We demand full equality

October 12, 2009

Eric Ruder reports from Washington on the National Equality March--and the birth of a new civil rights movement for LGBT people in the U.S.

YOUNG AND old, gay and straight, people from across the country descended on Washington, D.C., to demand full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people on October 11. They came by plane, train, bus and automobile--from Albuquerque, N.M., from Burlington, Vt., from Chicago, from Texas, from Florida, from California and from a thousand points in between.

People started gathering in the morning at McPherson Square, buzzing with nervous anticipation about just how many would mobilize for the first national march for LGBT rights in a decade and a half. By the time the march stepped off at noon, everyone knew that the crowd was large, but it did not become clear just how large until the front of the march headed west and then snaked back past the White House--with tens of thousands still waiting in and around the square to start moving!

In all, some 200,000 people formed a river of humanity that flooded the blocks around the White House and the Capitol, filling the streets with rainbow flags, handmade signs and a festival-like atmosphere. The turnout exceeded even the wildest expectations of march organizers.

Marching for LGBT rights at the National Equality March
Marching for LGBT rights at the National Equality March (Eric Ruder | SW)

"I think that there are generations of younger activists and straight allies who over the last 15 years have been awakening to the need for them to speak out about LGBT equality, and so this march came at the right time," said Urvashi Vaid, an LGBT activist and author.

It tapped into that energy. A lot of people I've met said that this is their first march on Washington, so I think that's important. Marches are about mobilizing the base, and the base of LGBT rights needs to go back around the country and work at the local level. Each time we have had a national march like this, we have had an upsurge in grassroots activism at home.

"I think the turnout reflects a shift of attitude in the community itself," said David McElhatton, a member of the march steering committee from San Francisco. He added:

For a long time, we have relied on massive non-profits and lobbying organizations that are very much out of touch with the needs of this community and who this community is.

We are a vastly diverse group of people, and this was an entirely grassroots effort. It began with a call for anyone in the country to organize to get out here. My organization in San Francisco, One Struggle, One Fight, raised money for HIV-positive activists and transgender activists to get out here. This march was spearheaded by people, not by corporations or overpowering organizations.

No one was shut out of this march. Every possible effort was made to keep this march inclusive and diverse as the community itself to make sure that no one was shut out, to make sure that there was trans inclusion, and trans figures, which was very important to me personally.

What you can do

To get involved with the rebirth of the LGBT movement, help build Equality Across America--a national grassroots network that fights for full LGBT equality. Text your e–mail address and zip code to 37686, or sign up online at EqualityAcrossAmerica.org.

PEOPLE OF all sorts came out for the march. Alongside the many first-time marchers were veteran activists, families with children, groups of friends, veteran and active-duty troops, students from campus organizations, members of labor unions, immigrant rights activists, and people of every race, creed and color. Together they stood, united around one simple message--full equality for LGBT people in all matters governed by civil law.

Hundreds of students representing a new generation of LGBT activists carried the lead banner of the march, bursting with energy as they marched through the streets. "Get up, get down, there's a civil rights movement in this town!" was one of the favorite chants that these students belted with all their might.

As one student from the University of Cincinnati who traveled to Washington, D.C., for the march said:

We are here to demonstrate that this movement is strong. There are countless people involved in the movement that are willing to come down here and demonstrate, support and fight for our rights. We need to get our message across. We need to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" [DADT] and the so-called Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA]. We must enact the Employment Non-Discrimination Act [ENDA].

"I think, given the economy, the most important demand is having rights in our workplace," said Bridie Jurasevich, a student from Indiana. "I think when it comes to parenting rights and equal adoption rights, marriage equality is crucial. I just don't understand why I don't have this right. I pay taxes. I work. I should have the same rights as everyone else."

Frank Naso, one of the thousands who was participating for the first time in a big march, explained that it was his frustration with the pace of change that made him decide to come to Washington from New York City:

I started to get more politically active after realizing that Obama was not going to be able to deliver on some of the things he promised. It made me realize that it's not really the person but the system that needs to be changed. That was the moment for me that made me feel like that I had to get up and do something.

This march makes me think of all the people who aren't here, that I've lost, that would be here. I feel like I'm here for them, too. So many of my friends died of AIDS in the early '90s. We went through so much in the '90s--not being able to visit friends in the hospital, not being considered family. I feel like I am marching for them.

ONE OF the many topics that marchers discussed as they made their way through the streets was the speech delivered by Barack Obama at a fundraiser for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) the night before. HRC promotes itself as the largest LGBT organization in the country, but many in the LGBT community were disappointed by HRC's decision not to put its full weight behind the march, or even help to publicize it broadly.

Obama's speech expressed his support for the full legislative agenda of the new LGBT movement, including the repeal of DADT and DOMA and the passage of ENDA. But he didn't say anything about a timeline for achieving these goals. There was a spectrum of opinion about the speech and what this means for the nascent LGBT movement.

"I thought it was a strong speech," said Vaid. She added:

I thought it was unequivocally in support. He didn't set a timetable, which people are criticizing, and I think we should keep the pressure on the administration. But they are clearly our friends, and he is clearly committed in a way that would be very hard not to follow through on. I think people should turn their disappointment toward Congress and to governors and state legislatures. People should turn their disappointment into political organizing back home to create the new majority that we're going to need to sustain social justice in this country.

But for Katie Rodriguez, a Princeton student originally from San Antonio, Texas, Obama and the Democrats in Congress are playing political football with LGBT rights. "We need to become more visible to the country," said Rodriguez. "And to Obama, we cannot be silent. We want equality. Congress has other priorities right now, and I feel like Obama is a really smooth talker. Maybe this march will help pressure him. It's good for him to see that we are not going to tolerate this. People are getting more active."

Related to the question of Obama's posture toward LGBT demands is the stance of the rest of the Democrats in positions of power--both in government and in the party--and it's clear that many continue to counsel "patience."

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), for example, predicted that Obama would succeed at repealing DADT at some point in the future. "I think he will and he can, but it has to be done in the right way, which is to get a buy-in from the military, which I think is now possible," Levin said.

But it's disappointing when a Democratic "ally" is more cautious than such figures as retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey. "There's no question that it's time to change the policy," said McCaffrey. "The key to it isn't buy-in from the military; it's for Congress to change the law. They ought to do so, and I'm confident that the military will move ahead on it."

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the first openly gay member of Congress, was even more hostile, denouncing the marchers for not putting more energy into lobbying. "The only thing they're going to be putting pressure on is the grass," said Frank.

For this reason, one of the more popular chants, especially among students, was "Barney Frank, fuck you!"

Another issue, played up by the media in the days leading up to the march, was the "rift" in the movement between those who advocate a state-by-state approach to winning LGBT rights and those who favor a national strategy to demand full equality at the federal level.

"I hope we don't wake up the day after Election Day and realize we could have won Maine if only so many resources weren't put toward the march," Lynne Bowman, executive director of Equality Ohio, told the New York Times in the days leading up to the march.

Cleve Jones, who was a close collaborator of the late Harvey Milk and is one of the march organizers, addressed this debate at a press conference just before the march:

A year ago today, no one was talking about a national strategy to win federal equality, but now we are. People need to look back to 1963, when the great heroes of the historic civil rights movement were having exactly the same conversation that we are having today. It was bitter and divisive and complicated, and it did not lend itself well to simple sound-bite rhetoric. But the great heroes of that struggle came to the decision that while they were certainly going to continue fighting in places with names like Selma and Birmingham and Montgomery, they would have to set their sights on Washington, D.C.

When we look back on the extraordinary bitterness and division in this country at that time, what happened was that white America came to understand the appalling brutality of segregation.

The day before yesterday, I saw a couple pushing a baby stroller down the street, and they asked me, "Did we see you on Chris Matthews?" And I said yes. They said, "We are a straight family from New Jersey, and we heard what you said and we went and packed and got in a car so that we could march with you today."

There is a sea change happening in this country, and it is very similar to the civil rights movement, and I want to be conscious about not drawing too many parallels between the LGBT and the African American experience, but as far as strategy, the civil rights movement was spot on.

Of course, people are confused and concerned and also, let's be frank, deeply invested--and I use that word deliberately--in pursuing this strategy. In private, some will tell you that they have a 10-10-10 strategy. Not many people hear this, but what they want is, before we go federal, get 10 states to approve marriage through a vote of the people (which has never happened), 10 states to get marriage through court action, and get 10 states to get it through legislative action.

So they want 30 states to approve marriage equality before going to Congress, meanwhile how many states have passed state constitutional bans against marriage? 32. So when you ask them privately how long will that take? They say 20 years, 25 years, 30 years. That's unacceptable.

RUSSELL REISH, who is 71, and Albert Masse, who is 82, have been together for more than three decades--and they couldn't agree more with Jones. Masse carried a sign that read, "Together for 38 years and still waiting for the right to marry!"

Explained Reish:

We were here in Washington back in 1987 and again in 1993, and we have seen much progress from the fifties and sixties when we were out and growing up gay. But we still need the right to marry and all these other rights. Albert is sick and he doesn't have too long, but I will not have any benefits as his partner. So that's what we want to see. But we are so happy to see all the young people here who are going to carry on our work.

Reish's sign explained that police had attacked the bar he was in in 1965 and left him bruised and bloodied. "I was in a local gay bar in Los Angeles called Mansfield House," said Reish. "It was just a boring gay neighborhood bar. But the cops came in full uniform and dragged all the patrons out, and I was selected to be beaten up instead of taken to jail, for which I was grateful. Thank god that doesn't happen any more.

"We live in Georgia, and we've raised two daughters. They're actually my nieces but we raised them from the time they were 7 and 9 years old. And we're still their parents."

"And now we have three grandchildren," added Masse.

"The oldest girl moved to Georgia, so we followed so we could watch our grandson grow up," Reish continued. "We're probably the only two gay people in the county we live in Georgia."

Asked by a younger activist what a national, rather than a state-by-state, strategy would mean for the LGBT community of Georgia, Reish didn't hesitate for a moment: "If we waited for the state of Georgia to do anything, you will be dead! It has to be done on a national, federal level. There is no other way. With Obama here and a Democratic-controlled Congress, I don't see why we can't get it done."

As marchers arrived at the Capitol, they pressed forward to hear speeches by a long list of activist leaders, political figures and celebrities, including march organizers Cleve Jones, David Mixner, Sherry Wolf and others; gay rights activist Urvashi Vaid; veteran civil rights leader Julian Bond; Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon; pop singer Lady Gaga; spoken word poet and political activist Staceyann Chin; labor leader Stuart Applebaum; and many others.

Speakers addressed the broad range of issues facing LGBT people, including an end to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, passage of ENDA and repeal of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which was signed by Bill Clinton and defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

Sherry Wolf, a march organizer and author of the recently released Sexuality and Socialism, summarized the sentiments of many who spoke:

The establishment is telling us that with the economy in collapse, a health care nightmare and two wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are being impatient by demanding that Obama give us our civil rights now. There is too much on the plate.

What we need to understand is that LGBT people in this country are among the millions of American who are losing their jobs and are having their homes foreclosed on.

We are the ones who are losing their health care or who have crappy health care at best. And we are also the ones, tragically, by the tens of thousands, who are fighting and dying for wars for oil and empire.

This is an outrage, it's not acceptable and we are going to continue to fight. And if anyone ever tells you that you cannot build something with no money and no existing organization, they're wrong. Look around you. The timing is right because the anger is there, and people are fed up and done with the old strategy. It doesn't work. This is our new strategy right here today.

Leia Petty and Ashley Smith contributed to this article.

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