By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
With the D.C. City Council scheduled to take a final vote today on a measure to recognize same-sex marriages from other states, both sides of the issue are gearing up for a broader debate later this year on a bill to legalize gay marriages performed in the District.
For gay rights advocates, the campaign so far largely centers on an effort to remove the terms "gay" and "same sex" from a debate that ultimately could be resolved by Congress, the courts or voters.
Instead of having their supporters talk about same-sex marriage, advocates want the phrase "marriage equality" to be used.
And don't expect to see organizations that are easily tied to the gay rights movement featured prominently in the debate. Newly formed groups with names such as D.C. for Marriage and the Campaign for All D.C. Families will be the public face of the proponents.
"You don't want to turn people off before they hear what you are talking about," said Peter Rosenstein, a gay rights advocate. "We want to make it clear this is an equality issue. This is a civil rights issue. This is a family issue."
That poll-tested strategy underscores how, even in the overwhelmingly Democratic District, supporters of same-sex marriage remain nervous about their chances for success, especially if a proposal is put before voters. Gay rights advocates say they are learning the lessons of past defeats, including the decision by California voters to reject same-sex marriage last year.
"I don't think we should assume anything. This is going to be a hard fight," said Michael Crawford, executive director of D.C. for Marriage. "National organizations are going to spend a lot of money to divide us."
Opponents of same-sex marriage, who plan to pack today's council session at the John A. Wilson Building, accuse gay rights activists of trying to deceive the public.
"They know if they start talking about gay marriage, they lose," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, which plans to campaign against same-sex marriage in the District. "When they start talking about the homosexual agenda, they lose."
The Rev. George Gilbert, pastor of Holy Trinity United Baptist Church, said he and other opponents of same-sex marriage are ready for efforts to strike the word "gay" from the debate.
"It's not so much what they try to label it, it's what it really is," Gilbert said. "Pepsi-Cola in a Coke bottle is still Pepsi."
The bill before the council to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states is expected to pass easily; 12 of 13 council members supported it during a preliminary vote a month ago. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has pledged to sign it, but Congress gets 30 days to review it.
If Congress does not intervene, council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) has said that he will introduce a separate bill this year to allow same-sex marriages to be performed in the District.
Although there appears to be sufficient support on the council to legalize gay marriage, advocates are not sure how much impact Gilbert and other African American ministers will have on the debate.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted last month found that 49 percent of voters nationwide support the legalization of same-sex marriage. But among African Americans, 51 percent opposed legalizing same-sex marriage and 42 percent supported it. According to the census, 55 percent of District residents are African American.
Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), a longtime supporter of gay rights, stunned advocates last week when he announced his opposition to same-sex marriage even though he had supported it in the past.
The Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, an influential group of gay Democrats, was strategizing two weeks ago on how to win approval of same-sex marriage in the District. When one participant used the term "gay marriage," Crawford quickly spoke up.
"We should promptly and immediately do away with the term," Crawford said.
Club President Jeffrey Richardson said that advocates fear the term "gay" has become too closely linked with sex. "Sex is a difficult thing to talk about, so in a way the term 'equality' allows us to start talking about the core of the issue, to get folks talking beyond the sexuality component," he said.
The positioning comes amid uncertainty about whether the same-sex marriage question could eventually land before District voters.
Attorney Mark Levine said his analysis of District law found that the same-sex marriage question cannot be put before voters. He noted that local election law forbids a vote on a matter that violates the District's Human Rights Act. The act states that the government cannot "limit or refuse to provide any facility, service, program, or benefit" to any individual on the basis of sexual orientation.
"It seems pretty clear to me," Levine said.
But others are warning advocates that they need to prepare for the possibility of voter involvement at some point.
"I don't think it works for us to try to artificially try to put it in the Human Rights Act," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), a supporter of gay marriage. "I have told the GLBT community that they have to make sure there is the public support for this. . . . If there is not, we can try all the maneuvering we want and still be in trouble."
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.