LGBT activists were among the hundreds of District residents that turned out on Saturday, March 3, for a dedication ceremony for the unveiling of a statue of longtime African-American civil rights leader and former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry.
Current D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, City Council Chair Phil Mendelson, and every member of the 13-member Council participated in or attended the ceremony in which the eight-foot-tall bronze statue of Barry was viewed for the first time by the public in its location outside the John Wilson Building, which serves as D.C.’s city hall.
Among the LGBT community members attending the ceremony were several members of Bowser’s staff, including activists John Fanning; Jim Slattery; Polly Donaldson, director of the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development; and Eric Shaw, director of the D.C. Office of Planning. Gay Democratic activist and Blade columnist Peter Rosenstein also attended the event.
Barry has been hailed as one of the nation’s most LGBT supportive big city mayors in the 1980s and 1990s. His strong support for LGBT rights in the 1970s during his tenure as a D.C. school board member and later as an at-large D.C. Council member prompted large numbers of LGBT voters to support him in his first run for mayor in 1978.
Barry won that race by a razor-thin margin, and the LGBT vote is believed to have been a key factor in helping him win.
With that as a backdrop, Barry startled and angered many in the LGBT community in 2009, when as a member of the Council following his four terms as mayor; he opposed a same-sex marriage bill. The bill passed by a margin of 11 to 2, with just Barry and one other Council member voting against it. Just prior to the vote on the bill Barry appeared at a rally organized by an anti-gay minister to voice his opposition to same-sex marriage on religious grounds, a development that further alienated many LGBT activists.
LGBT activists familiar with Barry’s record going back to the 1970s have expressed mixed views on whether Barry’s overall support of support for LGBT rights should overshadow his opposition to marriage equality for gays and lesbians.
Former Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance President Rick Rosendall is among those who believe Barry’s opposition to marriage equality and the problems he encountered during his tenure as mayor, including an arrest for cocaine possession, should have disqualified him from having a statue installed at city hall in his honor.
“More than three years after his death, Marion Barry deserves to be seen as he was, neither sainted nor demonized,” Rosendall said. “He was smart and politically gifted, and supported many LGBT causes and bills. But his undisciplined personal behavior brought discredit to the District,” Rosendall said.
Longtime lesbian activist Barbara Helmick, who attended the statue dedication ceremony, said she believes Barry’s overall record and accomplishments as a politician and civil rights leader clearly overshadow his shortcomings.
“Marion Barry clearly was a champion for civil rights for all,” she said. “When you look at the arc of his life, he was there for everybody. His early embracing of the gay community in going to some of the very first Gay Pride Days was phenomenal,” Helmick said. “It was unheard of then.”
Added Helmick: “So yeah, later in life he made an error in judgment on the marriage call that had no impact in the end. If you look at the whole of his life, he is a champion.”