We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
On Jan. 2, the District government got a new mayor, a new attorney general, and three new councilmembers. It also got a lot less gay.
The D.C. Council lost its first openly gay member, David Catania, who gave up his seat to run unsuccessfully for mayor. Gone too was Jim Graham, the longtime Ward 1 councilmember ousted in a primary.
For the first time in 18 years, the Council doesn’t have any out members in a city where an estimated 10 percent of the population identifies as LGBTQ.
Perhaps surprisingly, though, the District’s LGBTQ community doesn’t really mind. Blame it on the long list of gay goals already accomplished in the District or the straight ally councilmembers, but most of the people LL talked to weren’t particularly incensed about the lack of representation on the dais.
“The gay councilmembers were never our go-to people on gay issues,” says Bob Summersgill, a former president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance.
Instead, activists list some of the Council’s straight members as their most critical allies on gay-friendly legislation. There’s Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who pushed for a repeal of the District’s sodomy statute in the early 1990s, a position he says inspired people to call him “the first gay councilmember.”
For LGBTQ advocates, committee assignments matter more than sexual orientation, especially the chairmanship of the Council’s judiciary and public safety committee.
That made then At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson critical as activists pushed for gay marriage in 2009.
“We didn’t have to persuade him of our strategy on marriage equality,” says Rick Rosendall, GLAA’s current president.
Not that straight councilmembers have much choice if they want to stay in office, thanks to gay-friendly voters. The District’s gay marriage bill passed with opposition from only two out of the thirteen councilmembers. One of them was Marion Barry, who before his death last year was looking for a gay wedding to officiate.
Before every election, the GLAA ranks politicians on a scale of negative-ten to plus-ten, but almost no one gets a bad score for actually holding anti-gay positions. Instead, it’s usually because their effusive survey answers weren’t long enough.
Other, more structural elements of the District’s government make it easier for LGBTQ activists to succeed even without gay councilmembers in the Wilson Building. For example, the Council’s small size and unicameral legislature, as compared to huge state legislatures, makes it easier for activists to pressure and lobby the baker’s dozen of pols who vote on bills.
“Fortunately, there are enough LGBT voters to keep their feet in the fire if something comes up,” says Earl Fowlkes, the president of the LGBTQ-focused Gertrude Stein Democratic Club.
Activists point to a few decades of major post-Home Rule accomplishments for the District’s LGBTQ community: the 1989 hate crime law, the sodomy repeal in 1993, and the District’s first gay marriage in 2010. With those issues out of the way, the focus is now on less flashy fights, like better HIV response and housing for homeless LGBTQ youth. Rosendall, for example, is worried about LGBTQ jurors being removed from cases during jury selection.
“They’re largely little items that don’t make any news, but help set the tone,” Summersgill says.
Graham, now organizing gay strip club shows in his post-Council life, doesn’t buy the idea that gay councilmembers don’t make a difference.
“Anybody who says it doesn’t matter is just pure balderdash,” Graham says. “Ask Harvey Milk.”
Graham blames the idea that the LGBTQ community doesn’t need its own councilmember in part on people who wanted him ousted last year. Without a gay member of the Council, Graham says, the community lacks someone with personal experience of their issues.
“Again and again I found myself trying to speak on behalf of Latinos, because I had so many in my district,” Graham says of his time representing Ward 1. “But it wasn’t the same.”
Next on the agenda for the gay community at the Wilson Building will be legislation from Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen aimed at legalizing surrogacy agreements in the District. With them, LGBTQ couples can more easily become parents; without, couples who make an agreement with a surrogate mother lack legal protection. When the bill was introduced in January, all of the Council’s then-members signed on.
The near-total success of LGBTQ campaigning in the District means that the main issues facing gay residents—education and affordable housing—are shared citywide.
“LGBTQ people face the same challenges that any other District resident would face,” says Courtney Snowden, an openly gay former at-large candidate who’s now Bowser’s deputy mayor for greater economic opportunity.
It’s hard to imagine the Council’s gay drought continuing for long. But Fowlkes can wait.
“It would be nice to have one just for the symbolism,” Fowlkes says. “But in reality we have people elected to public office who really have our interests at heart.”
For Rosendall, the number of out councilmembers belies the community’s power in the Wilson Building.
“Having a seat at the table isn’t just being one of 13 councilmembers,” Rosendall says. “It’s being respected, being consulted, having your concerns be taken seriously, and having a respected voice. It has to be more than just having a person there.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
Click here for more from our 2015 Gay Issue.