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Long lines, frayed tempers for couples seeking to wed

D.C. courthouse staff overwhelmed as DOMA ruling triggers boom in marriage applications

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David Kero-Mentz, Ken Kero-Mentz, gay marriage, same-sex marriage, marriage equality, District of Columbia, gay news, Washington Blade
David Kero-Mentz, Ken Kero-Mentz, gay marriage, same-sex marriage, marriage equality, District of Columbia, gay news, Washington Blade

David Kero-Mentz and his new husband Ken Kero-Mentz waited two hours for their marriage license to be processed in July. Despite the delay, the couple praised D.C. courthouse staff on the rush of gay marriage license applications following the death of DOMA. (Photo courtesy of the couple)

The number of people applying for a marriage license in D.C. each month has nearly tripled since the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling on June 26 overturning the Defense of Marriage Act’s provision barring the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

The D.C. Superior Court’s Marriage Bureau doesn’t keep track of the gender or sexual orientation of the couples applying for a marriage license. But court observers say gay and lesbian couples make up the overwhelming majority of the additional couples going to the Marriage Bureau on most days at the courthouse at 500 Indiana Ave., N.W.

“We were sitting there and there were so many same-sex couples,” said veteran lesbian activist and businesswoman Eva Freund in describing the scene in the waiting room at the Marriage Bureau last week as she and her partner of 21 years, Elke Martin, waited to be called to file their application for a marriage license.

The two women, who live in Vienna, Va., are among the large number of same-sex couples from states that don’t recognize gay marriage that are now getting married in D.C., which doesn’t have a residency requirement for obtaining a marriage license.

“We just kind of overwhelmed the place,” Freund told the Blade. “And then they called a name and it was a heterosexual couple. And Elke and I looked at one another and said, ‘What are they doing here?’ And then we said, ‘Oh yeah, they need papers, too.”

According to courthouse observers, Freund’s humorous anecdote may be the exception to the disposition of many of the couples – both gay and straight – who become irritable after waiting two hours or longer while the Marriage Bureau staff struggles to process the seeming explosion of applications since late June.

Ken Kero-Mentz, a U.S. Foreign Service officer, and his new husband, David Kero-Mentz, a German national, described their experience with the D.C. Superior Court’s Marriage Bureau as favorable, even though the two waited close to two hours in early July to have their license application processed. The couple also had to wait about eight weeks for an appointment to be married in a civil ceremony at the courthouse, a service the court began providing long before same-sex marriage became legal in D.C.

“Everyone was so nice to us,” said David Kero-Mentz, who is applying for U.S. permanent residency status now that the longstanding prohibition of immigration rights for gay bi-national couples ended with the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA.

Ken Kero-Mentz said he and David, while thrilled to be legally married, didn’t view their D.C. ceremony as that big a deal because they were joined as a couple in an official “registered life partner” ceremony in Berlin in 2008, with 95 friends and family members in attendance. Under German law, registered life partners have all the rights and benefits of a marriage, including immigration rights for foreign national partners.

The D.C. Superior Court has processed same-sex couple applications for marriage licenses since March of 2010, when the city’s marriage equality law took effect.

Court spokesperson Leah Gurowitz said that prior to the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision in late June, the court received on average between 300 and 400 license applications a month. But in July the number of couples applying for a license jumped to 977 and in August the number of couples applying totaled 908 – more than double the average, Gurowitz told the Blade.

“The D.C. Superior Court is committed to addressing the needs of those seeking our services as promptly as possible,” she said in a statement. “In order to meet the increased demand, additional staff have been detailed to the Marriage Bureau.”

Gurowitz added, “In addition, we are working to locate additional office space to help handle the number of applicants we are currently seeing each day, as well as evaluating work processes to improve our customer service.”

Gay rights attorneys have said they expected more same-sex couples to marry following the Supreme Court ruling, which cleared the way for married same-sex couples to obtain most if not all of the federal rights and benefits of marriage.

The Obama administration’s aggressive effort to quickly implement the DOMA ruling by directing federal agencies, including all the branches of the military, to provide marital benefits to same-sex spouses of federal workers, civilian and active duty military, has also boosted the number of lesbian and gay couples deciding to tie the knot, experts have said.

D.C. gay activist Christopher Dyer, who last year obtained a license to perform marriages as a court-approved officiant, said the number of same-sex couples seeking him out to perform their marriage has doubled since the Supreme Court decision.

“I’m getting more military people than ever before,” he said. “Many of them are from Virginia.”

Local gay rights attorney Michele Zavos, who practices family law in the D.C. metro area, said she and other attorneys familiar with the marriage laws of D.C. and Maryland are advising out-of-state clients to choose D.C. over Maryland as the preferred place to marry.

Although same-sex marriage became legal in Maryland earlier this year, Zavos points out that unlike D.C., Maryland has a residency requirement for couples seeking to get a divorce. This means that if a same-sex couple from Virginia or other states that don’t recognize gay marriage decide to marry in Maryland, they could not obtain a divorce in Maryland unless they become a Maryland resident for a year, Zavos said.

She noted that they couldn’t obtain a divorce in their home state if that state doesn’t recognize their marriage, especially if the state has a law or constitutional amendment specifically banning same-sex nuptials as Virginia does.

“Nobody wants to hear this, of course,” Zavos said. “They’re about to be married. They don’t want you to be talking to them about getting divorced.”

Nevertheless, Zavos said many same-sex couples knowledgeable about the residency rules for divorce are choosing D.C. and Delaware, which also allows out-of-state couples to file for a divorce without a residency requirement.

Among those encountering the brunt of the delays at the D.C. Superior Court’s Marriage Bureau are the private marriage officiants who, among other things, file marriage license applications at the courthouse for their same-sex couple clients.

Deborah Cummings-Thomas and her wife, lesbian activist Sheila Alexander-Reid, co-owners of Marry Me In D.C., Inc., specialize in marrying same-sex couples and taking care of the couples’ marriage-related paperwork.

“It’s a nightmare down there right now,” Cummings-Thomas said. “It often takes two hours, sometimes longer” to file a marriage license application, she said. “I’ve been there when people waiting have gotten very upset.”
She said 95 percent of the couples she marries are from jurisdictions outside D.C. and at least 95 percent or more of her clients arrange for her to go to the courthouse to deal with the application.

“The employees are very nice,” said Rev. Starlene Joyner Burns, another D.C. marriage officiant who reaches out to same-sex couples. “But they realize the office needs more help. It’s not a system that is broken. It’s just that the demand is greater than what it was in the past.”

One marriage officiant criticized Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, claiming she should be doing more to secure funds to hire staff at D.C.’s marriage bureau.(Washington Blade file photo by Jeff Surprenant)

One marriage officiant criticized Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, claiming she should be doing more to secure funds to hire staff at D.C.’s marriage bureau.(Washington Blade file photo by Jeff Surprenant)

Another marriage officiant, who spoke on condition of not being identified, criticized D.C. Congressional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton for not pushing for more funds from Congress to hire additional staff at the courthouse to handle the greater demand for marriage licenses.

Congress and various federal agencies control the D.C. court system rather than the city government under the city’s limited home rule charter. Norton spokesperson Daniel Van Hoogstraten said he would look into the matter.

Others familiar with the Marriage Bureau noted that the D.C. City Council could help the situation by changing the wording in the city’s marriage law that requires a three-day waiting period between the time a marriage license application is submitted and the time a marriage can take place. Marriage laws in most other states have a similar waiting period but those states, like Maryland, issue the license during the applicants’ first visit to the state marriage bureau and post-date it to prevent the marriage from taking place until after the waiting period expires.

Critics of the D.C. Marriage Bureau say it requires applicants or officiants working on their behalf to return to the bureau a second time to pick up the license following the waiting period, a process that causes further delays.

But according to people familiar with the D.C. marriage law, the law prevents the Marriage Bureau from postdating a marriage license because it states explicitly that a license “shall not be issued until three days have elapsed” from the time the application is filed.

“They have two people handling 50 or 60 people at any given time,” said the marriage officiant who asked not to be identified. “They told me please do what you can to get out the word and help us get more staff.”

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District of Columbia

Capital Stonewall Democrats backs Robert White over Bowser

LGBTQ group endorses Erin Palmer over incumbent Mendelson

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Council member Robert White won the backing of Capital Stonewall Democrats in his bid for mayor over incumbent Muriel Bowser. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Capital Stonewall Democrats, the city’s largest local LGBTQ political group, announced on May 17 that it has selected D.C. Council member Robert White (D-At-Large) over incumbent Mayor Muriel Bowser and political newcomer Erin Palmer over D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson as its endorsed candidates in the city’s June 21 Democratic primary.

With Bowser and Mendelson as well as White having longstanding records of support for LGBTQ rights and Palmer expressing strong support for the LGBTQ community, local observers say the LGBTQ Democratic group’s 163 voting members appear to have based their endorsement decisions on other pressing issues facing the city rather than only LGBTQ specific issues.

In other races, Capital Stonewall Democrats, formerly known as the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, which was founded in 1976, voted to endorse incumbent Ward 1 Council member Brianne Nadeau over gay former D.C. police officer Salah Czapary and community activist Sabel Harris who are running against Nadeau.

In the Ward 5 Council race, the group has endorsed gay D.C. Board of Education member Zachary Parker in a five-candidate contest for the seat being vacated by incumbent Council member Kenyan McDuffie, who ran unsuccessfully for the office of D.C. Attorney General.

The group has also endorsed Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who is running unopposed in the primary; D.C. Congressional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who’s favored to win re-election against two lesser-known opponents; and D.C. shadow U.S. Rep. Oye Owolewa, who’s also favored over a lesser known opponent.

Capital Stonewall Democrats announced it did not make an endorsement in the Ward 3 and At-Large D.C. Council races and in the D.C. Attorney General race because no candidate received a required 60 percent of the vote under the group’s longstanding rules for endorsements.

By not endorsing in the At-Large race, the group passed over incumbent At-Large Council member Anita Bonds, a longtime supporter of LGBTQ issues. Bonds is being challenged by Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Lisa Gore, former D.C. shadow House member Nate Fleming, and former D.C. Council staffer Dexter Williams.

In the hotly contested Ward 3 Council race, nine candidates are competing for the seat being vacated by incumbent Mary Cheh, another longtime LGBTQ rights supporter.

In the race for attorney general, three prominent local attorneys — Brian Schwalb, Ryan Jones, and Bruce Spiva — are competing for the AG position being vacated by incumbent Karl Racine, who chose not to run for re-election.

Capital Stonewall Democrats’ endorsements follow a series of five LGBTQ candidate forums the group held virtually in which most of the candidates running in the various races attended.
In the group’s mayoral form, Bowser was the only one of the four mayoral contenders that did not attend. Her supporters said she had a conflicting event organized by gay Democratic activist Kurt Vorndran that prevented her from attending the Stonewall event.

Those who attended the mayoral forum were Robert White, D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate Trayon White (D-Ward 8), and former attorney and community activist James Butler.
A detailed vote tally released by Capital Stonewall Democrats shows the vote count for each of the endorsed candidates as well as candidates in the races for which the group did not make an endorsement.

In the mayoral race, Robert White received 120 votes, or 74.5 percent. Bowser came in second place with 37 votes or 23.0 percent; Trayon White received just two votes or 1.2 percent, with Butler receiving just 1 vote at 0.6 percent. One vote was cast for no endorsement.

In the D.C. Council Chair race, Palmer received 89 votes or 60.1 percent, just surpassing the 60 percent threshold needed for an endorsement. Mendelson received 48 votes or 32.4 percent. Eleven votes were cast for no endorsement.

In the Ward 1 Council race, Nadeau received 100 votes or 69.4 percent compared to gay candidate Czapary, who came in second place with 23 votes or 16.0 percent. Candidate Sabel Harris came in third place with 9 votes or 6.3 percent, with a no endorsement selection receiving 12 votes or 8.3 percent.

In the Ward 5 contest, gay school board member Parker received 91 votes or 64.5 percent. Candidate Faith Hubbard came in second with 31 votes or 22.0 percent. The remaining candidates received fewer than 10 votes each, including former At-Large and former Ward 5 Council member Vincent Orange, who received 5 votes or 3.5 percent.

“Since Capital Stonewall Democrats has only 221 members, and only 163 bothered to vote, this is clearly not representative of the LGBTQ+ community in the District,” said gay Democratic activist Peter Rosenstein, who is supporting Bowser for mayor.

But longtime D.C. LGBTQ rights advocate A. Billy S. Jones-Hennin is among the local activists who view the Capital Stonewall Democrats’ endorsement of lesser-known challengers – most of whom have progressive, left-leaning views – as a reflection of changes in the demographics of the LGBTQ community and the Stonewall group’s members.

“At the forefront for voters is who they feel can address core problems like crime, open drug transactions, and increased homeless populations,” Jones-Hennin told the Blade. “Just asking voters for support based on their support of the LGBTQ+ community in the past does not cut it,” he said. “We are multi-faceted voters looking for new, more progressive and aggressive leadership.”

The Capital Stonewall Democrats list of endorsements as well as races with no endorsement can be viewed below:

• Mayor: Robert White, with 74.5% of the round one vote
• DC Attorney General: No Endorsement
• DC Council Chair: Erin Palmer, with 60.1% of the round one vote
• Ward 1 Council: Brianne K. Nadeau, with 69.4% of the round one vote
• Ward 3 Council: No Endorsement
• Ward 5 Council: Zachary Parker, with 64.5% of the round one vote
• Ward 6 Council: Charles Allen, with 83.2% of the round one vote
• At-Large Council: No Endorsement
• Delegate to U.S. House of Representatives: Eleanor Holmes Norton, with 69.7% of the round one vote
• U.S. Representative: Oye Owolewa, with 66.1% of the round one vote

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District of Columbia

Pannell resigns in protest from Ward 8 Council member’s LGBT Commission

Says Trayon White has no out member of his staff

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Phil Pannell resigned as a member of the Ward 8 LGBT Commission created by D.C. Council member Trayon White. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Longtime D.C. LGBTQ rights activist Phil Pannell announced on May 6 that he has resigned as a member of the Ward 8 LGBT Commission created by D.C. Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8) on grounds that White does not have an LGBTQ person on his Council staff.

White’s office has said the Council member created the commission to “focus on the specific needs of this community” in his role as a supporter of LGBTQ equality.

“For me, this is a major issue of inclusion, affirmative action and diversity,” Pannell said in an email message announcing his resignation. “I as a Black Gay man cannot in good conscience continue to be a member of my Councilmember’s LGBT Commission when he has no one from my community on his staff,” Pannell’s announcement message continues.

“This is hypocritical at best and structurally homophobic at worst,” he said. “I deeply resent and refuse to be used as anyone’s homosexual prop for any purposes. Therefore, I resign from the commission effective immediately.”

In response to a request by the Washington Blade for comment on Pannell’s resignation, Julia Jessie, White’s director of communications, said White’s Council office “follows all legal HR procedures and hires based on experience and skillset.” Jessie added, “As an employer, we do not discriminate or consider a person’s race, color, religion, or sex, including sexual orientation or gender identity, when making decisions about employment qualifications.”

According to Jessie, “We do, however, harvest a safe and inclusionary work environment where employees who wish to voluntarily disclose their sexual orientation of gender identity feel comfortable doing so.”

White’s office released a statement from the Ward 8 LGBT Commission’s chair, Marvin ‘Rahim’ Briggs, saying the commission “regretfully accepts” Pannell’s resignation.

“The Commission will continue to focus on and address issues affecting Ward 8 LGBTQ,” Briggs says in the statement. “We’ll continue to organize to promote acceptance of LGBTQ community diversity and to foster respect and appreciation for each member of the community residing in Ward 8.”

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District of Columbia

Two gay candidates disqualified from D.C. primary ballot

Republican, Libertarian activists withdraw from races

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(Blade archive photo by Aram Vartian)

A member of the Capital Stonewall Democrats, D.C.’s largest LGBTQ local political group, mounted a successful challenge before the D.C. Board of Elections earlier this month that resulted in a gay Republican and a gay Libertarian Party activist withdrawing as candidates for public office in the city’s June 21 primary.

James Harnett, 24, a member of the Ward 2 Democratic Committee and a member of the staff of U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), filed challenges to the candidacy of gay Libertarian Party activist Bruce Majors, who was running unopposed in the June 21 primary for the office of both D.C. Delegate to the U.S. House and chair of the Libertarian Party of D.C.

The Board of Elections upheld Harnett’s challenge claiming that Majors failed to obtain a sufficient number of valid petition signatures needed to be placed on the ballot for both offices, according to elections board spokesperson Nicholas Jacobs. Majors withdrew his candidacy for both offices rather than contest the challenge.

The Board of Elections also upheld a challenge filed by Harnett against the candidacy of gay Republican and D.C. Log Cabin Republicans organization member Andrew Desser, who was running unopposed in the primary for the position of Ward 1 Chairperson of the D.C. Republican Committee.

Desser told the Blade he acknowledged that he fell short in obtaining the needed number of valid petition signatures and would not contest the challenge.

Harnett, who appeared to be acting on his own behalf and not representing the Capital Stonewall Democrats in his challenges to Majors and Desser before the election board, did not respond to the Blade’s request for comment.

Board of Elections records showed that he also successfully challenged six other candidates seeking ballot placement in the June 21 primary, one of whom, Lori Furstenberg, was running for mayor as a Republican and another, Corren Brown, was running for mayor as a Statehood-Green Party member.

The others Harnett mounted a successful challenge against were GOP candidates running for the Ward 2, Ward 4, and Ward 7 GOP Chairperson positions; and Leniqua ‘Dominique’ Jenkins, a Democrat running for the at-large D.C. Council seat, who was the only Democrat challenged by Harnett.

Harnett, a former ANC commissioner in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood, ran unsuccessfully in 2020 for the nonpartisan office of D.C. Board of Education for Ward 2. Among the candidates he ran against was gay education advocate Allister Chang, who won that race.

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