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In gay-marriage battle, D.C. shapes up as next big prize

As of Tuesday, Washington gives same-sex spouses the same rights as heterosexual couples. A full legalization of gay marriage could follow, some say.

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer / July 7, 2009

Jonathan Paul Ganucheau kisses his bride, Denise Buckbinder Ganucheau, in a wedding ceremony in Washington, D.C. It was part of a May 5 protest against the District of Columbia's decision to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File

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Washington began recognizing gay marriages performed in other states Tuesday – a move that is being called a potential first step toward allowing same-sex couples to wed in the nation’s capital.

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The district’s measure stops short of other laws in states such as Iowa and Vermont, which allow for same-sex wedding ceremonies. But it adds to their momentum.

Moreover, Washington would be a unique prize in the battle over gay marriage. Not only does it bring the issue to where the nation’s lawmakers live – making it part of the city's culture – but it also marks gay marriage’s first foray into a predominately black community.

Washington’s city council passed the law to give married same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples by a 12-to-1 margin in May – a vote that supporters hail as significant.

“Nationally, anti-gay rights activists have had a great deal of success in encouraging black voters to oppose gay rights, partially because [gay rights] are seen – incorrectly – as a ‘white issue,’” writes Adam Serwer on the website of American Prospect, a liberal magazine.

“But in Washington, D.C., the diverse composition of the marriage-equality movement means that marriage-equality activists don't have to ‘reach out’ to the black community, because they're already part of it," he adds.

But black leaders have said that the 12-to-1 vote is not reflective of the community at large. In a city where 56 percent of residents are African-American, there is little chance a gay-marriage law would be approved if put to voters, says Derek McCoy, a pastor at Hope Christian Church in suburban Washington.

He says the law is yet another example of a legislative branch “pulling a fast one on the constituents.”

A group of black ministers filed a lawsuit in an effort to stall the bill until a referendum could put the question to Washington voters. A judge dismissed the suit.

Black ministers have led much of the opposition to the law, rallying the city’s black churches as well as the broader African-American community. Surveys have shown that a majority of blacks oppose gay marriage. Some 70 percent of blacks in California voted in favor of Proposition 8, the ballot measure that bans same-sex marriages.

Mr. McCoy says he is “continuing to push a battle on the issue.” But he agrees with proponents of same-sex marriage on at least one thing: “I do believe [recognizing gay marriage in Washington] puts it on a national scale, and at least brings that level of attention to it.”

For gay-marriage advocates, that presents them with an ideal stage to show the country – and especially lawmakers from around the nation – that legalizing gay marriage is no threat to traditional marriage values. The ultimate goal: revise or overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, which bans federal recognition of gay marriages.

For those opposed to legalizing same-sex marriage, the capital is an equally vital piece to stop the spread of gay marriage and prevent it from becoming a federal issue.

“Washington, D.C., is symbolically a really important place for a marriage-equality win,” says Molly McKay of Marriage Equality USA, a leading same-sex marriage advocacy group. "I think that it is really important that that happens around the social environment where are elected officials are located."

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