Equal Protection Under the Sheets

Equal Protection Under the Sheets

by Richard J. Rosendall

Testimony on the sodomy law repeal bill
D.C. Council Judiciary Committee

Friday, January 29, 1993

Mr. Chairman, my name is Richard Rosendall. I am a second-generation native Washingtonian and a computer specialist at the U.S. Department of Labor. I am a member of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, and a co-founder of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington. I am also an unindicted felon -- even though I have never harmed anyone -- simply because of what I do in bed.

I am here to urge passage of Bill 10-30, which legalizes so-called acts of sodomy in private between consenting adults. I appeal not only for myself, but for those too afraid to come before you: the young Salvadoran social worker fighting illiteracy, under-employment, and AIDS in the Latino community; the Nigerian cab driver studying to become a computer scientist; my Malaysian friend, whose strict Moslem faith fills him with anguish whenever he yields to his desires; and the Lesbian health care volunteer who is afraid of losing her regular job. All of these people and more are criminalized because of their way of loving.

The current sodomy law actually applies as much to heterosexuals as to homosexuals, because it refers to specific acts in a gender-neutral way. In practice, however, it has been discriminatorily enforced and used to stigmatize and harass Gay people. In any case, it is a gross violation of privacy and a shameful blot on a city that prides itself on its commitment to civil liberties.

The bill now before us is loudly opposed by a number of homophobic ministers. When they use the Bible to justify their bigotry, they are like wolves in shepherds' clothing, spreading hatred while claiming to preach the Gospel of love. I consider this a perversion of religion, but the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution protects their right to believe and worship as they please; that same Bill of Rights forbids them from imposing their religion on me. To quote Betty Ann Kane, it is for the ministers to tell their congregations what is moral and immoral; it is for members of the D.C. Council to decide what shall be the law.

Thirty years ago this August, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and eloquently challenged his nation to live out the true meaning of its creed. One of the persons most responsible for putting Dr. King on those steps was a black Gay man named Bayard Rustin. He had to stay in the background at the time because the march organizers had enough trouble without having his homosexuality hung around their necks. That was 1963. Now, before the thirtieth anniversary of that day passes, it is time to honor the legacy of Bayard Rustin by repudiating once and for all the notion that his love was a crime.

It has been more than eleven years since the one-house Congressional veto was used to overturn D.C.'s Sexual Assault Reform Act. The Supreme Court long since ruled the one-house veto unconstitutional. A legislative veto is much more difficult now, requiring a vote by both houses of Congress and a signature by the President. Just a few weeks ago, our Congressional Delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, improved her bargaining position by winning the right to vote in the Committee of the Whole. In addition, we have just inaugurated a pro-Gay, Democratic President. The times have changed, a fact which it does not require much political courage to recognize. The greater question before us is whether we are up to the challenge of these new times.

As long as the present colonial travesty of "Home Rule" remains in effect, Congressional interference is always a possibility. But we have never allowed that to deter us from seeking Statehood, and neither should we in the case of sodomy reform. As Councilmember Smith stated, "There is never a good time for defending people's rights." Instead of second-guessing the reaction in Congress, members of the Council should attend to their own responsibilities toward the citizens of the District.

In the words of President Clinton, "We don't have a person to waste." The enemies of social progress and of Statehood are too numerous and powerful for us to squander people and energy by perpetuating the injustice of having one standard for straight people and a different one for Gay people. How can we trust each other as neighbors when our own elected officials cynically try to mollify bigoted ministers by playing ridiculous games with the age of consent laws? If 16 years of age is old enough for some sexual acts, why is it too young for others? The only possible reason is prejudice, call it what you will.

When the human rights of one group are infringed, everyone is diminished. The sodomy law lies coiled like a sleeping serpent around the heart of our city, and we will all be threatened by its venom until we strike it down. What your Gay and Lesbian neighbors are asking for, what we are demanding, is equal protection under the Law -- neither more nor less.

I once had the privilege of standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with Gay Men's Choruses from three cities. We sang proudly, as the great Marian Anderson had done from those same steps, that this country belongs to us, too. By passing this bill you have the power to advance the cause of justice, and to recognize at long last that Dr. King's dream and Marian Anderson's dream and Bayard Rustin's dream were the same. Their legacy is part of my heritage as an American and a Washingtonian. Do not dishonor it now by heeding the voices of hatred and intolerance and division.

Thank you.

Copyright 1993 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.