By Ann E. Marimow
Thursday, March 4, 2010; A04
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 Likewise for the sodomy ban, repealed by the council in 1981 but overturned by Congress and not ended until 1993.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."
Until the recognition bill passed in the spring, advocates said, there was a separate but equal system. All the legal rights and responsibilities were there but not the word marriage or the social status that accompanies the institution. In December, the council voted 11 to 2 to allow gay couples to marry.
"The status and the word matter as much as all the legal rights and responsibilities," Summersgill said. "We all understand marriage."
Critical to their success, advocates said, was the diversity and depth of their network, which included a coalition of nearly 200 religious leaders. The group DC Clergy United for Marriage Equality, for instance, was led by Dennis W. and Christine Y. Wiley, co-pastors at Covenant Baptist Church, a black congregation in Ward 8. The group testified at hearings, held news conferences and presented a competing religious perspective.
Opponents, led by Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, tried to block the law from taking effect by seeking a public vote on same-sex marriage. The group Stand4MarriageDC has raised nearly $200,000, according to campaign finance records, with donations from national groups such as the Family Research Council and the National Organization for Marriage.
But the courts have so far upheld the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics rulings that city laws prohibit ballot measures that would discriminate against gay men and lesbians. The board's decision was based on District law that evolved through early gay rights activism. In 1978, the council banned ballot questions that could conflict with the city's human rights law, which protects gays and other minorities. By that time, gay rights organizations were hosting forums, rating and endorsing candidates.
Even as same-sex couples prepared to collect their official marriage licenses on Tuesday, opponents of gay marriage in Congress could still intervene by trying to block spending by the District to implement the law as part of the appropriations process this spring.
But Robert Raben, who lobbied lawmakers on behalf of the Campaign for All DC Families, said that the outlook on the Hill for proponents is better than it has been in the past decade and that advocates are "cautiously optimistic that we will be able to fend off attacks on the District's decision."