Marion Barry's Words and Actions on Gay Marriage

Saturday, May 9, 2009

THE D.C. COUNCIL'S approval of a bill recognizing same-sex marriages performed elsewhere in the country was lopsided. Twelve of 13 members, including representatives of wards on both sides of the river, voted for the measure. So it was distressing to see the debate framed along racial, and troublingly divisive, lines.

"All hell is going to break loose," Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) told reporters after he cast the lone vote against the bill this week. "We may have a civil war. The black community is just adamant against this." Mr. Barry says the "civil war" comment was said in jest, but that doesn't erase the harm of his words. No doubt there are many African Americans who, for religious or other reasons, are opposed to recognizing marriage between people of the same sex. The same can be said of a lot of white people, but it's a certainty that there are people of all colors who see the right of gay men and lesbians to marry as a matter of justice and fairness.

Indeed, it was heartening to see council members facing election next year -- Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) comes to mind -- vote their principles in the face of a hostile audience threatening political retaliation. By contrast, Mr. Barry said he had to oppose the measure because he believed that is what his constituents wanted.

The District's action is part of a national tide granting gay men and lesbians their full rights as citizens. The same week that the District took its stand, legislatures in Maine and New Hampshire voted to legalize same-sex marriage. Maine Gov. John E. Baldacci (D) promptly signed the legislation; Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) did the same with the bill passed by the council, although the D.C. law must also clear the hurdle of congressional review. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate should make clear that they will brook no political interference with the District's home rule.

Throughout his career as an activist, school board member and mayor, Mr. Barry has supported gay rights, fighting the ouster of a gay schoolteacher and backing recognition of domestic partnerships. He thinks that record must be considered before judging his opposition to same-sex marriage, oblivious to the fact that it only makes his conduct that much more disappointing. It's expected that the council will soon be asked to take a bolder stand by legalizing same-sex unions in the District. We hope the ugliness that infused Mr. Barry's ill-chosen words won't be a part of that debate.

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