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Council casts ‘historic’ vote for marriage

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D.C. Council member David Catania thanked those on both sides of the marriage debate for conducting a ‘civil discussion’ of the issue. (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

The D.C. City Council on Tuesday voted 11-2 to give preliminary approval to a bill that would allow same-sex marriages to be performed in the city.

Council members backing the bill said its overwhelming support on the 13-member Council means it would sail through its required second-reading vote set for Dec. 15, sending it to Mayor Adrian Fenty for his signature. Fenty has pledged to sign the measure.

“It’s a day I never thought I would see and never thought I would have the privilege to participate in as a gay person,” said Council member David Catania (I-At Large), the bill’s author, during the Council’s 40-minute debate on the measure.

“And I want to thank, again, everyone on both sides of this discussion who, by and large, engaged in an extraordinarily civil discussion on what is a difficult matter for many,” Catania said.

Council member and former mayor Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) were the only ones to vote against the bill. Alexander didn’t speak during the debate.

Barry noted his long record of support for LGBT rights during his 39-year tenure in D.C. politics as school board president, mayor and Council member, saying same-sex marriage was the only issue in which he has not been in lock step with the gay community.

“I am firm in my commitment to this community,” he said. “But I’m going to vote no because my conscience says so and because the majority of my constituents say so.”

Those voting for the bill were Council Chair Vincent Gray (D-At Large), and Council members Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), Kwame Brown (D-At Large) and Michael Brown (I-At Large).

“This bill is the next step, a logical step, in the progress we have made in significantly expanding our domestic partnership law over the last 17 years,” said Phil Mendelson, chair of the Committee on Public Safety & Judiciary, which shepherded the bill through the Council.

“I don’t think it’s a giant step,” he said. “It’s a final step in a process in a steady march since 1992 as the District of Columbia, as a matter of public policy, has proceeded toward full equality regardless of marital status or sexual orientation.”

The Council chamber was not quite full as members debated and voted on the marriage bill, a development that surprised news reporters and Council staff members. Some had expected the turnout to be similar to the overflowing show among gay rights supporters and a raucous crowd of opponents during the Council’s spring vote on a separate bill that called for legally recognizing in D.C. same-sex marriages performed in other states and countries.

That measure passed by a similarly lopsided margin, with Barry emerging as the only Council member to vote against it. It cleared its required congressional review in July, becoming law July 7.

A coalition of LGBT organizations and mainline civil rights groups viewed the earlier measure as a trial run for the full same-sex marriage bill that the Council passed on first reading this week.

Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md., and leader of a coalition of social conservative and Christian groups opposed to same-sex marriage, watched the Council’s vote Tuesday from a front-row seat in the audience.

He told reporters after the vote that his coalition would continue to urge Congress to step in to overturn the same-sex marriage law. He said he and his supporters also would continue their court challenge of a D.C. Board of Elections & Ethics decision in October that refused to place on the ballot a voter initiative seeking to ban same-sex marriage in the District.

The board concluded that an initiative banning gay marriage would violate the city’s Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. Jackson filed suit in D.C. Superior Court seeking to overturn the election board’s action. He has said he would appeal the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if he and his backers lose in lower courts.

“Our desire is to let the people vote,” he told reporters after the Council’s approval of the marriage measure Tuesday.

Bishop Harry Jackson, leader of a coalition of conservative and Christian groups opposed to same-sex marriage, watched the Council’s vote Tuesday from a front-row seat. (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

“It’s clear that the other side in D.C. has been organized, has been systematic,” he said. “They dotted all their I’s and crossed all their T’s and, in a sense, this battle today was won two-and-a-half, three years ago by folks lobbying behind the scenes. The people have not had a chance to weigh in as of yet.”

Jackson and Barry have said they believe a majority of D.C. residents — particularly African-American residents — oppose same-sex marriage and are upset with the Council’s action on the issue.

But Michael Crawford, chair of same-sex marriage advocacy group D.C. for Marriage, disputed Jackson and Barry’s assessment of voter sentiment in the city.

“I am African American, there are a lot of folks working on marriage equality who are African American, there are a lot of straight African Americans who are supporting marriage equality,” Crawford said. “And the majority of African-American members of the City Council voted for marriage equality.

“Today is an amazingly historic day,” he said. “The City Council voted overwhelmingly to end discrimination against gay and lesbian families. They have stated without hesitation that they believe gay and lesbian families should not be treated as second-class citizens in the District.”

D.C. gay activist Bob Summersgill, who has coordinated same-sex couples’ rights issues in the city, including efforts to pass domestic partnership legislation, called the Council’s approval of a gay marriage bill the last major hurdle in providing equal rights for gays.

“I’m thrilled that the last major place in the law where we aren’t equal is being amended,” he said. “So now the promise of full equality under the law is being provided.”

Summersgill’s comment picked up on a theme sounded by gay D.C. Council member Jim Graham during the Council’s debate Tuesday on the marriage bill. Graham noted that on the heels of the Council’s actions in the 1970s to include gays in the Human Rights Act, which bans discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, the Council in the early 1990s began approving a series of measures to provide rights to same-sex couples.

He noted that the protections focused on domestic partnership amendments, beginning with the first domestic partnership bill approved by the Council in 1992. Graham said a steady stream of LGBT-related measures followed, including non-discrimination protections for transgender residents.

“I have been privileged to be on this Council for almost 11 years,” Graham said. “And the times that I have been most privileged to be here have been the times when this Council has acted to enhance and to protect human rights.”

Mendelson said he and Catania sought to reach a compromise with the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, which has called for expanding the bill’s religious exemption clause.

The bill exempts religious institutions and clergy from having to perform same-sex marriages or make their facilities, products or services available for such marriages if doing so is contrary to their religious beliefs.

Archdiocesan officials asked the Council to go further by exempting one of their charitable entities, Catholic Charities, from having to provide employee benefits to the same-sex married partners of their workers providing services to needy residents under city contracts.

Mendelson said he and Catania met with Catholic Charities representatives Monday to determine if the group would back down on its threat to withdraw from city contracts providing services to as many as 68,000 people, including operation of homeless shelters, unless the Council grants it the employee benefits exemption.

“It’s their choice,” Mendelson said after the Council vote, in discussing whether Catholic Charities withdraws from city contracts.

Mendelson said he and Catania, with the backing of other Council members, declined to add language to the marriage bill allowing the group to withhold employee benefits for same-sex married partners of their employees because doing so would be a violation of the D.C. Human Rights Act.

Mendelson said he and Catania remain open to discussing other options for Catholic Charities during the two-week interval between Tuesday’s first-reading vote on the marriage bill and the final vote Dec. 15.

Wells noted during Council debate on the marriage bill that the city has access to other vendors and contractors who would step in to replace Catholic Charities.

“There’s Lutheran Social Services, Methodist Board of Child Care, Family Matters, D.C. Family Child Services, Pathways to Housing,” said Wells in naming some of the groups that provide similar services.

“They do not ask to be exempt from any D.C. laws,” he said. “Choosing to be a contractor to serve functions in the District of Columbia is not a right. You’re part of a bidding process.”

Susan Gibbs, an Archdiocese of Washington spokesperson, said after the vote that archdiocesan officials also look forward to a “continuing dialogue” with Council members over the issue.

“Catholic Charities has been here for 80 years,” she said. “The archdiocese, the Catholic Church, has been here since before there was a City Council. So we’re committed to continue doing the services we can with the resources we have. We’re not stopping providing services.”

Thomas told his colleagues during Tuesday’s debate that his Ward 5 constituents were “torn down the middle” on the gay marriage issue. He said he recognizes the strong religious beliefs of many of his constituents, but decided to vote for the bill on grounds of human rights to help ensure equality under the law.

“As a legislator, I cannot allow my personal preferences or my religious practices, or anything that in my personal life, that would allow the disenfranchisement of any individual in the District of Columbia,” he said.

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District of Columbia

Capital Stonewall Democrats host forum on proposed ranked choice voting, open primaries

Initiative 83 supporters, opponents attended event at Shakers

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Vote No On Initiative 83 leader Deirdre Brown, front left, joins pro-Initiative 83 leader Phil Pannell, front right, in a friendly toast following their sometimes-heated debate over the proposed D.C. ballot measure hosted by the LGBTQ group Capital Stonewall Democrats and held at the gay bar Shakers. Standing behind Brown and Pannell are Capital Stonewall Dems President Mike Haresign, at left, the group’s vice president, Monica Nemeth, and secretary, Howard Garrett Jr. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

The Capital Stonewall Democrats, one of D.C.’s oldest LGBTQ political organizations, hosted a forum on on Monday night, Feb. 19, on the proposed D.C. ballot measure known as Initiative 83, which calls for the city to put in place a ranked choice voting system and for party primaries to be open to all registered voters regardless of their party affiliation, including independent voters.

The forum included presentations by one of the leading supporters and a leading opponent of the controversial initiative. Longtime D.C. LGBTQ rights and Ward 8 community activist Phil Pannell, who serves as treasurer of Make All Votes Count DC, the lead organization advocating for Initiative 83, spoke on behalf of the initiative.

Deirdre Brown, who identified herself as a longtime Ward 3 Democratic Party member and LGBTQ community ally, spoke on behalf of Vote No on Initiative 83, the lead group opposing the initiative. 

Brown pointed out that her organization was separate and distinct from the D.C. Democratic Party, which also opposes Initiative 83 and has filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court to prevent the measure from being placed on the ballot. A judge was expected to hand down a ruling on whether the lawsuit should be dismissed or continue at a Feb. 23 hearing. 

Capital Stonewall Democrats President Michael Haresign, who introduced both speakers, told the Washington Blade after the event, which was held at the D.C. gay bar Shakers, that the LGBTQ Democratic group may not take an official position on Initiative 83. He said that if it does take a position, it would not do so until later this year if the initiative is approved for placement on the ballot in the city’s November election. 

An informal survey of local LGBTQ activists conducted by the Blade shows the LGBTQ community appears divided over Initiative 83, with prominent activists emerging as both supporters and opponents of the measure.

In his presentation in support of Initiative 83, Pannell called ranked choice voting an important electoral reform that has worked successfully in many states and cities across the country. He noted that ranked choice voting serves as an instant, automatic runoff election if no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote in a primary or general election. 

As proposed, Initiative 83 would allow voters to rank candidates running for office in order of their preference. Under this system, if no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote during the initial ballot counting process, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated. 

The votes cast by voters who picked that candidate as their top choice would then go to their second-choice candidate. This process would continue, under the ranked choice system, until at least one candidate emerges with at least 50 percent of the votes and is declared the winner.

The second part of Initiative 83 would allow more than 80,000 D.C. residents who currently choose not to register as a member of one of the local political parties and who are not allowed to vote in a primary, to vote in the city’s primary elections, including the Democratic primary. Political observers point out that the Democratic primary usually decides who will win the general election in D.C, where registered voters overwhelmingly elect Democratic candidates to public office. 

“In terms of ranked choice voting, it’s very basic,” Pannell told the gathering. “You have to start with , do you believe people who are elected should have a simple majority of the vote? If you don’t believe that, I’m not going to be able to convince you,” he said. 

Pannell pointed out that in recent D.C. elections, under the city’s public campaign finance law, as many as 20 candidates have run for both at-large and ward seats on the DC Council, with some of them winning with just 30 percent or even a little over 20 percent of the vote. 

Calling himself a lifelong, loyal member of the Democratic Party, Pannell criticized party leaders for opposing what he calls broadening the democratic process by allowing all residents to vote in primaries, especially independents, and for opposing a ranked choice voting system that Pannell said also broadens the electoral consensus by requiring that a candidate receive at least 50 percent of the vote to win an election.

“Initiative 83 will make politics more inclusive, less divisive,” he told the forum. “Let’s embrace it. Closed primaries are the result of closed hearts and closed minds,” he said. “Let’s open the windows and the doors … Let’s change our party for the better and vote for Initiative 83.”

Brown, who also described herself as a loyal Democratic Party member from Ward 3 and a native Washingtonian, disputed arguments by Pannell and his colleagues in support of Initiative 83, saying the democratic process is alive and well under the current D.C. electoral system and backers of Initiative 83 are waging a “propaganda campaign” to confuse voters.

Among other things, she said it’s not an infringement of democracy by requiring people to register for a party to vote in a party primary. All they need to do is register under D.C.’s rapid registration system, vote in a primary, and then withdraw their registration at any time. She also said independent voters, who Initiative 83 supporters say have a right to vote in primaries, often do not agree with the principles of the Democratic Party.

“And normally independents will tell you I’m independent because I don’t believe in Democratic Party values. I don’t believe in Republican Party values. I don’t believe in statehood values,” she told the gathering. “So, the question becomes, is it okay for people who don’t share your values to pick your leaders? There is no other club or organization that allows people who are not members to pick their leaders. It’s just that simple,” she said.

“That’s not disenfranchising you,” Brown added. “You just have to choose whether you want to work within a party to promote their values and issues or not. And if you don’t, that’s okay, that’s your choice. But you just then don’t get to vote until we get to the general election.”

Regarding ranked choice voting, Brown cited studies conducted by independent research organizations, including universities, that she said show it “marginalizes black and brown voters,” voters in low-income neighborhoods, and voters whose native language is not English, many of whom, she said, become confused by the ranked choice voting system. 

She also disputed claims by ranked choice voting supporters that citizens already participate in a ranked choice system in everyday life, including D.C.’s ranked choice public school lottery system, and public housing system and a ranked choice voting system will be similarly easy to understand.

Brown pointed out that unlike the school lottery or public housing system, where making a mistake will not result in serious consequences, ranked choice voting usually doesn’t accommodate people who fill out the ballot incorrectly.

“If you make a mistake if you undervote, overvote, your ballot is thrown out,” she said.

Brown concluded by pointing out that financial reports filed by supporters of Initiative 83 filed with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance shows large sums of money backing the initiative are coming from out of state Political Action Committees or PACS as well as large corporations. 

During a rebuttal period, Pannell pointed to other studies he said show that minority voters, especially African American voters, do not have a problem with ranked choice voting, calling it an insult to say Black people and other minorities who would not adopt to ranked choice voting. 

He said Brown’s suggestion that there was something wrong with out of state organizations contributing money to a political cause was unfair and baseless.

“I’m the treasurer of this campaign,” he said. “And anyone who knows me knows that  I will not play tricks and trash with any political cash,” he told the forum. “And this is in the same way that we in the LGBTQ community had to get donations from outside the city when we were fighting for our rights,” Pannell said. “There is nothing wrong with getting donations from outside of D.C. Candidates do it all the time.”

Pannell drew objections from Brown and other Initiative 83 supporters at the Capital Stonewall Democrats forum when he added, “If we’re going to talk about donations, check out the donations going to the Vote No On 83 committee. And you will see that two of the most virulent opponents of marriage equality are contributors to that committee.”

Brown replied that she and others involved in the No On 83 campaign are not aware of all the political views of the hundreds of mostly small donors who contribute to their committee. She said an examination of the donors for the Make All Votes Count DC committee might also find some who at one time expressed opposition to LGBTQ rights. 

One person who attended the forum, who spoke on condition of not being identified, said they believed the two individuals Pannell was referring to, who Pannell said were officials with the D.C. Democratic State Committee, supported holding a voter referendum to decide on whether same-sex marriage should be legalized in D.C. The source said the two did not specifically oppose same-sex marriage but wanted the voters to decide the issue rather than the D.C. Council. 

As it turned out, the DC Board of Elections rejected the matter as a voter referendum on grounds that the D.C. Home Rule Charter bans voter initiatives or referendums that could lead to discrimination against minority groups, including LGBTQ people. Opponents of same-sex marriage appealed the election board’s decision to the courts and lost in a final ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld a lower D.C. court ruling agreeing with the election board’s decision. 

After Pannell and Brown concluded their remarks, Haresign opened the forum to questions from those attending the meeting in person as well as those watching on the organization’s Facebook page. The questioners who expressed their own views on Initiative 83 appeared to be divided evenly among the measure’s supporters and opponents. 

“I think the forum went well,” Haresign told the Blade. “We were able to get a high level of information,” he said. 

“If we were to take a position it would be after everything is certified and we have a full membership vote,” Haresign said, referring to Initiative 83 being certified by the Board of Elections to be on the ballot in November. 

Under D.C. election rules, the board’s certification would come after the lawsuit is dismissed or settled and after Initiative 83 supporters obtain the required number of petition signatures to place the measure on the ballot.  

Pannell urged Capital Stonewall Democrats members and others in the LGBTQ community to sign the petition to get the measure on the ballot, even if they don’t support it, saying voters should be given the right to decide the issue.

Brown disagreed, saying “I’m asking you if you believe in I-83, then go ahead and sign the petition. But if you do not, I’m asking you not to sign the petition.”

The video recording of the Capital Stonewall Democrats forum can be accessed here:

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District of Columbia

Community rallies behind As You Are bar’s fundraising appeal 

D.C. LGBTQ café and bar raised more than $170k to prevent closure

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As You Are bar in March 2022 (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Less than a week after the D.C. LGBTQ café and bar As You Are located in the Barracks Row section of Capitol Hill issued a GoFundMe appeal on Feb. 5 seeking emergency financial support to prevent it from closing, the popular business reached its goal of $150,000 to get out of debt.

And as of Sunday night, the fundraising appeal had pulled in $171,471 from more than 3,000 individual donations, according to As You Are’s GoFundMe site.

In comments posted on the GoFundMe site, many of the donors said they were motivated to contribute to As You Are because they view it as a special, safe space that offers a welcoming, accepting place for them and their LGBTQ friends or family members.

In their GoFundMe message, As You Are co-owners Jo McDaniel and Rachel “Coach” Pike describe how they view their business as offering community center type programming beyond just a bar and café.

“AYA is a café, bar and dance floor that hosts diverse programming nearly every night of the week, including social sport leagues, Queer youth socials, weekly karaoke, book clubs, open mics, Queer author events, dance parties and much more,” the two said in their message.

“We have faced some particularly tall and costly hurdles that have set us back significantly since the beginning,” the two said in their GoFundMe message. “As we are tapping every resource we can imagine with creativity and open minds we need urgent assistance,” they said. 

“Rach and Jo are truly loved, and AYA is so important to so many people and everyone knew that,” said gay D.C. civic activist Mike Silverstein, who is one of the GoFundMe donors. “The response was absolutely amazing,” Silverstein said. “From every part of our community. People put everything aside, worked together and focused on saving a space that means so much.”

As You Are opened for business in March 2022. McDaniel and Pike have said the financial problems were caused, in part, by a delay in their planned opening due to complications associated with getting their required occupancy permit from the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. The two said negotiations with the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, which demanded certain soundproofing structures be installed for the interior walls of their building, also added to the delay and increased costs.

Like other bars and restaurants across the city, McDaniel and Pike said their rent became a financial burden during a slow period for business last summer. They told the Washington Blade their landlord declined a request to renegotiate the lease to make an allowance based on sales. The two told the Washington Post that their rent is $27,000 per month, which they had to begin paying before they were able to open for business, and they spent $40,000 on soundproofing the walls, all of which contributed to a debt of about $150,000.

McDaniel and Pike, who spoke to the Blade at the time they launched their GoFundMe appeal, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on the success of their fundraising and their future plans for As You Are. They told the Post now that they are no longer in debt, they plan to take up several offers of financial advice and they’re looking into possibly buying a property rather than renting. They said they also plan to apply for D.C. government business grants now that they have caught up on back tax payments.

Among those who posted comments on the As You Are GoFundMe site after making a contribution was Megan Mowery, who wrote, “AYA gives us a place to feel community, it is so rare to find a queer space where I can have fun and feel safe.” Mowrey added, “The programming AYA puts on absolutely has something for everyone. I love you AYA!!!”

Helena Chaves, another donor, stated in a GoFundMe post, “As You Are has been a monumental addition to the LGBTQIA+ community in Washington, D.C. They hold so many events and fundraisers, provide beautiful accommodations for us disabled folk, and have protocols in place to diminish harassment in the space.” 

Among the larger donors shown on the As You Are GoFundMe site is the Capital Pride Alliance, the group that organizes D.C.’s annual LGBTQ Pride festival and parade, which donated $2,500. 

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Maryland

Baltimore County police arrest suspect in rape of transgender woman

Jalen Green allegedly target victim through dating app

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Baltimore County police announced Feb. 15 they had arrested and charged a 22-year-old man with first-degree rape, first-degree assault, armed robbery and firearm-related charges in addition to other offenses.

According to a statement released by police, Jalen Green was arrested in connection with a sexual assault that occurred in the 3000 block of Putty Hill Avenue in Parkville on Feb. 11 at approximately 3:30 p.m. 

Investigators say Green targeted a member of the transgender community through a dating app.

WBAL reported

According to the charging documents, the victim told officers that Green contacted her for sex in exchange for money. The victim told officers that Green pointed the gun at her and demanded money, the documents state.

Not having any cash, the victim said Green used her phone to send himself $100 in the Cash App and then stole two prescription bottles from the victim. According to police, Green then sexually assaulted the victim at gunpoint and recorded video on his cellphone.

The charging documents state that investigators recovered evidence from the scene, including DNA. A search warrant was being sought to recover potential evidence on Green’s cellphone, the documents state.

Investigators seek to hear from anyone who may have been in contact with Green.

The Baltimore County Police Department’s Special Victims Unit is seeking information from anyone who may have been in contact with this subject. Detectives can be contacted at (410) 887-2223. 

If you are a survivor of a sexual assault, you can contact the Sexual Assault Hotline for crisis counseling by calling (410) 828-6390. The Special Victims Unit also works with TurnAround who can be contacted by calling (410) 377-8111.

Green is being held without bond at the Baltimore County Detention Center.

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