LGBT activists who turned out on Oct. 22 for a “Statehood Yes!” rally outside the D.C. Board of Elections offices said a vote for a D.C. statehood advisory referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot would be a vote for LGBT rights.
The activists joined Mayor Muriel Bowser, six members of the City Council, and about 200 other D.C. statehood supporters who gathered on the plaza outside the city municipal building at 441 4th St., N.W., where the Board of Elections opened its doors on the first day of early voting in the city.
“The LGBT community definitely should get behind this,” said longtime gay activist John Fanning, who serves as chair of the Logan Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission.
“We have marriage equality and we have employment non-discrimination for LGBT people,” he said, but noted that Congress currently has full authority to repeal those laws.
Fanning and at least a dozen other LGBT activists attending the rally are calling on LGBT people and all city residents to vote “yes” on Advisory Referendum B, which asks voters if the city should petition Congress in 2017 to admit D.C. as the nation’s 51st state.
“I would say this is more relevant to LGBT people than it is to the average person because right now Congress can do whatever it wants,” said Michael Brown, one of the city’s two shadow U.S. Senators.
“Conservatives in Congress have attacked our gun laws and they’ve attacked gay people in our city as well,” he said. “So if you want to secure things like LGBT equality you want to be in control of your own destiny as a state.”
In the 1980s, the city created two shadow senator positions and one shadow U.S. House position to serve as unpaid advocates to promote D.C. statehood. They have no congressional powers.
Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress has the authority to approve statehood for U.S. territories as well as the proposed state of Washington, D.C., by a simple majority vote.
Most political observers believe a D.C. statehood petition would have no chance of passing in 2017 if Republicans retain control of Congress. Many observers believe its approval would be difficult but possible in the unlikely development that Democrats win control of both the House and Senate in the November election.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has expressed support for D.C. statehood.
Most Republican lawmakers have long opposed D.C. statehood, among other reasons, because it would almost certainly result in the new state electing two Democratic senators that could help Democrats gain or retain control of the Senate.
The city’s statehood movement evolved from an earlier “voting rights” movement in the 1970s that initially called for providing the city with two U.S. senators and one U.S. representative with full voting rights in Congress without creating a new state. But doing that requires a constitutional amendment.
Such an amendment was approved by Congress in 1978 and was sent to the states, where it died after it failed to receive the required approval by three-fourths of the nation’s state legislatures. At the time the proposed amendment expired in 1985, only 16 states had approved it.
Gay political consultant Bo Shuff, who served as manager of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s 2014 election campaign, currently serves as director of advocacy for the pro-statehood group D.C. Vote. Shuff stood behind a table handing out statehood literature during the Oct. 22 rally.
He told the Washington Blade that the LGBT community, like all of the city’s constituency groups, would benefit by having two voting U.S. senators and a voting representative in Congress that would come about through statehood for the District.
He and other LGBT activists attending the rally noted that under the city’s current limited Home Rule government, Congress retains full authority to pass or repeal D.C. laws should it decide to exercise that authority.
Although Congress has not exercised that authority very often, its decision to do so in 1981 targeted the city’s gay community. In an action that startled city officials and outraged gay activists, the House voted 218-119 to overturn a bill passed by the City Council that would have repealed the city’s sodomy law.
The sodomy repeal measure was part of a larger bill that called for reforming the city’s sexual assault laws. Conservative House members, pressured by the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority organization, said their aim was to kill the sodomy repeal provision, which would have removed an archaic law making it illegal for consenting adults to engage in oral or anal sex in private.
While the law was rarely enforced in recent times against consenting adults in private places, gay activists said it was used as a means of discriminating against gay people in employment and other areas because it labeled them as lawbreakers.
More than a decade later, the D.C. Council passed another sodomy repeal bill which Congress did not attempt to overturn.
“The upcoming advisory referendum for statehood is yet another step in calling the nation’s attention to the immoral and anti-democratic treatment of almost 700,000 U.S. citizens,” said gay activist John Klenert, a former board member of D.C. Vote.
Klenert was referring to the fact that D.C. residents have no voting representation in Congress, making the U.S. one of only a few countries throughout the world considered a democracy where residents of the capital city don’t have representation in the national legislative body.
Congressional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a longtime supporter of D.C. statehood who cannot vote on the House floor, told participants at the Oct. 22 rally that the city’s lack of voting representation in Congress imposed “taxation without representation” on all city residents.
Bowser told the Blade after the rally that she, too, believes the LGBT community has an important stake in pushing for statehood.
“I think LGBTQ voters are like all Washingtonians in that they want their taxes to be paid fairly like other Americans but they also want a vote in Congress just like every other American,” Bowser said. “So I think the LGBTQ community especially knows what it’s like to be treated as second-class or third-class citizens. And we’re demanding to be treated like first-class citizens.”