Correction to This Article
In some editions, the column incorrectly said that 11 of 14 D.C. Council members co-authored the bill on same-sex marriage that member David A. Catania (I-At Large) plans to introduce. The council has 13 members, and 10 are co-authors of the legislation.

Robert McCartney on Same-Sex Marriage and Racial Lines in the District

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, September 20, 2009

As the D.C. government prepares to legalize same-sex marriage, some supporters fret that the issue could divide the city along racial lines. It probably won't happen, because gay rights activists in the District have built a potent, biracial political bloc that seems set to drive the bill to passage easily in coming months. The real threat to same-sex marriage here will be conservatives in Congress trying to meddle in what should be a matter for the District to decide on its own.

Nevertheless, it's an intriguing fact, acknowledged by both sides, that blacks in the District overall oppose same-sex marriage while whites support it. Why is that so? And should African Americans, who battled so long for civil rights for themselves, be natural allies of gay people seeking such rights today? The answers cast light on the intersection of racial , gender and class politics in the city.

The issue is sure to attract lots of attention in our region and beyond. The District is poised to become the first jurisdiction south of the Mason-Dixon line to allow same-sex marriage. Approval would accelerate efforts to legalize it in Maryland as well.

A poll conducted in May for same-sex marriage supporters found that whites in the District back same-sex marriage by more than 8 to 1, while blacks were against it 48 percent to 34 percent. Results of the survey, done by the Feldman Group, were provided by D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who's leading the campaign for same-sex marriage in the District.

The poll showed the city as a whole supported same-sex marriage by 54 percent to 34 percent. Even though the city is majority black, the huge margin of support from the white community made the difference.

Discussion of this issue often focuses on why blacks are against same-sex marriage. African Americans in the city are overwhelmingly Democratic and liberal on economic issues. But they're pretty diverse when it comes to social and cultural attitudes. Washington's black population has long included a sizable religious community with conservative social views, especially among older people.

The sharp differences between religious and secular blacks were evident in interviews Friday morning in front of the Neighborhood Market food store on Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast Washington.

Ulysses Marshall, 56, a deacon in a Baptist church in Northeast, said "it's perpetrating a fraud" against God for a same-sex couple to marry. "They're sinners. They should burn."

Moments later, Darlene Carroll, 26, a secretary, said the opposite. "I have a girlfriend," she said. "Why should we have to travel several states away to get a license?"

The fact is that the range of attitudes about same-sex marriage among blacks in the District is fairly typical of African Americans nationwide. What's really unusual about the District is the level of backing for same-sex marriage among whites.

The poll cited by Catania showed white support at 83 percent, compared with 10 percent opposed. Nationwide, approval among whites is 48 percent versus 46 percent against, a gap that is statistically insignificant, according to a Washington Post poll conducted in April.

Why the difference? The District's white population is more secular, liberal and better-educated than the rest of the country. Some surveys have suggested that educational level is the most reliable predictor of attitudes on same-sex marriage, with more-educated people being more likely to support it.

Within the black and gay communities, there's discussion of whether the gay rights campaign is similar to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Some black people view the comparison as maddening.

"You see privileged white [gay] males in many situations trying to tell an underprivileged black single mother: My pain compared to your pain. That doesn't connect," Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville and leader of the anti-gay marriage campaign in the District, said.

However, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District's non-voting delegate in the U.S. House, said gay peoples' experience of discrimination is compelling to African Americans in the same way that prejudice against other groups is.

"The reason we speak about Hispanics and women, their very different experience nevertheless resonates with us [black people]. The very different experience of the gay community resonates with me because I am an advocate and strong supporter of universal human rights," Norton said.

In any case, the trend within the black community is toward tolerance. The May survey found that District blacks favored same-sex civil unions, with the legal rights of marriage, by 52 percent to 36 percent.

Catania, who is gay and white, has tried to defuse the racial issue by assembling a broad coalition to support same-sex marriage. Ten of the 13 members of the D.C. Council are co-authors of the same-sex marriage bill he'll introduce soon, including four of the body's seven black members. The city's black mayor is on board, and supporters think the courts are likely to continue to reject efforts to force a citywide referendum on the issue.

That means the issue ultimately will be decided by Congress. Race will be only a sideshow there, and the city's right to determine its own affairs will take center stage.

That Pesky Constitution

On a separate issue, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton is unhappy with her colleagues at the other end of the Capitol building. "I don't know what got into the framers that they created the Senate. They are the bane of our existence," she said at a town hall meeting on health care Tuesday. She's unhappy with the other chamber because she thinks it's killed the public option and blocked D.C. voting rights, among other sins.

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