a guide to gay and lesbian issues in the Nation's Capital
by Rick Rosendall, GLAA President
April 16, 1998
Note: On Thursday, April 16, 1998, GLAA President Rick Rosendall participated in the 1998 DC Community Ascertainment Session of the Washington Area Broadcasters Association. Speaking to the public service directors of Washington-area radio and television stations, he discussed local issues of concern to the gay and lesbian community. The following is the briefing paper that he distributed to participants. A list of additional contacts is included at the end.
Sodomy laws. It has been five years since the District of Columbia legalized private acts of sodomy between consenting adults. Unfortunately, these consensual adult acts remain a felony in both Maryland and Virginia. While they are seldom directly enforced, they stigmatize gay people as second-class citizens, and are used against gays in child custody battles (the Sharon Bottoms case in Virginia is a notorious example) and to justify entrapment of gays by police, as has recently occurred in Anne Arundel County. Such archaic laws also discourage gay partners from reporting spousal abuse, since to report such abuse they must in effect admit to being habitual criminals under state law. It is profoundly unjust and inhumane to declare people criminals solely on the basis of whom they love. Furthermore, moral judgments of the sort underlying sodomy laws are the proper function of churches, not legislatures. It is long past time for these reprehensible laws to be abolished.
Administration of the DC Human Rights Act. GLAA has been critical of cutbacks in enforcement of the DC Human Rights Act of 1977, the District's landmark anti-discrimination law. Since 1990 the number of investigators assigned to anti-discrimination complaints has plunged from 14 to just 2; as a direct result, anyone filing a complaint of illegal discrimination today with the District government can expect to wait for 3 to 4 years before a finding of probable cause can be issued. Gerald Draper, head of the Department of Human Rights & Local Business Development, has acknowledged that OHR does not have nearly enough resources to do its job properly. GLAA salutes the DC Council's action last year to mandate mediation at OHR before an investigation is launched into a complaint; this helps make the most of OHR's limited investigative resources.
Ending discrimination by the Boy Scouts. The local chapter of the Boys Scouts of America (BSA) is being sued [Pool v. Boy Scouts of America, Geller v. Boy Scouts of America] because of the national group's rigid policies barring gays from joining either as scouts or as leaders. BSA leaders have claimed an exemption from the District's Human Rights Act on the grounds that BSA is a private club. In fact, since its inception BSA has been heavily supported by government agencies at the municipal, state, and federal levels throughout the country, and has always advertised that membership is open to "all boys" hardly the earmarks of a "private club." The national leadership of BSA is cynically exploiting homophobia to advance its own exclusionary agenda; such bigotry cannot be tolerated under our laws. A ruling in the local cases is expected soon from the District's Commission on Human Rights. We agree with the March 2 ruling by the New Jersey state appeals court: "There is absolutely no evidence before us, empirical or otherwise, supporting a conclusion that a gay scoutmaster, solely because he is homosexual, does not possess the strength of character necessary to properly care for, or to impart BSA humanitarian ideals to the young boys in his charge."
Ending government attacks on the DC Human Rights Act. The District Government itself has launched several attacks in recent years on the integrity of the Human Rights Act by advancing extremely narrow interpretations of its meaning and scope. In the Boy Scouts case cited above, for example, the Department of Human Rights and Local Business Development originally accepted BSA's claim that it is a private club completely overturning earlier rulings on the definition of private clubs handed down in the Big Brothers anti-gay discrimination case. Fortunately, a storm of protests by GLAA and others prompted the intervention of the Corporation Counsel, who has reversed the Department's original interpretation. But the Corporation Counsel's office has argued elsewhere that the District government is exempt from having to comply with the Human Rights Act in the delivery of public services. Equally ominous is the recent argument that the Human Rights Act does not bar harassment of public school students but only bans discrimination in admission policies; if upheld by the courts, this interpretation would open the door for all kinds of legalized harassment. The Human Rights Act of 1977 explicitly carries the admonition that it is to be interpreted broadly and liberally; the recent pattern of legal arguments advanced in the name of the D.C. government is incompatible with this guideline.
Defending Gay Families
Equal marriage rights. An increasing number of both political and religious leaders have come to realize that, in the words of Georgetown University Law School Professor William Eskridge, Jr., "The civilizing influence of family values, with or without children, may ultimately be the best argument for same-sex marriages." Recognizing such unions may be, as Professor Eskridge puts it, "in the interest of civilizing gays and civilizing America." GLAA will oppose efforts by Congress or anyone else to stop the District of Columbia from recognizing same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. Domestic partnership laws are well and good, but they provide at best only limited practical benefits; domestic partnership laws cannot, for example, grant spousal pension rights for survivors, or allow spousal immunity protection in court actions, or allow couples to file income taxes jointly. Accordingly, we hope that eventually the District will grant recognition to same-sex marriages, though for pragmatic reasons we are not pressing for such legislation at present. We agree with U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), the renowned civil rights leader, who stated during the 1996 Congressional debate on the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act: "Marriage is a basic human right."
Adoption. A court decision a few years ago upheld the right of unmarried couples to adopt children jointly in the District. GLAA opposes efforts in Congress to outlaw or restrict such adoptions. The true victims of such posturing would be the children who would otherwise enjoy the benefit of having not one but two legally and financially responsible parents. We believe that the overriding criterion in adoption and custody cases should continue to be the best interests of the child not the best interests of the politicians and other outside parties.
AIDS and Public Health
DC appropriated money. In FY 1996, the District government failed to spend $1 million of its own funds appropriated for the fight against AIDS; in FY 1997 just ended, the same problem reappeared in about the same magnitude. The underspending reflected the District's failure to implement innovative programs for AIDS prevention; in FY 1996, for example, the District failed to get its needle exchange program off the ground, and in FY 1997 the city government did not award contracts for new AIDS prevention programs targetting underserved at-risk populations. At the very end of FY 1997, some funds that otherwise would have been lost were reprogrammed to DC General Hospital to let them stock up on AIDS-fighting drugs for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP), but this is not a good way of doing business especially since activists warned District officials several months earlier that the underspending problem would recur, a warning that went unheeded.
Appropriated District funds that are not spent do not carry over into the next fiscal year but are effectively lost. What is potentially even worse, the District government's underspending has jeopardized the federal funds the city receives each year under the Ryan White Care Act. Other cities that have similarly failed the "maintenance of effort" test mandated by the Ryan White Care Act have indeed endured a cutback in federal funding. We must use every dollar available, both local and federal. GLAA believes that funding for the care and treatment of people with AIDS must continue to rise in proportion to the caseload, which shows no signs of abating. The District's current financial predicament should not be used as an excuse to force cutbacks in AIDS programs locally, and grants must be monitored to ensure that funds are not only spent but spent properly.
Financial management. GLAA supported the designation of a third party to act as a fiscal agent for federal AIDS money (including Ryan White and HOPWA), which was adopted last year by the Financial Control Board. Under the new system, an independent third party, which has no financial ties to the District government, will draw down federal money from accounts at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to pay AIDS service providers directly. The District's Agency for HIV/AIDS will continue to certify that vouchers are submitted accurately and are eligible for payment, and will also continue to set other programmatic objectives and standards. We feel that this system will result in swifter payment to AIDS service providers who are due federal reimbursement. GLAA also remains committed to pursuing such a system for locally appropriated dollars should the District renege on current commitments to bring payments of local money up to date.
Drug assistance food and nutritional support. Now that new life-prolonging drugs are available, we must continue our commitment to spending Ryan White Title II money on the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) which helps pay for drugs for people with no or inadequate insurance coverage. Likewise, we all must remain committed to funding (with both federal and District money) home delivered meals, other nutritional support such as food banks, and also clean drinking water for people with HIV/AIDS. GLAA deplored Mayor Barry's dismissal of former Public Health Commissioner Harvey Sloane, whose chief offense was to warn people with AIDS and other vulnerable persons when the District's water was not safe to drink. The Mayor's insistence that public officials should place their personal loyalty to him above their duties to the public is contemptible beyond words.
Medical marijuana. GLAA supports legalizing the medical use of marijuana when a patient's doctor recommends it to combat some of the effects of AIDS, cancer, or other diseases. We oppose threats by the Clinton Administration to revoke the federal prescription authority for doctors who recommend the use of marijuana for their patients who are not responding properly to other medications.
Prevention. Prevention saves lives and saves money. For this reason GLAA took the lead in supporting condom availability programs in the schools and in prison facilities. Condoms, when properly used, have been proven to help prevent the transmission of HIV from one person to another. If we are all truly serious about stopping the spread of AIDS, support for condom availability programs is important.
It took a prolonged, concerted effort by GLAA and others to establish condom availability programs at Lorton and elsewhere in the face of much bureaucratic indifference and incompetence. The federalization and privatization of the District's correctional facilities threatens to undo our hard-won progress, in addition to making those facilities less accountable to District residents.
GLAA also worked for the enactment of legislation permitting the operation of clean needle exchange programs by AIDS services providers to help stop the transmission of HIV among intravenous drug users. Studies have shown that these programs have not in any way led to increased IV drug use in communities around the country where these programs exist.
Women's health concerns. There are many other medical issues of concern to our community. Lesbians are at particular risk of not having breast and cervical cancers diagnosed early based on lack of access to and sensitivity of medical providers to lesbian sexuality issues. The city needs to make sure that its health centers are staffed with people who are aware of and sensitive to such issues. The needs of women with HIV/AIDS are also often ignored. City agencies which dispense birth control or barriers for disease prevention also need to provide dental dams and/or other barriers for safe lesbian sexuality.
Teen suicides. The number of attempted and completed suicides in this country is disproportionately high among lesbian and gay teens. We demand that the Department of Human Services implement the recommendations of the Sullivan report on teen suicide and ensure that city agencies which provide social and medical services to teens are aware of and practice sensitivity to lesbian and gay youth issues.
Tuberculosis. Drug-resistant TB has begun to spread in this area and needs to be aggressively stamped out before it becomes more entrenched within the population of people with HIV/AIDS and their medical care providers. Programs focusing on alcoholism which are run by or paid for by the city also need to incorporate gay and lesbian concerns in this area.
Introduction. Due to the efforts of GLAA and others, relations between the gay community and the police have greatly improved since the days a quarter century ago when police entrapment and harassment of gay citizens was routine. We cannot afford to allow our hard-won progress to be lost. GLAA has no desire to maintain an adversarial posture toward the police. The gay community has just as much stake in public safety as anyone; this is all the more true in light of the fact that gay people are a frequent target of hate crimes. We are committed to making every effort to work with the police and other officials to improve trust and cooperation between the gay community and those who are sworn to protect us. That trust has been damaged by recent events at MPD, and steps must be taken to earn back that trust. GLAA President Rick Rosendall, along with Sharen Johnson of Gay Men and Lesbians Opposing Violence (GLOV), participated in Mayor Barry's Citizens Advisory Committee on the Selection of the Chief of Police. We are pleased that on the day of his selection as the new chief, Charles Ramsey asked to meet with gay community leaders as soon as possible to discuss our concerns. We look forward to working with Chief Ramsey and his team.
1950s-style extortion scheme. Acting Chief Proctor has indicated that to her knowledge the outrageous extortion scheme allegedly conducted by Lt. Stowe was an isolated case. While we have no evidence to the contrary, this incident has done great damage to relations between the gay community and police; in particular, our colleagues at GLOV have received numerous calls from gay citizens since the Stowe story broke in November who have expressed their reluctance to trust the police. As we have stated, our concern is not only with those on the force who would commit such criminal behavior, but with any of their colleagues who may have known about it and remained silent out of respect for the "Blue Code." The Stowe case underscores the importance not only of sensitivity training, but of strong leadership by top MPD officials to make clear that such behavior will not be tolerated and that offenders will be fired and prosecuted.
Zero Tolerance abuses. The MPD's version of zero tolerance policing last year often more closely resembled zero intelligence, as overzealous officers arrested people for drinking wine on their own front porches (the so-called "Chardonnay Lady" incident, first reported by The InTowner) and for other trivial matters. While the concept of zero tolerance policing may have some validity, it needs to be focused on those small crimes that clearly do lead to greater crimes rather than simply giving police an excuse to harass citizens indiscriminately for the purpose of driving up arrest figures. Any program of this kind requires clear guidelines and strong supervision to ensure that the law-abiding public is truly being protected and not harassed. When officers use the excuse of zero-tolerance policing to throw their weight around arrogantly, community confidence and trust are undermined. The more our police behave like an occupying force rather than as public servants sworn to protect us, the less safe we will all be in the long run. To end police harassment of District residents drinking on their own front porches, GLAA researched and drafted corrective legislation, which has been incorporated in Bill 12-612, "Opened Alcoholic Beverage Containers Amendment Act of 1998," introduced on April 7 by DC Councilmember Carol Schwartz.
Police support of regulatory harassment. One area in which police routinely cooperate with other District agencies is that of regulatory enforcement. Early last year, after the Ibex incident, Chief Soulsy was quoted in the press as stating that he had targeted a number of establishments -- including gay-oriented establishments -- for closing because they had allegedly been associated with violations. This looked very much like a case of the verdict coming before the evidence; it also appeared, as reported in the City Paper, that gay establishments were deliberately and disproportionately targeted.
Homicide investigations. Problems with the MPD's homicide division have affected the gay community. In particular, there were five cross-jurisdictional murder cases involving black gay men who were picked up (or at least last seen) in District bars such as the Bachelor's Mill, and murdered in PG County. Acting Chief Proctor pledged to us that the MPD's coordination with neighboring police departments and the FBI would be improved, and we have been contacted by the new commander of the Homicide unit for our input.
Discriminatory "profiling" of transgendered citizens. Jessica Xavier of Transgender Nation, at a meeting in December between gay community leaders and Acting Chief Sonya Proctor, stated that she had received numerous complaints last year from transgendered persons that they were singled out for harassment by District police officers, and treated like prostitutes, simply on the basis of their appearance. Our position is simply that the law should be enforced consistently, and that transgendered persons not be assumed by police to be prostitutes simply on the basis of their appearance.
Restoring the Civilian Complaint Review Board. The DC Council rashly abolished the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) in 1995 without providing an alternative mechanism for effectively handling complaints of police abuse. GLAA strongly supports civilian review of complaints of excessive force or abusive language on the part of members of the Metropolitan Police Department. The original system broke down due to inadequate staffing and budgetary resources, combined with stout resistance from police unions and management alike to the entire principle of civilian oversight. Legislation to establish a new, stronger CCRB (with subpoena powers) is expected to be passed by the Council this year. It represents many months of effort by Councilmembers Jack Evans and Sandy Allen and community groups including GLAA and the local offices of ACLU and NAACP.
Hate crimes enforcement. Passage of the Bias-Related Crimes Act of 1990 was one of the great legislative achievements affecting the gay and lesbian community in recent years. GLAA believes that the Council needs to be vigilant in exercising its oversight responsibilities to ensure that the MPD is training all its members to recognize, respond to, and document bias-related crimes. It should be noted that decisions by the U.S. Attorney's office to "no paper" various cases have caused great frustration on the part of police as well as citizens. This is another negative consequence of the District's lack of self-determination.
Improving community-police relations. GLAA commends the excellent work done in recent years by Gay Men & Lesbians Opposing Violence (GLOV) to improve relations between the MPD and the District's gay and lesbian community. To continue this trend, the MPD must continue to conduct sensitivity training led by gay men and lesbians for both new and veteran police, with payments to these trainers comparable to rates paid other trainers. Such training helps police to respond effectively when gay people are crime victims or witnesses or when same-sex couples are involved in cases of domestic violence. In addition to training, police officers must be given clear guidelines and careful supervision to ensure that their law enforcement activities are not discredited by trampling on civil liberties.
Discrimination by emergency caregivers. In 1995 a transgendered citizen, Tyra Hunter, died following a traffic accident when certain rescue workers from the D.C. Fire Department allegedly withheld proper and timely emergency treatment from her because of their own prejudices. The Fire Department's mishandling of this case undermined the entire community's confidence in the Department's fairness and competence.
The DC Fire Department again failed to give proper medical service in 1996 when two gay men were assaulted by a homophobe in Dupont Circle. Because the Department's personnel refused to render proper assistance on the scene, the victims were forced to walk a mile to George Washington University Hospital for treatment. We have heard of other complaints of similar misconduct by emergency medical personnel when confronted with persons with AIDS in need of immediate aid. Fire Chief Donald Edwards needs to be more outspoken and visible in leading efforts to eradicate this kind of improper activity by members of his department.
In 1996, Mayor Barry and former Fire Chief Otis Latin made a commitment to develop and implement an enhanced community relations training program for all Department personnel, including strong recognition of gay and lesbian community concerns. The delays in carrying out this promise have been unconscionable.
Harassment of gay-oriented businesses. The last year has witnessed a rash of incidents where District government regulatory agencies chiefly the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), the ABC Board, the Metropolitan Police Department, and the Fire Department have deliberately targeted gay businesses for unfair and unwarranted harassment. Problems escalated when Police Chief Soulsby kicked off his self-styled "zero tolerance" campaign by singling out several gay or gay-oriented bars that he bluntly promised he would close because of an alleged excess of complaints coming from around those places regardless of whether those problems were at all the responsibility of those bars. "Zero tolerance" has too often degenerated into examples of "zero intelligence" by overzealous police officers, especially when they are pulled into dubious schemes hatched by Inspector James Delgado and others from DCRA. In light of DCRA's inability to handle its normal responsibilities to the public health and safety because of budgetary restrictions, the diversion of scarce resources into raids against innocent businesses such as the now-defunct Cusano's Meet Market on 17th Street NW is truly intolerable.
On January 29, 1998, DCRA issued a draft opinion stating that video stores would be reclassified as sexually oriented establishments (forcing most if not all of them to close due to zoning restrictions) if more than 15 percent of their items on display had adult content. This assault on First Amendment freedoms shows that DCRA remains as dysfunctional as ever, with government-imposed morality taking higher priority than defending the public health and safety.
Public Education & Youth
Equal Access Act. Homophobes in Utah attracted national attention when the State Legislature passed a law banning all non-curriculum-related clubs in public high schools, thereby abolishing a slew of clubs ranging from chess clubs to Bible study groups. This absurd law was passed because students in Utah had established a number of gay/straight alliances; under the federal Equal Access Act enacted nearly a decade ago, schools must either allow any non-curriculum related clubs or else ban all of them. Other strategies are also being advanced to circumvent the Equal Access Act, all of them designed to suppress free speech in our public schools. GLAA is gratified to know that there have been a number of gay-supportive clubs formed over the years in District public schools and expects our elected officials to uphold their right to exist.
Censorship. Fairfax County has received much unwelcome attention in the past several years because of efforts by Religious Right activists to bar gay and lesbian publications such as The Washington Blade from public libraries. Efforts to bar gay and lesbian books from public and school libraries are also widespread across the country. The Religious Right has also targeted a host of school textbooks and curriculum materials that fail to reflect their own hostility against lesbians and gay men. Such assaults on the First Amendment must be resisted by all government officials.
Social services for gay youth. The District government should do all in its power to assist the activities of the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL) and similar groups in training educators and social workers on issues affecting gay and lesbian youth. Teen suicide issues and services for gay and lesbian street kids are among the topics where mainstream service agencies are often found wanting. Homophobia kills, and young people are often the most vulnerable.
No government-endorsed school prayer. GLAA joined the local ACLU, People for the American Way, and other plaintiffs in a suit last year challenging the acceptability of a proposed initiative to authorize government-endorsed, "student-initiated" prayers in public schools. Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Alprin threw out the initiative because it was patently unconstitutional. GLAA strongly supports the First Amendment principle of church/state separation; those who want to tear down the wall of separation usually intend to deny equal rights under the law to lesbians and gay men as well.
No vouchers for private sectarian schools. D.C. voters rejected the concept of taxpayer-financed vouchers for private schools in a 1981 referendum by a decisive margin of 9-to-1. Nevertheless, under the spurious banner of "populism," several Congressional leaders have tried to ram a voucher program aiding sectarian and other private schools down the throats of District citizens. GLAA opposes public subsidies for private schools, in part because most private schools are run by religious denominations violently hostile to lesbians and gay men. Private school vouchers imposed by Congress would be another wanton violation of home rule principles and would ultimately be struck down by the courts as patently unconstitutional.
Assaults on Self-Government
Introduction. The virtual coup against home rule imposed by Congress and approved by President Clinton in the summer of 1997 made a bad situation even worse. Stripping our elected officials of their duties and responsibilities did not remove politics as a factor in the conduct of the District government. Rather, the District government has been made beholden to national political interests, which are often distinctly hostile to District residents in general and to gay and lesbian residents in particular.
Dumping democracy in favor of consultocracy will solve few if any problems and is already leading to new abuses. Defying a long-established trend across the nation towards greater openness in political decision-making, the District's new masters seem addicted to a reign of secrecy for secrecy's sake, a prejudice that merely protects the guilty from the public wrath they deserve. We the people of the District of Columbia have to be the saviors of our city, once we learn to demand that our elected officials do their jobs properly.
Board of Education. We deplore the Control Board's de facto suspension of the District's elected Board of Education until June 2000. The 3-week delay in opening our public schools in the fall of 1997 because of mistakes made under the direction of General Becton as well as systemic problems with the District's procurement process merely demonstrates that bumbling and inefficiency did not end with the gutting of the powers of our school board. We do not deny that the School Board acted foolishly and irresponsibly and brought itself down by its own incompetence; but we believe that the proper solution belongs in the hands of the District's voters, not an outside party subservient to Congress. Neither, for that matter, do we believe that our intractable national problems, badly bungled by a Democratic President and a Republican Congress, should be handed over to the British Parliament to resolve, on the theory that American independence and democracy was a noble experiment that just didn't work out.
No federal takeover of police. Along with our allies in the ACLU, NAACP, and others, we firmly oppose a federal takeover of the Metropolitan Police Department, which has been advocated by U.S. Senator Lauch Faircloth. Home rule has had a distinct positive effect on improving relations between the police and the gay and lesbian community; by contrast, a police force directly under the thumb of Congress would quickly lose the confidence of the gay and lesbian community, not to mention that of the general community. Far from increasing long-term prospects for public safety, federalization of our police department would damage community-police relations, undermine the public trust that is crucial to successful law enforcement, and create a dangerous situation in which the police are seen as a hostile occupying force rather than as public servants who are part of the local community and answerable to the citizens and their elected representatives.
Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, DC
P.O. Box 75265, Washington, DC 20013-5265
Voice Mail: (202)667-5139
For more information, visit GLAA online at
Free State Justice Campaign
Virginians for Justice
Gay Men and Lesbians Opposing Violence (GLOV)
Sharen Johnson, Executive Director
1511 K Street, NW, Suite 821
Washington, DC 20005
Hot Line: (202)737-4568 (for reporting hate crimes)
Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League
The Washington Blade
1408 U Street, NW, 2nd Floor
Washington, DC 20009-3916