D.C.'s gay community hopes to wield power in mayor's race

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2010

Fresh off their recent victory to legalize same-sex marriage, gay activists in the District are regrouping to try to remain a potent political force by proving they can still influence the outcome of city elections even as they gain more rights.

Following the D.C. Council's votes on same-sex unions, advocates have been extracting promises from candidates to engage in civil disobedience if Congress overturns the same-sex marriage law and are pushing for additional services for transgender residents, increased funding for HIV prevention, and new anti-bullying and hate-crime laws.

"The community is clearly very elated over its most recent victory," said Kurt Vorndran, a District gay rights activist since the late 1970s. "But there is still work to be done. . . . I don't believe in unilateral political disarmament."

Although same-sex marriage opponents threatened to make the council vote a major issue in this year's election, candidates and strategists said there is little evidence so far that the issue is resonating with voters in a significant way. Five gay candidates -- including two Republicans -- are running for the council this year, and both leading candidates for council chairman have endorsed same-sex nuptials.

Gay rights leaders, many of whom are celebrating at Capital Pride events this weekend, said their immediate focus will be the mayor's race between incumbent Adrian M. Fenty and Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, two Democrats who played pivotal role in approving same-sex marriage and who marched in Saturday's parade. In what's expected to be a tight mayoral contest, whoever succeeds in locking in the support of the gay and lesbian community may have the advantage on primary day. Because Fenty and Gray have similar positions on gay and lesbian issues, it could boil down to personalities.

Estimated by political strategists to make up 10 to 20 percent of the city's electorate in the Democratic primary, gay men and lesbians have played a major role in city elections since 1978, when their votes were widely credited with giving now-council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) the margin he needed to prevail in a three-way race for mayor.

Mixed reviews

After Fenty became the only leading mayoral candidate in 2006 to endorse same-sex marriage, gay voters flocked to his candidacy, according to election results from precincts with high concentrations of gay voters. But despite his support of the law, Fenty has yet to solidify the community's backing this year.

"The community is probably pretty divided," said Richard J. Rosendall, vice president for political affairs for the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance. "Fenty has done some things that are good, but the main criticism is his sense of style and aloofness and arrogance."

Gay rights activists have sparred with the Fenty administration in recent years over Police Chief Cathy Lanier's efforts to reorganize the department's Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, and this spring, they criticized the mayor's decision to issue a certificate honoring the director of a group that thinks homosexuality can be treated with psychotherapy. Although Fenty apologized, the dust-up reflected an effort by some gay advocates to be more aggressive in holding city leaders accountable.

"Very few people have the bully pulpit that the mayor of Washington, D.C., has," said Peter Rosenstein, a gay rights activist who supported Fenty in 2006. "Adrian has that, and Adrian hasn't used it on any of our issues, and I think very often the gay community wants to see someone use that."

Many activists say Gray deserves credit for getting the marriage bill through the council, but Fenty delivered a passionate speech at a bill-signing ceremony in December equating the struggle for same-sex marriage to the challenges his parents faced as an interracial couple in the 1960s.

In an interview last week after renaming parts of 17th Street NW for veteran gay rights leader Frank E. Kameny, Fenty defended his record on gay issues. "The marriage equality bill was a huge step for the city, and we will continue to do everything we can to make sure not only the GLBT community, but anyone who may have been marginalized in society, feels like the District government and the city are for them," he said.

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