06/16/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fresh Ring for Freedom Day in D.C.

Today marks Emancipation Day in the District of Columbia. The holiday commemorates President Lincoln's signing of the law in 1862 that paid for the liberation of more than 3,000 slaves and ended human bondage in the capital. The event this year has added resonance.

Coming so quickly upon the end of inequality in access to civil marriage in Washington, the celebration holds special meaning for thousands of same-sex couples of all races who call the city home. The newfound right of LGBT people to gain equal legal protection for partnerships under D.C. law starting this spring is notable not only for the sweetness of the result, but also for the multiracial, interfaith coalition that won it.

Progress on the human rights of gay people in the District was not always so swift or secure. In 1981, a bid to overturn the city's sodomy law ran into a buzz saw of opposition in Congress. The late Jerry Falwell used the spat to raise his political profile and thousands of dollars from supporters nationwide.

And it took nine years for the city to implement its domestic partnership ordinance, which Republicans in Congress starting in 1992 stymied from becoming law. Friends and colleagues of the late Wanda Alston, a lesbian activist and aide to former mayor Anthony Williams, recall how she led celebrations in late 2001 when the policy finally took effect.

Even the recent advance on equal access to civil marriage in the District required years of careful organizing and cultivation of community and clergy allies. The Revs. Christine and Dennis Wiley, co-pastors of Covenant Baptist Church, and the Rev. Graylan Hagler of Plymouth Congregational have spoken about searching their souls, their experience, and the scriptures to conclude that supporting the equality of their LGBT congregants and neighbors meant heeding the highest calling of their ministry.

Similar to prohibitions on certain kinds of referenda in states like Massachusetts and New Mexico, District law includes a provision that bars ballot measures on human rights. The same majority of public opinion that helped usher the marriage bill towards its signing by Mayor Fenty last December at All Souls Church will therefore not need to reassert itself in a direct vote after a divisive campaign.

One highlight of this season's marriages was the heterosexual couple who joined many same-sex counterparts March 4 in seeking license to wed. In a powerful statement of solidarity, they had refused to initiate their own civil marriage until city law expanded the institution to include same-sex couples.

Another telling footnote has played out in same-sex ceremonies and photo ops in the city's downtown parks and Tidal Basin. These florid meeting places just six decades earlier were ground zero in a zealous sting operation by the federal government, with the complicity of District officials, to arrest so-called sex deviants who frequented the parks as meeting and pick-up spots. In the context of Cold-War policies categorizing "perverts" as security risks, many in the federal civil service lost their jobs and careers as a result of the witchhunt and some, interrogated and pressured to reveal gay friends, committed suicide.

Frank Kameny, considered the father of the gay rights movement in Washington, traces his activism to ensnarement in such a sting. His five-decade fight to win and defend federal workplace policies barring adverse treatment based on sexual orientation and non-work-related conduct highlights governments' own obligations to overcome their prior, pro-active role in discrimination. Hardly a walk in the park, Kameny's campaign was a major step in winning dignity and freedom for gay people in the capital of the free world.

Great challenges remain in achieving that goal. The Congress has not yet enacted a basic nondiscrimination measure covering LGBT people. Most Americans believe incorrectly that such bias was long ago outlawed. And the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars inclusion of same-sex couples in more than a thousand federal benefits of marriage, prevents marriages like those in D.C. and five states from gaining federal recognition.

Poets like Walt Whitman remind us that holidays in the capital used to echo with the ringing of church bells, even when all residents of the city could not join equally in such celebration. This Emancipation Day in Washington, the bells of the city resound for one and all.

Hans Johnson is a longtime Washingtonian, columnist, and commentator on religion and LGBT politics. Vanessa Dixon is a native Washingtonian and a prominent labor and health care activist.