MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Today we want to spend a good bit of time talking about race and faith, and how those issues interplay with the struggle for the rights and dignity of same gender loving people. Since, last year when California voters approved a measure stripping same gender loving people of the right to marry in that state, voting of course on the same day the country elected its first African- American president with black voters there actually more likely to oppose gay marriage than some other groups, many people have been having intense discussions about whether African-Americans are more likely to be homophobic. Whether African-Americans because of their strong religious beliefs are more likely to oppose gay marriage. Or whether any of this in fact true or whether the stereotypes about both blacks and gays are ruling these discussions.
It's a complex issue and we wanted to talk about how this issue is being lived day to day. So, in a few minutes we're going to talk with two prominent African-American faith leaders who take different views of the issue of same sex marriage and other issues around gay rights.
But first, we're going to start right here in Washington, D.C. In a recent 12 to one vote, the Washington, D.C. city council decided to recognize gay marriages legally performed in other jurisdictions. The sole dissenting vote was councilman and former mayor Marion Barry. He joins us at our Washington, D.C. studio for our weekly political chat. Thank you so much for being with us.
MARION BARRY: Thank you very much Michel. It's really good to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
MARTIN: One of the reasons I think your vote attracted a lot is that, when you were mayor, you were known as a very strong advocate for the gay community.
BARRY: Well, I'm still am a strong advocate of gay community. In fact my advocacy goes back to 1971, when I was president of the school board. And I stopped a firing of an openly gay person at (unintelligible) tech high school here in Washington. But I think we had to look at the total picture of why I did what I did.
MARTIN: I did, that's what I was going to ask next. I wanted to ask, first was it a difficult vote for you? And tell me why you...
BARRY: Of course it was difficult. I mean it was agonizing. Because I was torn between that which I think is right, still think is right or may be right. But we are a democracy, imperfect as it is, we have it, which allows for dissent. Then we are representative form of government. I represent at this time the 70,000 people who live in ward 8. At one point I represented 550,000 people living in Washington, I was mayor for 16 years. So, I think we've put that in a context. The other context we have to put it into is that the African-American community is very conservative on this issue. They are not only conservative on the issue of same sex marriage, they are conservative on civil unions, they are conservative on domestic partnerships. And I support all of that. So to question my advocacy in general is wrong. This should not be a litmus test.
MARTIN: But when you say you're torn between what you think is right and what you think is politically...
BARRY: No, I didn't say politically...
MARTIN: Go ahead.
BARRY: I said it was right in the reality of where we are.
MARTIN: Well, what do you think is right?
BARRY: That reality - I don't want to discuss that. I want to discuss democracy, representative form of government and the fact that an African- American community, 70 to 80 percentages of people are opposed to same sex marriage. And in a religious community, particularly a black Baptist community, it's 98 percent. There are some Baptist preachers, who I disagree with, believe that homosexuality or bi-sexuality or transgender, it's a sin. Now, as a (unintelligible) I think they are in a majority. Then there's some who will accept the fact that god want you to love everybody, he may not love their lifestyle. That's the context (unintelligible).
MARTIN: Are you saying that you don't feel your personal views are relevant here? You feel that acting as a member of the council is your duty to reflect the beliefs, the deeply held beliefs of the people in your district, as you understand them?
BARRY: No, no, I believe in democracy, which allows a right to dissent for whatever reason I want to dissent.
MARTIN: There was a very intense discussion on the council about this issue, as you know. And there was a fairly charged exchange between you and fellow council member David Catania, who is one of the two openly gay members of the council. And The Washington Post quoted you as saying, I resent Mr. Catania saying, either you are a bigot or against bigotry as though this particular legislation represents all of that. Do you feel that you are being cast as a bigot now because of this vote? And the other reason I'm curious about this obviously is because you were also before you went into elected office, were a very active member of the civil rights movement. In fact many people remember you from that time.
BARRY: Well it comes together very, very, very simple. If you believe in democracy, you have the right to dissent for whatever reason you want dissent. If you believe in representative form of government you listen to your constituency then you listen to your own conscious and your own mind. I've fought for civil unions and domestic partnership against the wishes of the majority of my constituency. I was in front of that, I argued with these Baptist ministers, who felt very strongly that I was on the wrong side of that.
MARTIN: You still believe in civil unions? You still support civil unions?
BARRY: Of course, what do you mean still? What kind of question is that?
MARTIN: No, I'm just asking. So, marriage...
BARRY: My history is replete with advocacy of this community.
MARTIN: There are those who argue that the rights and dignity of same gender loving people is the logical extension of the civil rights movement. What you say about that?
BARRY: Well, people can argue anything. Back to being castigated. Take Clarence Page, a distinguish journalist on the Chicago Tribune column. Wrote a column I guess about a week ago, Marion Barry sniffs out gay marriage. And that was low down. He ought to be ashamed of himself. I respect him but to go back some 20 years where I was set up by the FBI, spent $40 million. And there were no evidence that I ever smoke crack in that room (unintelligible) jury nine to three wanted to vote for acquittal on everything. And it was just wrong of him to stoop so low to personalize it that way. And the Washington Post sometimes does it.
MARTIN: Are you hurt, are your feelings hurt?
BARRY: No, hell no. I mean, I'm too tough for that. I've been around too long. It's not a personal thing with me.
MARTIN: But to this question of whether as a former civil rights leader, how do you address this argument that this is the logical extension of the civil rights movement?
BARRY: To me that wasn't the issue of gay marriage, for me it wasn't the issue. If the issue came tomorrow that I could support the gay, lesbian community I would do so. And I can't think of any issue at this point except gay marriages. And in fact it's interesting, Obama and I had the same views about this. He came out of community organizing, he's respecting a constituency and our own personal feelings about it. So I feel comfortable with my vote, I just get pissed at those who wants to castigate me and want to make this my litmus test. And I get pissed at my colleagues who want to make me sound like I'm a bigot, either you are or you're not, which is BS. And so I just disregard all that, I'm going to fight for the rights of the gay, lesbian transgender (unintelligible) community, until I die.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Washington, D.C. city council member, the former mayor of Washington. D.C. Marion Barry. And we're talking about his recent vote opposing a bill that would allow the District of Columbia to recognize same sex marriages performed legally elsewhere. After the council meeting, you said that all hell is going to break loose. We may have a civil war, the black community is just adamant against this. There were a lot of articles written in the paper, people who wrote letters to the local papers, saying that that's just not true, that the African-American community is as divided on this as others.
BARRY: The African-American community is not that divided. The great majority of African-American people in general, from my experience, and studies and reading about it and Prop 8, indicates that we're 60 to 70 percent opposed to gay marriages. That's not a divided, that's a majority who's there. The ones who support it are in a minority.
MARTIN: Sure, but there are those who would say, drawing the analogy again around the civil rights movement, that the proof of justice is not in the voice of the majority. That if it was a matter of everybody agreeing with or supporting equal rights for African-Americans we would never have had it, that there had to be sort of an ultimate claim of justice which prevailed. What's your view of that?
BARRY: That's not a good analogy. I'm talking about the moment. You know, if you take something in general, you can make that argument. But when it comes to the particular parts of it, I make a differentiation between democracy and representative form of government in my own conscience. Then what you're talking about is the general thing. We had a editor from the Washington Post who had the audacity to say, what if you were in the South and a white person said, go slow, what would your reaction be? Trying to make that analogy which is not analogy. I said, well, here's the difference. I am a lone advocate in this community, working hard.
When I was in the South, I couldn't find white people who would be a lone advocate. That's the difference.
MARTIN: Councilman, Mr. Mayor you are known as a pretty smart political analyst...
BARRY: I am.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: And where do you think this issue is going?
BARRY: Oh, back to what you said earlier about the civil war. I'm talking to two of the reporters, you know, we joshing back and forth with each other after the council meeting. And one of them asked me, (unintelligible). I think there will be pretty, we just had a scuffle out in the hallway between some menaces and some gay activists, (unintelligible), you know, (unintelligible) and I said, maybe like a civil war. That was bull, I mean, I was just chatting and he knew that. I do think that passions are going to run higher as they have all over the country.
MARTIN: But where do you think it goes from here?
BARRY: Those who advocate same sex marriage, will introduce legislation. I know it's going to come. I have to make some decisions then. One thing about what I did, I didn't go around trying to corral any hooks. In this instance, it was an individual decision and I didn't go to try to get anybody on the other side to change their view about it. That's the difference, that's why I get upset. People kind of castigate me as though I'm out here lobbying against this thing and litmus test, and et cetera.
Now, I tell you what I thought would have been a vote of conscience. Washington, D.C. has the strongest human rights law in America, 14 protected classes. When I have proposed that law and had lifestyle in it, there was a uproar all over the city about it, so when I censured the city council at the hearings...
MARTIN: This is when you were mayor...
BARRY: ...Yeah, when I was mayor. But I stood firm, that was a push of conscience. I mean I just felt consciously that I had to stand for lifestyle to be included in that category of the strongest human right law, which I proposed, which got through the council, which I signed to do that, that was vote of conscience.
MARTIN: Can I ask you though, finally, we were talking about how, where you think this issue goes from here politically. What about in the African-American community. It is your sense, and I do have to say though, there are those who disagree with you, but it is your sense that African-American as a community on the whole oppose same sex marriage, per se. Do you see that as movable, as changing?
BARRY: It's not my sense. It's demonstrated all over America. And as I said, Prop 8 is just another example where African-American people came out in large numbers against Prop 8.
MARTIN: I know but there is just some data that suggests that the issue there that's most relevant is not race but faith, it's rather that the more likely you were to be a regular churchgoer, and African-Americans were more likely to be regular churchgoers, the more likely you were to support repealing the same sex marriage. And so do you think that that's an issue in flux or do you think that's where people are right now?
BARRY: It's just a hot issue. It's not the hottest issue in America, you know, the economy, I think is the hottest issue. But certainly ought to be one that we have to deal with.
MARTIN: Marion Barry, he's a member of Washington, D.C. City Council. He's the former long time mayor of Washington, D.C. And he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Councilman, Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for joining us.
BARRY: Thank you so much, Michel.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.