Controversy Brews Around National Equality March

It's been a months-long battle of contentious town hall meetings, a congressional review period and clashes with black church leaders; mayor-for-life Marion Barry even declared a "civil war." But compared to California, Washington, D.C. just hasn't gotten much national press on its gay marriage squabbles.

In July, the city council voted 12 to 1 to recognize gay marriages performed in other countries and states, and it's expected to consider a bill allowing unions as early as next month. This follows months of slow and steady bridge-building by local advocates to churches and the African-American community -- key demographics that helped pass California's Proposition 8 last October, banning gay marriage in the liberal state.

But on Oct. 11, this conservative, measured progress will collide with the National Equality March, a hastily organized gathering of gay-rights supporters on the National Mall. The march, announced just 6 months ago by Harvey Milk protégé and AIDS quilt founder Cleve Jones -- has garnered criticism in the gay blogosphere, slammed as a vanity project for Jones and a distraction from state-level gay marriage initiatives in Maine and Washington state. And D.C. advocates are asking why local organizers were not asked to the table so close to the city's own marriage-rights battle.

The march's stated intent is rather opaque: its "single demand" is "equal protection in all matters governed by civil law in all 50 states." Try singing that on a cross-country bus to Washington. But march co-organizer Kip Williams insists that this broad message is bolder than the "piecemeal" state-by-state strategy that marriage advocates have been focused on.

"This isn't another giant affair that is just listing off a laundry list of items that we want to get through, and that ultimately may or may not have any direct impact on the way things are done in Congress," he says. "We want full federal protection ... and since there's not one piece of legislation that would mandate that, we can do all our work as public education."

This is a frustrating spin for local marriage-equality advocates like Michael Crawford, co-chair of the group D.C. for Marriage.

"One would think that marriage would be part of that general request for equality," he says. "They are organizing an event in D.C., and we just happen to be the people who live here."

Until recently, critics of the march included leading voices in the LGBT community, including The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, commentator Michelangelo Signorile and power bloggers Pam Spaulding and Bilerco's Bil Browning. However, as Oct. 11 approaches, many have added their names to a list of 140 supporters who endorse the march, offering some much-needed credibility.

March organizers point out that a number of clergy have signed on and that NAACP board chairman Julian Bond has also made a personal endorsement, lending the effort its most visible African-American representation. But some say the main reason behind such increasing support is the simple need to avoid an embarrassing public PR failure just as legal recognition of gay unions are finding a margin of public support.

Williams calls the march "an opportunity to take the movement to the next level." But to advocates like Crawford, the next level is getting a marriage bill safely through the D.C. city council and the required congressional review while avoiding the Prop 8-style referendum local conservative church leaders and national opponents have vowed to bring in coming months. While straw polls around the recognition bill this summer and a recent survey by the Human Rights Campaign indicated that a public vote on same-sex marriage could pass, many are reluctant to risk a Prop 8 redux without a careful outreach strategy in the majority African-American city.

Meanwhile, Crawford's group has organized its own marriage-rights outreach event the weekend of the march, and has scheduled convocation this week with black gay-rights and faith leaders featuring Rev. Eric Lee of the California chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization instrumental in the early civil rights movement and the 1963 march on Washington.

"People only think of D.C. as the city where Congress and the president happen to be," says Crawford. "They don't think of D.C. as having a local LGBT community that's done a lot of work and is on the cusp of winning marriage equality, or how this might impact our efforts here. And we are close."

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Shauna Miller is senior associate editor at CityLab. 

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