Members of a D.C. Police and Fire Department honor guard carried a white coffin bearing the body of gay former Council member Jim Graham into the John A. Wilson Building just before noon on Friday as part of a ceremony honoring Graham’s years of service as a Council member and advocate for many of the city’s diverse communities.
Mayor Muriel Bowser, Council Chair Phil Mendelson and many current and former Council members stood at the top of the steps of the main entrance of the Wilson Building, which serves as D.C.’s City Hall, to greet a procession bearing the coffin and Graham’s friends and family members.
The grand entrance marked the start of a ceremony in which Bowser, Mendelson and others who knew Graham during his 16 years on the Council spoke of what they called Graham’s dedication and outspoken advocacy for city residents who often were overlooked and in need of city services.
Graham died on June 11 at George Washington University Hospital of complications associated with an intestinal infection. He was 71.
Graham’s coffin lay in state in the Wilson Building entrance foyer for five hours on Friday as city officials, former staff members and members of the communities for whom he advocated, including a large contingent of LGBT activists and LGBT friends, walked past the coffin to pay their respects.
In a gesture considered appropriate by those who knew Graham, his former Council staff members arranged for a rainbow flag configured into a giant bow tie to be placed over the coffin.
“As we were thinking about all of the different cultures that Jim touched, of course the primary one was the gay community because that’s where he came from,” said Calvin Woodland, Jr., who served as chief of staff for Graham’s Council office.
Woodland said that although everyone knows of Graham’s advocacy for the LGBT community, his staff and many of his Ward 1 constituents know Graham also was a strong advocate for other constituencies, including the African American, Asian and Latino communities.
In her remarks at the ceremony, Bowser noted that Graham welcomed her into the fold of the Council when she was first elected as a Ward 4 Council member. She said she quickly observed Graham’s dedication to his constituents and to providing constituent services, especially for the poor and for tenants, for whom Bowser said Graham emerged as a champion.
Mendelson noted that he and Graham both won election to the Council for the first time in 1998.
“It’s clear from the turnout today that he touched a lot of people,” Mendelson said. “He took pride in his work representing Ward 1.
Among those attending the Wilson Building ceremony was gay former D.C. Council member David Catania, who became the first openly gay person to win a seat on the Council. Graham won election to the Council as an openly gay candidate one year after Catania won his race for an at-large Council seat.
“As Chairman Mendelson said in his remarks today, this is a bittersweet event,” Catania said. “It gives you an opportunity to reflect on all the incredible things that Jim did on behalf of the city,” he said. “What was said today is absolutely true. Jim was a champion, one of the smartest, hardest working, most capable members this body has ever seen.”
Jackie Reyes, who served as director of Latino affairs for Graham’s Council office, said Graham became a beloved figure among the large number of Latino immigrants who live in Ward 1. She noted that to become better informed about the needs and problems faced by Latino immigrants Graham traveled to Latin American, including El Salvador, where Reyes is from, to see firsthand the circumstances that prompt so many people to immigrate to the U.S.
“Our community is so indebted to him and we love him so much,” Reyes told the Blade. “It’s a great loss today.”
Others who attended the memorial ceremony were former mayor and current Ward 7 Council member Vincent Gray; and former Council members Vincent Orange, Yvette Alexander, Carol Schwartz and Michael A. Brown.
Another one of Graham’s Council chiefs of staff, Teddy Loza, delivered an emotional eulogy telling how Graham became a mentor and close friend to him and his family. Loza’s daughter, Mayari Loza Munoz, sang the hymn Amazing Grace at the ceremony.
Also attending the ceremony was Don Blanchon, the current executive director of Whitman-Walker Health, which was known as Whitman-Walker Clinic during the time Graham served as its executive director from 1984 to 1999. Blanchon said Graham’s leadership of Whitman-Walker during the early years of the AIDS epidemic set the standard for both health care and advocacy for people with HIV AIDS in D.C. and throughout the country.
A funeral service was scheduled to take place for Graham at noon on Saturday, June 24, at All Souls Unitarian Church at 16th and Harvard Streets, N.W. A viewing was scheduled to take place at the church from 10 a.m. to noon prior to the start of the service.