Marion's Moral Compass

In early may, after the District of Columbia Council announced it would recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, former Mayor and current Ward 8 Council-member Marion Barry addressed a small crowd of protesters in Freedom Plaza.

"I am a politician who is moral," Barry declared. "Living morally means standing on the moral compass of God."

Some local residents were understandably shocked by his statements, perhaps wondering how Barry's moral compass had become so demagnetized that it pointed him toward four divorces and a dramatic arrest for smoking crack cocaine with an undercover cop he thought was a prostitute. (Maybe the compass set him up?) Barry told reporters that he thought at least 70 percent of his constituents were against marriage equality. "All hell is going to break lose," Barry said. "The black community is just adamant against this."

Barry had long been a supporter of gay rights, but recently he has made common cause with the movement to oppose same-sex marriage. (Local religious leaders at the Freedom Plaza rally referred to homosexuality as "diabolical social habits" and "perverted social instincts.") Of course, Barry isn't the first philandering big city mayor to find God in his internal polling. Rudy Giuliani, who once had a long record of support for gay rights and whose various marital infidelities and stint as a drag queen are immortalized on YouTube, reversed himself on gay marriage prior to his failed presidential run in 2008.

Two weeks after Barry declared his morality in Freedom Plaza, Philip Pannell, a Democratic Party committee-man for Ward 8, found himself preparing to make the case for gay marriage to his ward's residents, who are mostly black, working-class, and if you believe their councilman, adamantly against gay marriage. Pannell stood anxiously outside the Washington Highlands Public Library, where the Ward 8 Democrats would vote on a resolution expressing support for allowing same-sex marriages to be performed in the District.

Pannell got his start in politics in 1983, when he was hired by then-Mayor Barry despite the fact that he was openly gay. That's why he was devastated to read Barry's statement warning that same-sex marriage would lead to "civil war" in the District. "My heart just sunk," Pannell said. "I felt disappointment, betrayal." But he didn't have a chance to confront Barry on the issue at the Ward 8 Democrats meeting, because Barry didn't bother to show up, citing medical reasons.

The meeting itself turned out to be less like a civil war and more like a Thanksgiving dinner with relatives who get on each others' nerves, punctuated with heated but polite arguments and belly laughs at jokes from both sides. When Pannell, voice trembling, accidentally referred to Ward 8 as Ward 4 while introducing the resolution, the audience chuckled and gently corrected him. The room was full, but few actual Ward 8 residents were in attendance; many of the attendees were gay-rights activists and supporters. Pannell, who grew up attending segregated schools in Newport News, Virginia, had written the resolution with a vague reference to the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, urging the City Council to adopt marriage equality "with all deliberate speed."

The panel set to debate the resolution was made up of two gay-marriage supporters (Pannell and the Rev. Dennis Wiley, who has performed two same-sex marriage ceremonies at his church) and one opponent -- the Rev. Patrick Walker of the Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference. Walker, a tall, gentle man in a three-piece blue suit and flashy cufflinks, had a rough time of it. He wasn't only outnumbered on the panel; he was outnumbered in the audience. He had the difficult task of explaining to a room full of gay-rights activists that his opposition to marriage wasn't rooted in bigotry.

"When I went to Petworth Elementary School, as a part of learning the English language I was taught vocabulary words; one of the words was marriage," Walker said. "The definition was husband and wife, man and woman, in a loving relationship ... for hundreds of years that has been the traditional definition of marriage." In case that point was lost on the audience, he used Barry's favorite buzzword. "To redefine marriage," Walker argued, would mean D.C. "would no longer have, if you will, a moral compass."

Walker and Barry aren't the only ones with a moral compass, however. "The word of God is my moral compass as well," Wiley said, rebutting Walker. (Unlike actual compasses, moral compasses don't all point the same way.) Walker proposed putting the same-sex marriage resolution to a citywide referendum. Wiley disagreed: "We would be in serious trouble if, as slaves, our freedom was put to a referendum."

Walker, peppered with pointed questions from gay-rights activists and his fellow panelists, seemed to grow more and more frustrated, as did some of his supporters in the audience. A former school administrator, Calvin Lockridge, demanded to speak for the opposition in Barry's absence. "There's no such thing as civil marriage; that's camouflage. That's giving a false impression of what marriage is all about," Lockridge said. "You can have a civil union. You can have a same-sex union, but to try to camouflage a word like marriage that has such meaning is very dishonest." Pannell insisted that he was using "civil marriage" because it was the term used in the government brochure on marriage, which he then helpfully produced.

In his closing statement to the audience, Pannell recounted his argument with Barry over the statements he had made to reporters. "He said [gay marriage] didn't matter because there were only a handful of gays in Ward 8 anyway. And I asked him if he had counted all of them -- because I really didn't know what constitutes a handful of gays."

"Think about it!" came a reply from the audience.

Pannell continued, "I said he's jumped the broom four times -- would he at least give me a chance to do it once?"

The Ward 8 Democrats, ground zero for the impending civil war over marriage, then voted 21-11 in favor of marriage equality. Subsequently, anti-gay-marriage activists did file a request for a citywide referendum on recognizing out-of-state same-sex marriages. But the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics turned them down because the District doesn't allow laws that would "interfere with basic civil and human rights" to be put to a vote. The great irony? The 1978 amendment establishing that rule was offered by none other than Marion Barry, who was, without a doubt, just following his moral compass.

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