Gay Washington's political clout was certified in 1978 when gays contributed money and volunteer campaign staff to help Marion Barry win a narrow victory in the Democratic primary for mayor.
As the '82 primary approaches, one homosexual group already has endorsed Barry, giving him $2,000 and the promise of volunteer campaign staff. But this time there are questions about exactly what official gay support for Barry or any candidate means. Will gay voters follow the leadership of gay groups and line up behind one candidate again as they appeared to do in 1978 when Barry was the only candidate openly supportive of gay rights?
The political atmosphere around the gay rights issue has changed since 1978, when city politicians were unsure whether openly supporting gay rights would cost them more votes than it would win them. Barry's election proved what gay voters could do when a large segment of them voted for a candidate. The same election, some say, also showed what could happen when gays vote against a candidate. Douglas Moore, the former City Council member, who ran for council chairman in 1978, attracted many gays to the polls to vote against him because of his strident anti-homosexual position.
This year, the mayor's race has a field of candidates who have records of supporting gay rights. Now, gays have as many options as any other voter.
"In 1978 an awful lot of things happened that I'm not convinced are going to happen this time," said Steve Martz, managing editor of the Washington Blade, one of the city's gay newspapers. "For one, Barry was really the only good candidate on gay issues last time. This time every candidate is saying the same thing. They all support gay rights so everyone is going to get some of the vote."
And the gay community has changed. In 1978, gays organized around the political issue of gay rights in the District. Barry's endorsement by gay groups helped him make inroads into downtown neighborhoods, where gays are among the young whites and blacks buying and renovating homes. Barry won the three downtown wards--Wards 1, 2, and 6--in 1978. In many ways, gays have won some of the major objectives they had four years ago. Now gays are organizing around other issues--not just gay rights.
Jeff Levi, president of the Gay Activist Alliance, said:
"The reason gay people won't all vote alike this year is really as a result of our success. . . . We know every candidate is going to work with us. . . . Unless there is some backlash on gay rights here, there won't be the need for us to come back to that issue as a voting bloc."
Within the gay community, as in the community at large, gays differ on what issues are more important to them.
Black and white gay leaders, for example, agree that there are far more black gays in the District than white gays. But black gays, they say, are far less public in their political involvement than white gays who participate in the established gay clubs, and it is difficult to determine how important gay rights are to black gays.
Black gays are less public, according to Ray Melrose, president of the D.C. Coaliton of Black Gays, because black gays, more often than white gays, have families and friends here to face when they become politically active on gay rights. Often, Melrose said, black homosexuals identify themselves as black people when they enter the voting booth with their homosexuality being a secondary concern.
"Our interests are more varied than the mostly white and gay Gertrude Stein Democratic Club ," Melrose said. "We're concerned with crime in the streets and other issues. In terms of gay rights, the mayor has been more than adequate. I couldn't say that about the way he's handled some other issues of equal import to someone who is black, who lives in Washington and cares about how the community is faring and who may be gay . . . it matters how the water bills are handled, how poor people are cared for. We're certainly not lining up as a whole behind the mayor."
"I was at this party on Corcoran Street with other gays, mostly white, and they were talking about how to hurry up what they call improving the neighborhood," he said. "Now when you have people coming and buying up the houses, changing the neighborhood around, that means displacing black families. That's a real concern for me. I don't know if it is for white gays."
With the increasingly varied interests of gays, how valuable is a gay group's endorsement based only on a candidate's support of gay rights?
Tom Chorlton, of the Stein club, said the tangible aspect of his group's endorsement is the financial contribution and volunteer workers for Barry's phone banks. When the club, which is overwhelmingly white and male, endorsed Barry, the endorsement was based on votes from less than 100 members.
But the Stein club endorsement has carried with it a great deal of influence in the gay community beyond the group's membership. How much influence it will carry this time seems open to debate.
"We're part of the city now," said Chorlton. "We can talk to the mayor, but also the city council, present our case, invite them to our events. That's made us able to look at more issues, to be diverse and there's great strength in diversity for us. You've also got to remember that while we were solid for Barry last time there were some blacks gays with Sterling Tucker. We didn't march in goose step last time. I think that will be much more so the case this time and it's to our advantage."