising your rights as a citizen. When gay people do exactly the same thing, we are accused of playing games. That’s insulting and it’s absurd.”

One of the most powerful witnesses during last fall’s hearings on D.C.’s marriage-equality bill was longtime Washingtonian Lawrence Guyot, a leader of the 1964 voting-rights effort in Mississippi known as Freedom Summer. He spoke of his work with famed activist Fannie Lou Hamer, and said it pained him when he heard some witnesses demand the right to vote against other people’s rights. “That’s not what we fought for,” he said.

D.C. has progressed despite past congressional meddling. As for NOM, they have Harry Jackson and former D.C. Delegate to Congress Walter Fauntroy to spin tales about opponents of equality being the persecuted ones. We have Lawrence Guyot and another Freedom Summer veteran, D.C.’s tough and smart current congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, to defend equal protection of the law. I’ll take that trade.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at .

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