Today, Darlene Garner and Candy Holmes are getting married.
Garner and Holmes have been in an on-again-off-again relationship for more than 14 years. When asked why they took so long to realize they were right for each other, Garner and Holmes joked that their relationship is kind of like the movie, It's Complicated. Along with two other African-American couples at the Human Rights Campaign's Equality Center, the mothers of four and grandmothers of seven will finally jump the broom, a full 13 years after Garner first proposed to Holmes.
Holmes and Garner, both clergy in the LGBT-friendly Metropolitan Community Church, have been a family for a long time. But today, Garner says, represents "a public and legal recognition that our love can survive anything. We will spend the rest of our lives together in joy, no matter what might come."
The downtown ceremony at HRC is more than just a celebration of the marriage equality law Fenty signed last December. It's a conscious effort to make D.C.'s black LGBT community a visible presence in a fight for civil rights that has been too often framed as a white issue.
"There's this whole controversy about African Americans; there are no gay African-American couples or what have you," says Reggie Stanley, who will be marrying his partner, Rocky Galloway, at the ceremony tomorrow. Stanley said he and Galloway wanted to participate in the public ceremony because "we felt an obligation to make it clear that yes, we exist; we're like anybody else; we're healthy; we're strong; we're a family."
The image of D.C.'s biracial mayor signing a marriage equality bill inside a church in a mostly black city might seem an unlikely outcome to outsiders. Anti-marriage-equality forces initially saw Washington, D.C., as fertile ground, particularly in the aftermath of California's Proposition 8, where flawed polls overstated the opposition of the black community to same-sex marriage.
The National Organization for Marriage found a point man in Maryland Pastor Bishop Harry Jackson, who, as head of Stand4MarriageDC, could put a black face on an organization usually associated with white conservatives. Alongside local religious groups, like the Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference, Jackson organized against the D.C. City Council's effort to recognize same-sex marriage in D.C., attempting to put the matter to a citywide referendum, a strategy that led to victories all over the country, including California and Maine.
But this strategy ran into a wall in D.C., where LGBT-rights activists had been gearing up for the marriage equality fight since the 1970s. In 1979, following the victory of anti-LGBT candidate Anita Bryant in Florida, the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance—then the Gay Activists Alliance—successfully lobbied to pass a city human rights law that would prohibit discriminatory measures from being put to a referendum. As a result, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics rebuffed every effort anti-equality activists made to put marriage rights to a vote.
Local anti-equality clergy were blindsided by the emergence of D.C. Clergy United for Marriage Equality, a diverse pro-equality group of local religious leaders that included the head of Howard Divinity School. The large black population of D.C. is home to a strong, politically active, black LGBT community that stymied anti-equality activists' efforts to enforce the narrative that marriage equality was being forced on the city's black population by white liberal elites. With a Democratic Congress unwilling to interfere in the city's affairs and a Democratic president equally uninterested in doing so, the time was ripe for the city council to extend marriage rights to the LGBT community.
But the anti-equality faction says this fight isn't over yet. The same human rights law that prevented marriage equality rights from being subject to a show of hands could be overturned in a court challenge. Two weeks ago, the Alliance Defense Fund, the Christian Right legal group founded by James Dobson that is representing Bishop Jackson in his fight to force a citywide vote on marriage in D.C., asked the U.S. Supreme Court for an emergency stay preventing the marriage equality law from taking effect. Chief Justice John Roberts denied the stay—but in his response, he winked at the anti-equality side, suggesting that their argument currently pending before the D.C. Court of Appeals, that the 1979 human rights law violates D.C.'s Home Rule charter, "had some force." "He definitely nodded in our direction," said Timothy Tracey, an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund.
The ADF's argument is that D.C.'s Home Rule Charter lays out specifically what can't be put to a citywide vote by referendum or initiative. The charter doesn't bar discriminatory measures, so the ADF's argument is that the city council is trying to change the charter—which can only be done by a citywide vote. "The D.C. council is unilaterally trying to amend the D.C. Charter, which it can't do on its own, that can only be done by a vote of the people," Tracey says.
Arguments before the D.C. Court of Appeals are set for May, and no matter what the decision, the legal battle over marriage equality in D.C. is bound to go on for a while. It's still possible that D.C. could be the next California—where a brief recognition of marriage rights is followed by those rights taken away by a popular vote.
Marriage equality activists say that even if same-sex marriage is put to a vote in the District, they expect to prevail. They point to a 2006 poll of the city conducted on behalf of the Foundation for All D.C. Families showing the black vote closely divided—with 43 percent of African Americans voting no and 41 percent voting yes.
On the eve of his marriage, Reggie Stanley, who has two baby twin daughters with his partner, Rocky, said that he's not afraid of a citywide initiative taking away their marriage rights: "I was thinking the other day of the saying, the arc of history always bends toward justice. In this case, I think it's the arc of love always bends toward justice."
Adam Serwer is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.