This week, the District of Columbia completed a long journey to full civil equality for its LGBT residents. The images of happy couples leaving the D.C. Superior Courthouse waving their marriage licenses is something that many of us have waited to see for so long.
It was a major cause of celebration and celebrate we did. Part of celebrating always involves a fair share of congratulatory gestures and this has been no exception.
One local resident who deserves much of the credit for this victory is Bob Summersgill. Bob is a quietly intense man who has been the guiding hand of achieving full civil equality for LGBT citizens in the District of Columbia. The amazing thing about his work is that it was done largely during the years of meddling Republican majorities in Congress in the George W. Bush years. While many national activists, myself included, have decried an incremental approach as highly unsuccessful on the federal level, Bob perfected it on the local level.
Here’s how he described it in a recent interview in Metro Weekly: “I started a little program to figure out what all the rights and responsibilities of marriage are, with the idea that eventually we would get marriage and in the meantime, while we still had the Republican Congress and president, we should add as many of those rights and responsibilities to domestic partners as we can. And since there’s going to be a little trouble to get these things added while the Republicans are in control, we’ll do it in small pieces so they won’t notice. Or they won’t take offense at this one little piece or that one little piece, and over time it will add up to everything.”
At the time, the domestic partnership law that Bob had worked with the Council to improve over the years had just included the final pieces to provide the full suite of rights to LGBT couples that the District offers non-LGBT couples. The only thing left was to call it marriage.
By the way folks are talking now, you’d think everybody was fully on board with the marriage effort. However, the question of whether to “go for the gold” and pursue marriage was controversial a few years ago. During the 2006 election, I set out to ask all of the candidates running for local office if they would pursue full marriage equality if the Democrats won at least one house of Congress. They all said yes.
At a meeting in the HRC headquarters after Democrats won not just one, but both houses of Congress, I posed the question of why no one was working to achieve marriage equality given the enormous political shift in Congress, which would surely have overturned it before the Democratic victories. I was overcome by the voracity of the response from a couple of activists. Never had I been yelled at in a public forum.
At that meeting, I met Michael Crawford and together, we set out to begin a conversation on achieving marriage equality in D.C. Although a consensus to “go for the gold” was emerging, we continued to encounter opposition from some vocal advocates within our own community. Eventually, a handful of us came together to found DC for Marriage to carry on the work to achieve marriage rights.
When DC for Marriage was founded, Bob Summersgill was there. Our effort, which might have been portrayed by some as a radical idea at the time, was given significant credibility because of Bob’s presence. It would have been easy for him to follow the lead of those he had worked with for years. Instead, he set his sights on the prize and worked voraciously to win it.
While we take time to thank the countless numbers of people who brought us this great victory for equality, let’s be sure to thank Bob Summersgill. Without him, the victory may have proved elusive.
Lane Hudson is a D.C.-based LGBT rights activist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org