June 7, 2013

What do the fights for gay marriage and D.C. statehood have in common? A thousand things, and just one.

Both are key civil rights battles of our time. Both involve the inexcusable denial of core rights to individuals because of one aspect of their identities — privileges and benefits that are extended to other Americans who are otherwise just like them.

Most important, both groups fight for a single goal, a brass ring, that itself serves as a catch-all for a myriad of subsidiary benefits. Those of us whose brass ring is D.C. statehood could learn a lot from advocates of gay marriage.

According to a General Accountability Office report, there are more than a thousand federal benefits associated with marriage, everything from exemption from the estate tax to citizenship for a non-American spouse. Similarly, statehood consists of hundreds of component rights: key among them representation in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and the ability to tax income at its source. In both cases, the sheer quantity of these rights would seem to suggest that any effort to win those rights individually, one by one, would be exhausting and almost necessarily fated to fall short.

Recognizing this, most advocates of gay marriage never seem to take their eyes off the real prize — marriage — and the “package deal” of benefits that comes with it. They have not allowed themselves to lose the forest of gay marriage in the trees of single-benefit victories. They realize that marriage is the destination without which there would be no journey. The gay rights strategy, as envisioned by lawyer Mary Bonauto and others, was designed from the start to culminate in cases before the Supreme Court, such as we saw in March, that focus like a laser on the true brass ring.

The recent victory at the polls of the praiseworthy D.C. Budget Autonomy initiative notwithstanding, advocates of D.C. statehood almost always take the opposite tack. Unable to achieve the single overarching win that will allow them to retire their slogans and posters forever, they have settled for death by a thousand battles. They have attempted to cobble together a facsimile of their ultimate goal by assembling component sub-rights, one by one, and no component has proved to be too trivial to pursue.

It has been somehow simultaneously adorable, necessary and demeaning to see statehood advocates fight for primarily symbolic benefits (getting our own state quarter, placing a statue at the U.S. Capitol, getting the D.C. flag added to the ring of state flags at Union Station, etc.). With the ultimate goal so far off, we have allowed what was meant to be a means to become an end.

It is particularly instructive to consider how advocates for the two causes dealt with a tantalizing, seemingly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to achieve something that would have carried each cause most — but not all — of the way to the finish line of its quest. For gay marriage advocates, this opportunity was civil unions, which provide most of the benefits of marriage but not the moniker itself. And for D.C. statehood supporters, the opportunity was legislation introduced in 2005 by then-Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) to give the District a permanent representative in the House.

By and large, gay marriage advocates have been hesitant to accept the civil-union compromise. They recognize that acceptance of such a robust but nonetheless incomplete solution might foreclose the possibility of ever having their demands fully met. In contrast, most D.C. statehood activists were all-too-anxious to support the Davis bill. While it is important not to let the good be the enemy of the perfect, it is also essential to recognize that some principles should be beyond compromise.

At the Supreme Court in March, attorney Ted Olson made this point eloquently in an exchange with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.: “It is like you were to say you can vote, you can travel, but you may not be a citizen. There are certain labels in this country that are very, very critical. You could have said in the Loving case, what — you can’t get married, but you can have an interracial union. Everyone would know that that was wrong, that the — marriage has a status, recognition, support.” Ever since Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court has held that “separate but equal” is not an acceptable standard under U.S. law. Gay marriage advocates recognized civil unions as being their own “separate but equal” false equivalency.

Advocates for D.C. statehood must recognize that while the Davis bill and any future facsimiles may come achingly close to what we want, it is painful but necessary to reject such half-measures. The whole of statehood is greater than the sum of its parts. Labels are indeed critical, and “statehood” is one such label. We must fight for statehood directly, and more important, entirely.

The writer is an Adams Morgan resident and former Advisory Neighborhood Commission member.

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