On the eve of this weekend’s Black Pride festivities, the Blade checked in with two of the first same-sex couples who wed here in March to find out how they’re doing now that the hoopla has subsided, how they’ve fared as gay or lesbian couples among their black friends and families and their thoughts on the importance of Black Pride.
Three of the first couples to wed in Washington on March 9, the first day it was legally possible, were Angelisa Young and Sinjoyla Townsend, Reggie Stanley and Rocky Galloway and Revs. Darlene Garner and Candy Holmes. All three couples exchanged vows and rings at a carefully orchestrated event at Human Rights Campaign headquarters. All three couples are black.
“We were all asked to identify couples we knew locally who were planning to seize the opportunity immediately and we all put feelers out,” says Ellen Kahn, HRC’s family project director.
Garner said she thinks it was a coincidence that all three couples are black, but says it was still significant.
“Washington, D.C. is known by some as a chocolate city, so it was great that the first couples to be married were African-American couples,” she said.
Stanley and Galloway, a couple for six years, said no one would have noticed if all the couples had been white and that although they planned to wed regardless, controversial remarks made by Council member Marion Barry, who’s black and represents D.C.’s predominantly black Ward 8, inspired them to get married as soon as the law would allow. Barry, who’d previously been supportive of gay rights, said last year after voting against a bill to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere in D.C., that his Ward “don’t have but a handful of openly gay residents” and that the majority of his constituents are opposed to same-sex marriage.
“He was basically saying that black gay folks don’t exist in his ward so we thought it was important to be visible and present,” Stanley said. Though he and Galloway live in Ward 4, they said they felt it important to show Barry there are many black gay D.C. residents.
Garner and Holmes, who had dated off and on for 14 years, said they decided to wed immediately for several reasons, some practical, others symbolic. As ordained ministers in the Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, a liberal, mostly gay Christian denomination, they felt it was important to make a public stand.
“We recognized in many ways our place as role models as both representative of the black community and the LGBT community locally,” Garner said. “So we were happy to take our stand as a legally married couple standing side by side through the struggles.”
Garner works full-time in ministry but Holmes ministers part-time while also holding a full-time government job. She said that was also a factor in their decision to wed at HRC.
“None of it was lost on us,” Holmes said. “Being a couple and being African American and being lesbian, and with me being a federal government worker and also clergy, that’s a lot and so there are a lot of voices and things we represent, so it’s something we took very seriously and I think that’s significant.”
Stanley knew some HRC leaders through his own LGBT activism work.
“HRC was very forward looking and they were really interested in showing all aspects of what marriage can look like both here and across the country,” he said. “They realized there would be national coverage so I think they realized it was important for this visual to be seen.”
Garner and Holmes initially planned to make themselves available on HRC’s behalf to help field press inquiries and counter the anti-gay marriage stances several local black clergy, such as Bishop Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church, had taken.
“We were initially going to fly away somewhere and get married,” Garner said. “But when it became clear that we could get married here, they asked if we’d like to do it with them. It became kind of a collaboration.”
Was there any concern their special day would become a circus? Both couples said HRC handled the day so well, it didn’t feel that way.
“There really was no media barrage at all,” Galloway said.
The women agree.
“We were able to experience the typical giddiness of any engaged couple looking forward to their wedding,” Garner said. “HRC did a phenomenal job and our primary focus stayed on the fact that we were getting married. We did not take into consideration at all that the world might be watching.”
Garner and Holmes plan a religious ceremony during their denomination’s annual conference in Acapulco in June.
The couples met standing in line that morning to get their licenses. They had their ceremonies at HRC in the order they got their licenses.
“We all cried and applauded and supported one another,” Holmes said. “Then when one came back, the next couple marched in so we were all there together, then we had a joint reception.”
“It was lovely,” Garner said. “HRC converted one of their big meeting rooms into a wedding chapel and we were able to create the ceremony we wanted to have from processional to recessional, with music and presiders and everything just as we wanted.”
The couples — Young and Townsend did not respond to interview requests — said life has returned to normal after the barrage of media attention.
“Things are great,” Galloway said. “Just like with any wedding, there’s a lot of activity leading up to it, but we’re back to a normal life now.”
Both couples said they encountered zero negative feedback but were greeted with many cheers, applause and congratulations, both on the day itself and after.
“People have recognized me and stop me in the hall to congratulate me,” Holmes said. “It’s been wonderful.”
And both couples say Black Pride remains important. Some of the reasons why, they said, popped up during the marriage wars, with the Barry incident and elsewhere.
“We were more active with it in our single days than in later years,” Galloway said. “But it’s still important to show diversity among the gay community. It’s a wonderful weekend and continues to be a very important event.”
Garner and Holmes will be out of town this weekend but said they fully support Black Pride. Garner, one of the founders of the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, said misperceptions about black gays persist.
“There’s still this perception that all gay people are white and that all black people are straight and many people really cling to that myth,” she said. “So it’s especially important for black LGBT people to come out, be visible and speak out so we continue to break down the barriers that other people have constructed to keep us all segregated from each other.”