Representatives from the faith, business and arts communities joined political activists and public officials on April 20 to mark the 40th anniversary of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington. Illustrating in microcosm D.C.’s remarkably successful LGBT movement, the evening gathered an array of leaders and fighters who have overcome differences of race, religion, culture, sexual orientation and gender identity to work together.
D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton spoke of the test our coalition will face in the months ahead as Republicans in Congress attack the District of Columbia with a series of social riders to our city’s Fiscal Year 2012 appropriations bill, seeking to impose their will over that of D.C. voters on issues from abortion funding and school vouchers to marriage equality. The challenge is heightened by concerns that our purported Democratic allies will use the District as a bargaining chip, as they did in the recent Fiscal Year 2011 budget deal.
The power Congress holds over our city has loomed over GLAA’s efforts over the years, from hate-crimes legislation to domestic partnerships to sodomy law repeal. Every advance involved a broad-based effort. We knew that winning and keeping marriage equality required not only a supermajority in the D.C. Council, but a diverse coalition to prevent the anti-gay right from dividing our city along racial and religious lines. Solid preparation led to a landmark victory.
That same cooperation and fighting spirit will help us defeat the right wing’s anti-democratic interference in D.C.’s self-government. The willingness of some Democrats to sell out the District reminds us that there are no guarantees; but if we stand up, fight back and ground our message in the bedrock American values that brought us this far, we have a good chance.
How to respond to bigotry was demonstrated by one of the recipients of GLAA’s 2011 Distinguished Service Awards presented on April 20, the Right Rev. John Bryson Chane, Episcopal Bishop of Washington. He described an encounter he once had with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who accused Chane of being clearly unfamiliar with Leviticus given his support for gay rights.
Chane replied by pointing out that Museveni was wearing a jacket made from different types of fabric; that one of Museveni’s guards had a tattoo; and that another had a body piercing – all violations of Leviticus. He told Museveni to examine himself before faulting others, whereupon Museveni quickly changed the subject to international development. You can imagine the cheers this anecdote won from the crowd at GLAA’s reception.
My partner, Patrick, an African who recently visited family in Uganda, loved this story when I called him to recount it. He knows that slanders by the likes of Museveni must be publicly challenged, including the lie that homosexuality is un-African and was imported by Westerners. Patrick himself witnessed indigenous forms of homosexuality as a teenager in villages in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The thirst for freedom is universal. Patrick tells me of his great-great-grandfather, a Congolese villager who was captured in the late 19th century by Arab slavers intent on transporting him to the island of Zanzibar. He escaped his captors in Burundi and made his way back home.
One of the guests at GLAA’s April 20 reception was historian David Carter, whose book, Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, was turned into a documentary film broadcast on PBS on April 25.
Resistance to oppression begins as a cry of the spirit, whether from Congolese villagers facing slavers or Greenwich Villagers facing a police raid. When the oppressed have the vision and fortitude to band together, they become stronger. The key is the word ”alliance,” right up there in GLAA’s oh-so-’70s name.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at .