I was at the Washington Highlands Public Library in Ward 8 this weekend, where the Ward 8 Democrats voted 21 to 11 to support a resolution calling for same-sex marriage in the District. Ward 8 is represented by Marion Barry, the former civil-rights activist and mayor of D.C. who recently warned of "civil war" in the District over gay marriage. Ward 8 is, as of 10 years ago, 93 percent black. Because of the nationwide perception in the wake of Prop. 8 that black people are more opposed to marriage equality than whites, Ward 8 was seen as a kind of litmus test for the District.
Despite his fiery rhetoric over the issue, Barry wasn't present; the president of the Ward 8 Democrats, Sandy Allen, said it was for health reasons. (She had to explain this twice, the second time because the audience kept heckling Barry in absentia for not being there.) There were about a hundred people there -- but only a handful were from Ward 8, and many non-residents were pro-marriage-equality activists, a fact that caused some visible resentment among some people in the audience.
The panel featured two pastors: one, the Rev. Dennis Wiley, who supported gay marriage and has performed same-sex marriages in his church, and one, the Rev. Patrick J. Walker, who was opposed. The panel also featured Ward 8 committeeman Philip Pannell, who is openly gay and was hired by Barry in the 1980s. At one moment, Panell recounted, telling Barry that since he had "jumped the broom four times, maybe he could give me a chance to do it once." The audience cracked up. Barry, with his four marriages, would be an unlikely defender of the "sanctity" of marriage if only the ranks of such people weren't filled with names like David Vitter and Newt Gingrich. The language of the resolution, which urged the D.C. City Council to adopt marriage equality with "all deliberate speed," was a subtle nod to the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.
There is some considerable euphoria over the result of the Ward 8 vote, which I would caution people against embracing. The panel was noticeably lopsided. A 76-year old former school administrator named Calvin Lockridge stood up and demanded to speak on the grounds that the panel was unbalanced in favor of marriage equality (because Barry hadn't shown). Lockridge's speech led to the introduction of a second resolution to table the first until Ward 8 residents could be better "informed" on the issue. Curiously, more people voted in that resolution, which failed because it tied 19-19. Most of those who voted to table seemed supportive of a citywide referendum on the issue. Going forward, this will be the goal of those who oppose gay marriage.
I would say that it's very early to draw too many conclusions from the results in Ward 8. The marriage equality resolution passed in large part because the people who really cared about the issue showed up, and those people were in favor. Thirty-two people can hardly be seen as an accurate representation of views in Ward 8, which has a population of 70,000 people. Polling suggests that in a citywide referendum, supporters of marriage equality would be facing an uphill battle, which is precisely why opponents support a referendum and gay-rights advocates oppose one. At the same time, I think polling on the subject has largely overstated the intensity of black opposition to marriage equality in D.C: My theory is that if gay marriage was legalized, no one would care. But if it were put to a vote, the result would be very close. That's because while black people tend to be more opposed to gay marriage, it's not an identity-defining issue in the same way it is for white folks in the religious right. The memory of institutionalized oppression creates doubt where in others there might be religious certainty.
I think black voters, particularly in D.C., are malleable on this issue. (We did, after all, have domestic partnership laws "before it was cool"). The line that got the most applause during the entire meeting was the Rev. Wiley's declaration that "we would be in serious trouble if, as slaves, our freedom was put to a referendum." But that's just what might happen, and if gay-rights activists drop the ball in reaching out to the black community like they did in California, they'll lose.
-- A. Serwer