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On Oct. 18, 1982, Marion Barry arrived in the ballroom of a midtown Manhattan Sheraton, site of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund’s seventh annual awards dinner, to a hero’s welcome. Barry’s appearance among three honorees—one was the country’s first openly lesbian judge—was an expression of mutual gratitude between the national gay elite and one of the few major political figures it considered an unwavering ally. Washington’s increasingly assertive gay community had been credited with helping swing the 1978 mayoral election to Barry, and four years later had remained loyal as he cruised to re-election. Weeks after winning the Democratic primary that would guarantee his second term, Barry watched as a Lambda board member heralded the mayor for having named nearly 40 gays and lesbians to the District’s boards and commissions. “Gays are more fully integrated into the political life of our city than anywhere else,” Barry boasted in response.
Barry was seen as something of the Cory Booker of his day—a next-generation progressive heroically transcending tribal machine politics—and it was on gay rights more than anything else that he built his profile among white liberals outside the District. (A few years later, the Human Rights Campaign Fund invited Barry to keynote a banquet in Boston.) Barry was celebrated for aggressively enforcing the city’s Human Rights Act, which had passed in 1977 while he was a councilmember and made the District one of the first municipalities anywhere to explicitly bar discrimination against gays and lesbians for housing, employment, and public accommodations. “Some people claim that San Francisco is the capital city for gays,” Barry said in a Pride Day speech in 1981. “Well, we’re going to change that and make Washington, D.C. number one.” In its citation justifying Barry’s award, Lambda claimed that “judging what he has accomplished in his first four-year term, that just may come to pass.”
If that has indeed transpired over the past three decades, Barry no longer deserves much credit. In his return to the D.C. Council, Barry has rediscovered an anachronistic stridency about sexual orientation. It’s made him an unusual outlier in a country that has moved rapidly towards acceptance of homosexuality, including majorities favoring same-sex marriage. In 2009, he offered one of just two votes against D.C.’s marriage equality law, along with a threat of “civil war” from his Ward 8 base. Barry’s rightward migration is notable. He may be the country’s only prominent political figure to (using President Barack Obama’s favored Darwinian metaphor) devolve on the issue of gay rights. Last year, that resistance seemed to soften when councilmembers were granted permanent credentials to officiate weddings, and Barry said he was ready to use his newfound power to enshrine a gay couple. But he remains more likely to be defined by his 2009 prediction that “all hell is going to break loose,” the words of a man more at ease imagining himself as a minority’s prophetic voice than just one more amen affirming a majority he helped to make.