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Robert McCartney: D.C. gives gays their first-class due

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, March 7, 2010; C01

To celebrate the legalization of same-sex marriage in the District, I asked two local influential gay-rights advocates what the event meant to them and what needs to happen next to push forward the movement for full equality in our region.

The two were from very different generations, and I discovered that their histories illustrate how much gay people's position in American society has already changed.

Frank Kameny, 84, of Northwest is a founding father of the gay rights movement, at the level of a Thomas Jefferson or John Adams. Fired from the Army Map Service in 1957 for being gay, he founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, a groundbreaking activist group. He coined the slogan "Gay is good" and forced the American Psychiatric Association to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental illness.

Kameny was an in-your-face militant. He picketed the White House, breaking with what he called the "bland and apologetic" tactics of gay activists who preceded him. Once, as a guest on an Alexandria radio program, he solicited sex from all listeners, especially police chiefs and prosecutors, while trying to create a legal test case to challenge Virginia's anti-sodomy law.

The life of advocacy has led to personal triumph. The Library of Congress was thrilled to get his 77,000 pages of papers and memorabilia in 2006. He's on a first-name basis with President Obama. And last year, the federal government formally apologized for dismissing him 52 years earlier.

"It's like a storybook ending," he said as he sat in the living room of the house where he lives alone in the Palisades neighborhood. Although bald and forced by age to walk in what he laughingly calls "little old-man steps," he still speaks forcefully in a rich voice and recalls even small details about the movement's history.

By contrast, Rich Madaleno, 44, of Kensington is as establishment as they come. As a Maryland state senator, equal rights for gay people is just one of the causes he pushes. That's a sign of progress, and he credits Kameny's generation.

"If you ask my colleagues, my reputation is I'm the budget geek," Madaleno said. "It's because of people like Frank that people like me have the chance not to be the gay senator, but the senator who happens to be gay."

When he's not legislating, Madaleno's at home being a father to two adopted children, aged 6 and 3, whom he's raising with his partner. They consider themselves married after having a religious ceremony in 2001 at a Unitarian church. The state of Maryland doesn't recognize that union -- yet. Madaleno is a leading sponsor of a bill in Annapolis to change that.

Kameny and Madaleno said the legalization of same-sex marriage in the District is important especially because it improves public perceptions of gay people. It's not just the granting of equal legal rights and responsibilities. It's the weakening of the idea that they are separate, lesser, threatening.

"This is going to accelerate the trend of the last number of years of gays to become open and out and visible," Kameny said. "It helps to create the impact of first-class citizenship and first-class status."

He was thrilled to see a color photograph of two men kissing at the top of the front page of Thursday's Post, a day after the city began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Prominent display for such a photo "would have been inconceivable even 10 years ago," Kameny said.

Madaleno said the marriages would help "normalize our relationships" in the eyes of straights. "People will start to see that this really is just like my marriage. 'Wow, they argue about money.' 'They bicker about who does the chores in the house,' " he said.

Looking to the future, the next step is to win the battle in Maryland for same-sex marriage. There's no hope for progress right now in Virginia, which amended its state constitution to define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.

Madaleno said two key objectives in Maryland were persuading Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) to join the effort and building support among African American voters, especially in Prince George's County. "I think we have to do a lot of the hard work in Maryland that people have done in the District of Columbia, and that's reach out and build allies in the African American community."

He and Kameny turned a bit defensive when I asked what to make of the regrettable fact that voters have rejected same-sex marriage in every state where it's been put to a referendum. The only silver lining there is that the margins of defeat have narrowed over time.

True to his past, Kameny said the proper response was to be more forceful and affirmative. For instance, in the highly publicized 2008 ballot initiative in which California voters rejected same-sex marriage, he said, gay-marriage supporters relied too much on abstract arguments during the campaign. Instead, they should have shown the public more examples of affectionate people who wanted to wed. "If you have a real loving couple, it's very hard to criticize," Kameny said.

We'll be seeing more of such couples in the District, and maybe in Maryland as well, before too long.

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