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Reality Makes Gay Marriage Debate Obsolete

By Petula Dvorak
Friday, September 4, 2009

The argument over whether same-sex couples should marry in the District is about a decade past its expiration date. The reality of people's lives long ago outstripped the usefulness of the gay marriage debate.

You can go to just about any public space in this city today and see same-sex couples: Two women picking over the tomatoes at the Anacostia farmers market; two men taking notes at a PTA meeting on Capitol Hill; two women arguing in a Georgetown restaurant over who does the dishes and who pays the bills -- the things all married couples do.

And these are things that most same-sex couples feel comfortable and safe doing practically everywhere in Washington. That's been the case here for at least a decade. The city boasts one of the most visible, vibrant gay and lesbian communities in the country.

The fact that some people love differently is a massive mental hurdle that most folks have cleared here in the nation's capital.

That's supposed to be the hard part, right?

Yet, instead of celebrating its progress, the city is tussling and tangling with the most mundane, fill-in-the-blank, check-the-box, sign-on-the-dotted line aspect of marriage.

In the coming months, D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) is expected to file a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in the District. This follows legislation passed unanimously in May that recognizes marriages of same-sex couples performed in other states: Iowa, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont, where Ben and Jerry temporarily changed their delish Chubby Hubby ice cream to Hubby Hubby to celebrate the legislation.

But Maryland Bishop Harry Jackson, who is mounting a campaign against the legislation, is trying to import a fear-mongering intolerance to a city that doesn't need it and shouldn't embrace it.

The Catholic Church haltingly, though not surprisingly, joined the debate-that-shouldn't-be-a-debate this week when Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl backed Jackson.

Our city council has two openly gay members, and an estimated 5 percent of the city's couples identified themselves as gay or lesbian in a 2000 Human Rights Campaign survey, the second-highest in the nation.

Most District residents are way past pretending that people such as Lisa and Stefanie Alfonso-Frank, the parents of two adorable little boys, don't exist. The family, which lives on Capitol Hill, is an integral part of the fabric of its community.

The women volunteer at the school workdays; they come to the neighborhood barbecues; they are members of the pool; and they hang around with other parents at the park trying to tire out their children before bedtime.

Their home is on the steady circuit of play dates, where kids chug and roar with their impressive collection of trains and trucks beneath the wedding pictures of them wearing their white gowns.

Lisa and Stefanie were married in a Jewish ceremony in Virginia nine years ago, but it's not legally binding. They still can't file joint tax returns, and they've had to legally adopt the child the other had borne.

"We'd love to get married in D.C.," Lisa said. "It's about equal rights, and we'd like to have the same rights as everyone else."

Legally recognized or not, their marriage is the envy of many of their fellow mommy friends.

Right after Lisa had their first boy, Stefanie gave birth to their second.

What woman wouldn't kill for her husband to endure kankles, nausea and stretch marks just as she was battling the baby blues?

Their effect on the children of their heterosexual friends and neighbors? Many report that their own children -- including one of my own -- were jealous that Lisa and Stefanie's kids "got to make two Mommy's Day cards."

There are three important aspects to marriage: the legal contract, the life together and the spiritual bond that some couples want.

Actually, if you want to count the wedding ceremony, there are four. And given the number of gay-friendly wedding planners, here-come-the-brides cake toppers, his-and-his wedding ring sets, newspapers that print wedding announcements and the same-sex wedding card line that Hallmark just rolled out, that part is covered.

Life lived as a married, same-sex couple in the District is about as shocking as navy blazers and khaki pants. As a reporter who has visited all parts of the city over the past decade, I can tell you that the couples are ubiquitous. They can be the outspoken activist couple at the elementary school or the two nice men, "roommates" as some neighbors call them, who always come with their really good macaroni salad to the neighborhood block party.

And as far as the religious aspect goes, there are many institutions in the District that welcome and celebrate same-sex couples, whether it's for their unions or simply as members of their congregations. Legalizing same-sex marriage in no way requires any church to marry two people.

"This bill will heavily acknowledge religious freedoms" Catania said. "No religion will be forced to perform these ceremonies."

Um, that's separation of church and state, right?

Marriage, ultimately, is a civil issue. Right now, the only part of marriage that isn't available to same-sex couples is the mundane but important legal part: the contract.

And that's what feels ridiculous. Gay couples are in the city's schools, on governing boards, in churches and, quite fortunately for many of us, in our lives.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com

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