Washington, D.C. moves toward legalizing gay marriage

Meanwhile, Congress is now likely to add sexual orientation to federal hate crimes law, and President Obama will address a major gay-rights organization Saturday night.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Ed Grundis, left, and Juan D. Rondon, hold hands after a bill allowing same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia was introduced at a city council meeting in Washington, on Tuesday, Oct. 6.

It’s been a big week for gay rights: The city council of Washington, D.C., took a step toward legalizing gay marriage in the nation’s capital. The House of Representatives voted to expand the definition of hate crimes to include victims who are lesbian, gay, or transgender.

On Saturday, President Obama delivers the keynote address at the annual dinner of the gay-rights Human Rights Campaign, the first such presidential speech since 1997. And on Sunday, activists will hold a national march for equality on the Mall.

Is the dam beginning to break in the long fight for gay rights? Activists paint a mixed picture.

Yes, gay marriage is a reality in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, and Vermont. New Hampshire joins them in January. Maine now has a law allowing same-sex marriage but is holding a referendum Nov. 3 that could overturn it. Washington State is holding a similar referendum on whether to reverse its new domestic partnership law.

[Editor's Note: The original incorrectly stated the nature of Washington State's referendum.]

Gay marriage in DC will be tough to stop, given Democratic control of Congress and the White House. In July, the DC council approved recognition of gay marriages performed in other states, and congressional opponents were unable to stop it.

But President Obama still has not moved to reverse the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of gay marriage, or the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy that keeps gays from serving openly.

Looking at the broad sweep of events, though, “I think many of us are hopeful,” says Rick Rosendall, vice president for political affairs for the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance in Washington.

He defends the incrementalist approach to bringing change, a sore point among some gay activists. But in DC, where the effort to allow same-sex marriages has been in the works for 30 years, that patience seems to be paying off. Back in 1977, gay rights activists persuaded the DC council to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, under the city’s Human Rights Act.

That law blocked efforts in the spring to prevent the DC gay marriage recognition law from being enacted. And it is likely to prevent opponents from keeping gay marriage itself from becoming legal in DC.

In Congress, which can block legislation passed by the DC government, opponents of gay marriage feel stymied on this issue.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah, the ranking member of the congressional subcommittee that oversees the District of Columbia, said in an interview that he will try anyway to prevent same-sex marriage from becoming law in DC. But he’s not optimistic.

“I think there will be an effort; it’s just that the Democrats have a stranglehold on the process -- the House, the Senate, and the presidency,” Congressman Chaffetz says. “We’ll do everything we can to get it up for a vote. We’re just going to have to be creative.”

Local political analysts say the gay marriage measure is popular in the district.

“It has overwhelming support,” says Mark Plotkin, a commentator on WTOP radio.

The measure, introduced Tuesday, was co-sponsored by 10 of the 13 city council members, and Mayor Adrian Fenty says he’ll sign it. In the black community, the majority in DC, there’s more resistance to gay marriage than among whites, especially among older African Americans. Some black clergy oppose gay marriage and are trying to fight it. But they face an uphill battle.

Meanwhile, the eyes of the gay community and other interested parties will be on Obama Saturday night when he addresses the Human Rights Campaign dinner. (It will be shown live on C-Span, 8 p.m. Eastern.)

But Obama has to do more than just show up, says Mr. Rosendall. “Symbolic gestures are not enough… We want substance.”

He suggests a stop-loss order to halt discharges from the military under don’t ask, don’t tell -- not as an alternative to legislation, but as a step along the way.


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