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Ward 8 Democrats Vote to Support Same-Sex Marriage

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By Nikita Stewart and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 17, 2009

The District's same-sex marriage debate continued yesterday in the basement of a library in Ward 8, the predominantly African American community that council member Marion Barry invoked in justifying his recent vote against a bill to recognize gay marriages performed outside of the city.

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But yesterday, gay rights advocates declared victory in a key battle to set the tone for the issue when the Ward 8 Democrats voted 21 to 11 to support the legalization of same-sex marriage, in preparation for legislation expected to be introduced in the D.C. Council this year.

The Ward 8 vote came after almost two hours of discussion about religion, referendums and civil rights among the crowd of about 100 people at the Washington Highlands Library on Atlantic Avenue SW.

Barry, who was scheduled to speak for the opposition, did not attend. Sandy Allen, a former council member and president of the Ward 8 Democrats, said Barry told her he had a doctor's appointment.

More than a week ago, Barry drew ire and praise when he was the lone dissenter in a 12 to 1 vote to recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. Barry, a civil rights icon and a longtime supporter of gay rights, said his vote represented the feelings of the predominantly black Ward 8 and, in a broader sense, most black people in the District.

Local gay rights advocates say there is some credence to Barry's argument. A 2006 poll by a local group advocating same-sex marriage shows strongest opposition among black residents. Some of those sentiments were on display at yesterday's Ward 8 discussion.

"We are not homophobic. We are not hatemongers. We love everybody," said the Rev. Patrick J. Walker, chairman of a new task force of ministers opposed to gay marriage. The task force is part of the Missionary Baptist Ministers' Conference in the region, which pressed Barry to vote against the same-sex marriage recognition legislation.

"It's our position that this is an issue that should go before the people. Thirteen people . . . should not set the moral compass of this city," Walker said, referring to the members of the council. He is the pastor of New Macedonia Baptist Church in Southeast.

Walker was on a panel with Philip Pannell, who is gay and active in ward politics, and the Rev. Dennis Wiley, who is a co-pastor with his wife of Covenant Baptist Church in Southwest, where marriage ceremonies have been conducted for gay couples.

Wiley invoked the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and used the civil rights movement to argue that black people should support gay marriage. "Historically, we ought to be the last people coming out to oppress anybody," he said.

Opponents urged the Ward 8 group to support a citywide vote. "We are not the authority," said Calvin Lockridge, 76. "Let me say loud and clear, I am against using the word 'marriage.' "

Pannell said a vote could cause the same turmoil as it did in California, where voters approved a ban on gay marriage. A majority of black voters in that state supported the ban after heavy lobbying by national religious groups opposed to same-sex nuptials.

A citywide vote, Pannel said, would be "an extremely underhanded way of ripping this community apart."

Wiley said later: "No one's basic rights should be put to a vote. . . . We would be in serious trouble if, as slaves, our freedom was put to a referendum."

John Lazar, who moved to the District two years ago, was active in gay rights in California and said activists cannot take the support of the African American community for granted. "What I've learned from the Proposition 8 referendum is that we need to engage every segment of the community," said Lazar, 59, who is white. "It's not going to be easy, but I think if the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community strategizes . . . they will enlist support from the African American community and the faith community."

A May 2006 poll of 800 likely D.C. voters -- 100 in each of the city's eight wards -- showed that if presented with an initiative to ban same-sex marriage, 49 percent of African Americans would vote yes, and 42 percent would vote no. But the poll, commissioned by the Foundation for All D.C. Families, found that African Americans were sympathetic to the "rights, benefits and legal protections" of gay and lesbian couples. For example, 26 percent said same-sex couples deserve full marriage rights while another 41 percent supported legal recognition such as domestic partnerships.

"Certainly, in terms of persuasion and education, we have more work to do east of the river to win people over," said Richard Rosendall, vice president for political affairs for the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance.

No national polls have found that a majority of African Americans favor legalizing gay marriage.

However, David A. Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, notes that African American attitudes about same-sex marriage appear to have shifted even more dramatically in recent years than they have in the white community.

In 2004, the center conducted a poll a few months before the presidential contest, finding that 46 percent of African Americans supported no legal recognition for gay relationships, compared with 37 percent of the general population who felt the same way.

According to a New York Times-CBS News poll conducted last month, 38 percent of African Americans and 40 percent of whites support gay marriage. Only 26 percent of African Americans and 30 percent of white voters in the poll said they do not want legal recognition of gay relationships. A Washington Post-ABC News poll, also conducted last month, found that 48 percent of white voters and 42 percent of African American voters strongly or somewhat favor same-sex marriage.

Gay rights advocates have been strategically tapping into every corner of the city to get the support of Democratic committees in each ward. And the faces of those advocates come in color: Michael Crawford, who is black, is the founder of DC for Marriage, and Jeffrey Richardson, who is black, is president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, a political group for the LGBT community.

After the Ward 8 Democrats' vote yesterday, Crawford, 41, said the endorsement was significant to the local campaign for gay marriage. "It definitely has more meaning for me, personally," he said.

Advocates are bracing for national opponents to come into the District and begin lobbying, particularly targeting the black community, he said. "We can show them that they can't come into our city," he said.


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