Black activists urge caution on D.C. marriage bill
Dec. 11 forum to address timing of measure
Friday, November 28, 2008
Black gay activists in Washington have expressed concern that advocates for legislation to legalize same-sex marriage in the city have not developed a strategy for winning support from black residents, who make up 56.5 percent of the D.C. population.
Following a closed-door meeting last week at the D.C. gay community center, activists representing several local gay groups agreed to call a community-wide forum Dec. 11 to debate whether the City Council should take up a same-sex marriage bill in January.
Gay D.C. Councilmember David Catania (I-At-Large) said he and several of his Council colleagues are considering introducing a same-sex marriage rights bill in the Council’s first legislative session in 2009.
All but one of the Council’s 13 members have said they support legalizing same-sex marriage, but most have said they weren’t sure of the best time to move ahead with such legislation.
“There needs to be a discussion within the community with a diverse group of people to make sure there’s a consensus to move ahead with this,” said Darrin Glymph, vice president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city’s largest gay political group.
“Then, if you decide to go forward, you need to reach out to the entire D.C. community, including the faith community and the African-American community.”
Glymph and other black gay activists pointed to the approval by voters in California of Proposition 8 as an example of a failed strategy for reaching out to minority voters. The proposition, which passed by a margin of 52 to 48 percent, amended California’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage.
A CNN exit poll showed that 69 percent of black voters in California supported Proposition 8; subsequent reports have suggested the number might be closer to 57 percent. U.S. Census Bureau figures show that blacks make up 6.7 percent of the population in California.
With blacks making up nearly 57 percent of the population in D.C., black gay activists said gay marriage supporters must redouble their efforts to reach out to blacks and other minorities in the District.
“I don’t know if we can obtain the allies to help us defeat a referendum in the District,” said Carlene Cheatam, one of the founding members of the D.C. Coalition of Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Men & Women.
“I’m not worried about our elected city government,” Cheatam said. “They are all supportive because they equate marriage rights with civil rights. It’s the general population that I’m concerned about.”
Cheatam and Glymph said coalitions and alliances would have to be built between gays and black community institutions, including historic black churches, to educate the community on why the right to marry is a civil right.
But the two said they weren’t sure such coalitions and alliances could be put together in time for a gay marriage bill in January.
Black gay activist Brad Lewis, a former Stein Club president who lives in Ward 8, said not all activists believe gay marriage should be at the top of the list of priorities for gays in early 2009.
Lewis said it would be better for gays, and all D.C. residents, if a unified coalition of activists devote their energies in 2009 to persuading Congress to grant the city full budgetary and legislative autonomy.
Lewis said the enlarged Dem-ocratic majority in Congress and the election of Barack Obama as president give the city its best shot at gaining full control of its budget and lawmaking processes.
Longtime D.C. resident Donna Brazile, a veteran Democratic Party strategist and CNN commentator, said she, too, believes congressional voting rights and legislative autonomy for D.C. should be the top priority for the city in 2009.
“I’m a fierce supporter of marriage equality,” Brazile said. “But that’s not the point here. The point is if we had legislative autonomy, legislative and budget autonomy, we wouldn’t have to worry about Congress.”
Even if Congress were to grant the city budget and legislative autonomy, some in the black gay community believe other issues impacting gays should be given a higher priority than marriage.
Glymph said many in the community feel issues such as HIV/AIDS and homeless youth are more pressing than marriage.
Brian Watson is the current president of the D.C. Coalition of Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Men & Women and program director for Transgender Health Empowerment, a local organization that provides services to the transgender community.
In a Nov. 13 e-mail sent to local activists, Watson criticized the mainstream gay rights movement for its “current frenzy over same-sex marriage.” He noted that developments on the marriage front overshadowed news that Duanna Johnson, a black transgender woman in Memphis, Tenn., had been shot and killed on a street not long after being beaten by police officers in a Memphis jail.
“I find it deeply ironic, and equally tragic, that the topic of ‘gay marriage’ (in the form of the recent controversy over the passage of California’s Prop. 8) once again threatens to monopolize the national queer agenda, while incidents such as Johnson’s death go under the radar,” he said in his e-mail message.
“I continue to believe that the excessive time, money, and political energy that the mainstream queer movement has poured into its push for ‘same-sex marriage’ comes at the expense of public discussions about people like Duanna — people that do not adhere to the upwardly mobile, masculinist narrative that ‘gay marriage’ pundits so often subscribe to,” Watson wrote.
The Blade reported on Duanna’s death and the death of another transgender woman in an article published Nov. 21.
Watson told the Blade this week that he and other black gays he talks to regularly have mixed feelings over whether the City Council should move forward with a same-sex marriage bill in January.
“I think there are other priorities in the African-American GLBT community,” he said. “And I think the evidence was apparent ...