Magazine article The American Prospect

Marion's Moral Compass: The Philandering Former D.C. Mayor's Crusade against Gay Marriage

Magazine article The American Prospect

Marion's Moral Compass: The Philandering Former D.C. Mayor's Crusade against Gay Marriage

Article excerpt

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IN EARLY MAY, AFTER the District of Columbia Council announced it would recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, former Mayor and current Ward 8 Council-member Marion Barry addressed a small crowd of protesters in Freedom Plaza.

"I am a politician who is moral," Barry declared. "Living morally means standing on the moral compass of God."

Some local residents were understandably shocked by his statements, perhaps wondering how Barry's moral compass had become so demagnetized that it pointed him toward four divorces and a dramatic arrest for smoking crack cocaine with an undercover cop he thought was a prostitute. (Maybe the compass set him up?) Barry told reporters that he thought at least 70 percent of his constituents were against marriage equality. "All hell is going to break lose," Barry said. "The black community is just adamant against this."

Barry had long been a supporter of gay rights, but recently he has made common cause with the movement to oppose same-sex marriage. (Local religious leaders at the Freedom Plaza rally referred to homosexuality as "diabolical social habits" and "perverted social instincts.") Of course, Barry isn't the first philandering big city mayor to find God in his internal polling. Rudy Giuliani, who once had a long record of support for gay rights and whose various marital infidelities and stint as a drag queen are immortalized on YouTube, reversed himself on gay marriage prior to his failed presidential run in 2008.

Two weeks after Barry declared his morality in Freedom Plaza, Philip Pannell, a Democratic Party committeeman for Ward 8, found himself preparing to make the case for gay marriage to his ward's residents, who are mostly black, working-class, and if you believe their councilman, adamantly against gay marriage. Pannell stood anxiously outside the Washington Highlands Public Library, where the Ward 8 Democrats would vote on a resolution expressing support for allowing same-sex marriages to be performed in the District.

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Pannell got his start in politics in 1983, when he was hired by then-Mayor Barry despite the fact that he was openly gay. That's why he was devastated to read Barry's statement warning that same-sex marriage would lead to "civil war" in the District. "My heart just sunk," Pannell said. "I felt disappointment, betrayal." But he didn't have a chance to confront Barry on the issue at the Ward 8 Democrats meeting, because Barry didn't bother to show up, citing medical reasons.

The meeting itself turned out to be less like a civil war and more like a Thanksgiving dinner with relatives who get on each others' nerves, punctuated with heated but polite arguments and belly laughs at jokes from both sides. When Pannell, voice trembling, accidentally referred to Ward 8 as Ward 4 while introducing the resolution, the audience chuckled and gently corrected him. The room was full, but few actual Ward 8 residents were in attendance; many of the attendees were gay-rights activists and supporters. Pannell, who grew up attending segregated schools in Newport News, Virginia, had written the resolution with a vague reference to the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, urging the City Council to adopt marriage equality "with all deliberate speed."

The panel set to debate the resolution was made up of two gay-marriage supporters (Pannell and the Rev. …

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