Same-sex marriage in D.C. follows advocates' long fight

By Ann E. Marimow
Thursday, March 4, 2010

In a city with two openly gay council members, a powerful gay rights lobby and one of the highest proportions of same-sex couples living together in the nation, the question in recent years was not whether gay couples would be able to marry in the District but when.

"The vote was never in doubt," said Peter D. Rosenstein, one of the founders of the Campaign for All DC Families, which supports same-sex marriage. "The issue was when was the time to ring that bell."

The 151 couples lined up to apply for marriage licenses on the fourth floor of the D.C. Superior Court on Wednesday marked the culmination of a more than three-decade fight.

Timing was critical because the District's laws are subject to congressional approval. For years, with a Republican in the White House or a GOP-controlled Congress, advocates held back, watching as five states from Massachusetts to Iowa allowed same-sex couples to marry.

"To push too far, too fast would have created a backlash that would have been hard to overcome," said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who initiated many measures to add rights for domestic partners.

Advocates employed an incremental strategy, quietly stacking up rights and responsibilities for same-sex couples to avoid soliciting an outcry from Congress. When the time was right, moving from domestic partnerships to marriage would not be a "big leap, just the next logical step," said Richard J. Rosendall, a former president of Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, D.C.

The go-slow approach was shaped by experience. For a decade, Congress blocked funding to implement the city's domestic partnership law passed in 1992, allowing it to take effect in 2002. Likewise for the sodomy ban, repealed by the council in 1981 but overturned by Congress and not ended until 1993.

When Bob Summersgill, another past president of GLAA, became active in the city's gay rights movement in 1999, he said, the domestic partnership law was largely symbolic.

For the next decade, Summersgill and other advocates pushed the council to sign off on a series of additional rights, large and small, that included tax and inheritance benefits and the changing of gender-specific references in law such as husband and wife to spouse and domestic partner.

Soon after President Obama was elected in 2008, council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) saw an opening to take what he called the "necessarily bold" last steps. With Democratic majorities in Congress, Catania, who is gay, thought the marriage measure's chances were best before the 2010 election cycle or near the end of Obama's first term.

Catania started meeting with advocates in December 2008 about introducing same-sex marriage legislation but initially agreed to hold off so as not to interfere with the District's effort in Congress to gain voting rights in the House of Representatives. By last March, Catania and Mendelson were working to modify legislation that would have recognized same-sex couples married in other states as domestic partners to instead validate couples as "married." The recognition bill was essentially to test congressional reaction.

"It was time to get out of our comfort zone to take a risk," Catania said. "This could have turned out differently."

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