District Weighing Boosts in Gay Rights

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 2, 2006

The D.C. Council is considering measures that would amount to the greatest expansion of rights for same-sex couples in a decade.

But for some in the District's large and influential gay community, the package of tax and inheritance benefits is perhaps most notable for what it is not: a move to legalize gay marriage. With Massachusetts having legalized gay marriage and other states coming close, some gay activists are saying that now is the time to push for full marriage rights in the District.

Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said he is "seriously considering" introducing a bill to legalize gay marriage in the District this year. He is hesitating because the gay community is split over whether a debate on the issue would advance or slow the push for rights, since any gay marriage bill probably would be vetoed by Congress, which has final say over D.C. laws.

"Not doing what you believe in is a very uneasy feeling," said Graham, one of two openly gay council members.

But David A. Catania (I-At Large), an openly gay council member who quit the Republican party over its opposition to gay marriage, warned: "If the District trots out too far, we become a cause celebre for Congress to whip on." A better strategy, he said, is to "try to make sustainable advances instead of ideal advances."

The package of bills before the council follows that philosophy, building on the rights the District gave gay couples in 1992, when the city passed a law recognizing domestic partnerships. That law extended medical decision-making powers and other benefits to same-sex couples.

The main bill, authored by council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) would give partners power of attorney, the ability to sue for negligence and immunity from testifying against one another. The bill also would allow the equivalent of prenuptial agreements and create alimony-like obligations in the event of a breakup. The measure would apply to heterosexual domestic-partner couples as well.

Another bill, sponsored by Graham and council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), would require administrations to continue to have an office of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender affairs. The Mendelson and Orange-Graham bills, which passed in a preliminary vote, are scheduled for a final vote Wednesday.

The council has passed a measure to eliminate a tax penalty for residents who want to add their partners to their health insurance coverage. Another act extended discrimination protection to transgender people.

Mendelson's bill and the tax bill have so far breezed through the council. However, some gay groups oppose the creation of a Cabinet-level office for gay issues, calling it unnecessary -- even condescending. Catania said it implies that the gay community is somehow weak and needy.

Congress and the District have clashed over gay rights in the past. Congress blocked funding for the implementation of the District's domestic partnership law for a decade. The law finally received funding and took effect in 2002, enabling unmarried people who live with District government workers to purchase membership in a city health plan.

Many who went through that struggle say that pushing for gay marriage now -- with a Republican-led Congress and during an election year -- would be worse than folly. They fear it may cause Congress to take away rights already granted.

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