In a development that may surprise some local activists, the two D.C. Council members who voted against the city’s same-sex marriage law have been assigned by Council Chair Phil Mendelson to head committees that oversee all of the city’s LGBT and AIDS-related programs.
Although they emerged in 2009 as the only two on the Council to oppose same-sex marriage, Council members Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) have said they support the LGBT community on most other issues and are committed to efforts to fight AIDS.
“There are always going to be disagreements and things that we’re not going to think the same on,” said Alexander, who replaced gay Council member David Catania (I-At-Large) as chair of the Council’s Committee on Health.
In a phone interview with the Washington Blade, Alexander was asked if she thought LGBT activists burned their bridges with her when the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club endorsed her opponent in last year’s Democratic primary and the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance gave her a rating of -3.5 on LGBT issues on a rating scale of -10 to +10.
“No, that’s a thing where I’m not that kind of person,” she said. “So no one has burned a bridge with me…But we need to just find our commonality. We all want to end the high instance of HIV/AIDS. We want to rid our city of HIV and AIDS and all other diseases that plague our city.”
Barry, who had a strong pro-LGBT record during his years as D.C. mayor, angered many LGBT activists in 2009 when he joined Alexander in voting against the same-sex marriage bill after speaking at an anti-marriage equality rally organized by anti-gay groups.
In his reorganization of the Council’s committee assignments in December, Mendelson changed the committee that Barry chaired in the previous Council session from the Committee on Aging and Community Affairs to the Committee on Workforce and Community Affairs. The change added to the committee’s portfolio more government agencies that deal with work and employment related issues.
Among the agencies that the committee oversees is the D.C. Office of Human Rights and the Commission on Human Rights, which enforce the city’s LGBT non-discrimination law; the Office of GLBT Affairs; and the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on GLBT Affairs.
The Stein Club, the city’s largest LGBT political group, chose not to endorse Barry’s re-election bid last year and GLAA also gave him a -3.5 rating on LGBT issues. Barry, like Alexander, won election to another term by a lopsided margin.
GLAA President Rick Rosendall said that despite GLAA’s strong criticism of Barry during the Council’s 2009 debate over the marriage bill, Barry was friendly toward him when he testified last year before Barry’s committee. Rosendall was one of the witnesses testifying in support of Mayor Vincent Gray’s nomination of transgender activists Earline Budd and Alexandra Beninda to seats on the D.C. Human Rights Commission.
Barry praised Budd and Beninda during the hearing and later joined fellow committee members in voting to approve their nominations.
During his tenure as chair of the Health Committee, Catania has been credited with helping to strengthen the city’s HIV/AIDS programs through aggressive Council oversight hearings examining the workings of the D.C. HIV/AIDS agency. Some AIDS activists have lamented his departure as Health Committee chair, even though Catania remains a member of the committee.
It was in response to Catania’s request that Mendelson appointed him chair of the reorganized Committee on Education, where Catania has vowed to provide aggressive oversight of the city’s troubled public school system.
Catania aide Brendan Williams-Kief, who switched from serving as Catania’s press spokesperson to director of the Committee on Education, said Catania plans to bring up the issue of school bullying, including anti-LGBT bullying, during his first oversight hearing on the schools in late February.
Last year, the Council passed a long awaited anti-bullying bill that requires D.C. public and charter schools to put in place policies to curtail school bullying. Williams-Kief said Catania intends to monitor the public school system’s implementation of the legislation.
Andrew Barnett, executive director of the D.C.-based Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL), said he welcomes efforts by Catania and the Education Committee to monitor the anti-bullying policies.
“I think we still have a ways to go to make sure D.C. public schools are free from bullying and safe for LGBT students,” Barnett said.
LGBT advocates said they are pleased over Mendelson’s appointment of Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) as chair of the Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, which has jurisdiction over D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department. Wells, a longtime supporter of LGBT rights, has said he would carefully monitor the police handling of anti-LGBT hate crimes.
Gay D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) retained his post as chair of the Committee on Human Services, which, among other things, oversees the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA). Graham was praised by LGBT nightlife advocates for shepherding through a liquor law reform bill last year that eases what hospitality industry representatives said was an overly burdensome and unfair process for bars, restaurants and nightclubs to obtain and renew liquor licenses.
Don Blanchon, executive director of Whitman-Walker Health, which provides medical services for the LGBT community and people with HIV/AIDS, said he looks forward to working with Alexander on upcoming AIDS-related issues.
“We absolutely will be reaching out to her on how we can help her in her new role,” he said. “The Council member has in her ward many of the same health disparities and public health challenges that Whitman-Walker is dealing with every day, which is a still too high prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS, disparities within the African-American community and more so within the African-American LGBT community,” Blanchon said.