Series of gay rights victories imbues elements of post-gay politics in race for D.C. mayor


Women from Tagg Magazine throw necklaces to the crowd during the 38th Annual Capital Pride Parade held on Saturday, June 8, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

When David A. Catania, the man who could be the District’s first gay mayor, passes by spectators in Saturday’s Capital Pride parade, Jake Hudson won’t be there. After 27 years of faithfully attending rainbow festivals, Hudson says he feels no need to attend another — especially with so many gay rights victories firmly in hand in D.C.

“I hate to say it, but we have just about everything we could want,” said Hudson, a recent retiree who is married to a man, has raised an adopted son and has dinner plans that he won’t cancel to attend this year’s parade. “In D.C., we live life and there’s nothing really stopping that. . . . We’re post-whatever, post-gay strife. It’s just not an issue here anymore.”

What it means if the District is, indeed, “post-gay” remains unclear in the race between Catania (I-At Large), a D.C. Council member who has been elected as an openly gay man in the District for 17 years, and fellow council member Muriel E. Bowser (Ward 4), the Democratic nominee. But at least one thing seems clear: Catania’s openness about his sexual orientation may no longer guarantee the votes of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents.

The District’s LGBT community — which could account for one in 10 voters in November, according to estimates — is an increasingly diverse and diffuse one that often reflects mundane voter concerns, from schools to health care to potholes.

“I’m not going to vote for David because he’s gay, or Bowser­ because she’s black or a woman,” said Bob Summersgill, a former president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, which has worked since 1971 for equal rights in the District. “Either one is going to sign any gay rights legislation that gets to their desk — I’m not worried about any of that.”

As 150,000 people are expected to descend on the District for the 39th annual Capital Pride parade, same-sex marriage fights are still roiling states from Pennsylvania to Oregon. And the District looms as the backdrop for a coming series of federal court decisions that could decide the same-sex marriage issue permanently.

But for parade organizers and aging icons of the District’s gay rights battles, this year’s festival is getting underway amid a growing sense of inevitability that same-sex marriage is coming to all states — and that gay rights are no longer a political driving force.

That fact is prompting gay rights groups to wrestle with what comes next. Where in the nation, or in the world, should they refocus the energy that got the movement this far? On the lists they are building, one that barely registers is electing a gay mayor in the nation’s capital — a city where gays for five years have easily married, robust laws prohibit discrimination and two transgender women sit on the city’s Commission on Human Rights.

The District’s advanced evolution on gay rights can be traced to an early start. The first group to seek anti-
discrimination laws formed in 1959.

Former Mayor Marion Barry (D), now the Ward 8 representative on the D.C. Council, was also among the earliest and most influential African American politicians to embrace the gay community anywhere in the nation.

There have been few splits between the city’s political establishment and its gay community since.

All of that has left Catania, an independent and former Republican, treading carefully in claiming the mantle of gay rights support.

Catania was the lead author of the city’s 2009 legislation allowing gay marriage. And as chairman of the council’s health committee, he was vocal in attempts to curb rates of HIV and AIDS within the city’s LGBT and African American communities.

But even though Catania split with the Republican party 10 years ago when President George W. Bush advocated for a same-sex marriage ban,Catania remains outside the Democratic fold that shepherded every advancement for gays in the city to fruition.

In appealing to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a national group of deep-pocketed gay donors, Catania in April argued that a gay mayor of D.C. would be a powerful statement.

In an interview, he acknowledged that his sexual orientation would mean a lot less inside D.C. than elsewhere.

“It’s a statement that is probably more powerful outside the city,” Catania said. “But you don’t have to go very far — you can go across the 14th Street bridge and you go back 40 years in time. . . . Virginia has discrimination against the LGBT community that is still deeply ingrained.”

Catania said that in D.C., the next mayor needs to continue addressing HIV and AIDS. Transgender youths need better housing protections, he said, and like any other residents, members of the LGBT community struggle with the city’s escalating housing costs.

Bowser has focused most on the latter, already using as a talking point the seed funding she included in next year’s budget for an assessment of affordable housing needs specifically for LGBT seniors.

At an interfaith church service to kick off the D.C. pride festival this week, scores of balding heads dotted a sanctuary off Thomas Circle, illustrating how the city’s early start in gay rights has put it behind perhaps only San Francisco in grappling with a concentration of aging gays and lesbians.

The city’s growing gay population, however, is being fueled by young professionals. Angela Peoples, president of the influential Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, is 27.

The club is expected to begin debate Monday about whether to consider for the first time a candidate for mayor who is not a Democrat.

“A lot of folks might view same-sex marriage as the quintessential issue, but there are a lot of elements that are important — the same issues that everyday young people would face . . . being able to live affordably, being safe and being able to start a family and know that two years down the line, there will be a school for your kids.”

And, Peoples said, a key is continuing to foster an environment like the one that exists now in D.C. that made her comfortable enough five years ago to come out as a lesbian.

That, said Bernie Delia, president of the board of Capital Pride, is what Saturday’s parade is still all about, and what will continue to shape whatever post-gay politics take hold in the District.

“I get asked the question, ‘Is this still relevant?’ because this is not the same event it was 30 or 40 years ago,” Delia said. “It is, because every year is someone’s first time at Pride.”

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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