The Continued Fight for Gay Rights in D.C.

This morning, Angelisa Young and Sinjoyla Townsend were the first couple to legally get married in the nation's capital. At 1 p.m. the pair was still giving interviews to the press outside the Human Rights Campaign building, fielding questions about who made Angelisa's dress (a friend who works at Howard University) and how they intended to celebrate (sleep). What struck me about them was how ordinarily they portrayed their lives -- and how meaningful it was to have their 12-year-long relationship "official." In a sense, that's been the goal of the gay-rights movement all along: to live ordinary lives with the implicit support of our communities behind us.

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Today's a day to celebrate, though perhaps guardedly. Harry Jackson's appeal to the Supreme Court to stop marriage equality from going into effect before a citywide referendum might have been denied, but there are still a few ways gays could be stripped of marriage rights:

1. The initiative process. Now that marriage equality is in place, its opponents can turn to the initiative process, which lets voters amend existing city law (as opposed to stopping it from going into effect via a referendum). As with the referendum, the D.C. Board of Elections ruled in September that having a citywide initiative on marriage would put human rights to a vote in violation of the D.C. Human Rights Act. Anti-marriage activists sued the city, saying that the D.C. charter confers the right to vote on any matter, but lost in the trial court.

The case is scheduled to be heard in the D.C. Court of Appeals in May and is expected to fail there too, but some have speculated that if the Supreme Court -- which for D.C. functions as a federal appeals court -- gets involved, marriage equality could end up being put to a vote. In Chief Justice John Robert's decision denying Jackson's request to stop the law from going into effect, he said the argument that the city's charter guaranteed the right to vote on the matter "has some force" and that the initiative process was still available to Jackson and his cohorts. Even though polls indicate 6 in 10 Washingtonians support marriage equality, given the success of the fear-mongering tactics by groups like the National Organization for Marriage, that's still too close for comfort.

2. Congressional appropriations. Chris Geidner at Metro Weekly notes that Congress, which failed to act during the mandatory 30-day review period for local laws, could refuse to fund the new law when it sets D.C.'s budget. This appears not to be a problem in the House, where D.C. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton has assured she has "found a way to keep [it] from coming up in the House appropriations process." But things are less clear in the Senate, where members can offer amendments on the Senate floor.

For better or worse, the initiative process is up to the courts now, but gay-rights supporters have more direct say in what their legislators do. As many others have noted, the momentum of today's victory should inspire grass-roots activism across the nation.

--Gabriel Arana

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