We’ve just begun to fight

October 16, 2009

Sherry Wolf, the author of Sexuality and Socialism and a leading organizer of the National Equality March last weekend, looks at what made the demonstration a success.

THE FIRST mass protest of the Obama era--the tea-bagging gatherings of bigots aside--was a colossal success.

In defiance of the corporate-run LGBT establishment, Gay Inc., and with no major organizations, media or financing behind it, the National Equality March nevertheless drew more than 200,000 people to Washington, D.C., to demand full equality in all matters governed by civil law in all 50 states.

The march was a vindication of the idea that mass protest is possible, necessary and desirable if the left is to challenge both the right and the politics of don't-rock-the-boat gradualism gripping the Democratic Party and its liberal defenders.

As a member of the march's leadership and an author and public speaker who has been on tour for several months, I had a bird's-eye view of how this march was organized, warts and all. We were a rag-tag bunch--of veteran activists, but mostly developing young militants, who are more multiracial, anti-corporate and suspicious of the Democratic Party than previous generations of organizers.

Hundreds of thousands marched for full LGBT equality at the National Equality March in Washington, D.C.
Hundreds of thousands marched for full LGBT equality at the National Equality March in Washington, D.C. (Hillary Hartley)

Tanner Efinger, a Los Angeles bartender who labored for months without pay to build the march, introduced one of the march's initiators Cleve Jones at the rally, saying: "I am no one of note, I am not a seasoned speaker, I have no published pieces of work or even a college degree. I have no health insurance, I am in debt...We are, all of us, an unrepresented motley crew of underdogs." It was an eloquent description of the carpet of humanity laid out before the Capitol on that gorgeous fall day.

The mobilizing efforts for the march--which were derided by an anonymous Obama adviser as the work of fringe "bloggers" who need to take off their "pajamas"--included not only aggressive online promotion, but good old-fashioned street heat on campuses and in communities, where speak-outs, teach-ins, rallies and educational events drew anywhere from dozens to hundreds.

Twenty-seven-year-old Kip Williams from San Francisco's One Struggle, One Fight was the sole paid organizer for the march, earning minimum wage to work tirelessly, dashing across the country and getting groups and individuals onboard.

What you can do

Find out more about Equality Across America--including how to get involved and take part in the Week of Initiative scheduled for November 1-8--at the group's Web site. You can also text your e–mail address and zip code to 37686.

Watch videos of the march and rally at the National Equality March Web site.

Sherry Wolf's Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation is a compelling analysis of many of the challenging questions facing those concerned with winning full equality. If you're interested in inviting Sherry to speak to a campus, community or union group, contact her at [email protected].

The march's student coordinator and socialist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor helped centralize a mammoth effort to organize students to hold days of action, phone bank and join the huge lead contingent of youth at the front of the march. Robin McGehee, a Fresno, Calif., mother who was kicked out from leading her local PTA after Prop 8's passage in November, volunteered countless hours to orchestrate march logistics.

And Chloe Noble, who is marching cross-country to raise awareness of homeless LGBT youth, organized workshops with Chelsea Salem the day before the march, as did transgender activists and LGBT families who brought together hundreds of kids and same-sex couples at a milk-and-cookies event to make protest signs and schmooze among other families like their own.

Though UNITE HERE organizer and Harvey Milk protégé Cleve Jones was attacked for his audacity to build a march in less than four months and for countering the incrementalist approach of the dominant LGBT groups--and red-baited for his collaboration with me--none of these attacks stuck.

Openly gay Rep. Barney Frank's oft-expressed contempt for the march--"The only thing they're going to be putting pressure on is the grass"--earned him the derision of student protesters, who chanted: "Barney Frank, fuck you!"

THERE IS no direct correlation between the organizational abilities of march organizers and the massive size and strength of the turnout. In other words, we succeeded because we struck a chord with a new generation of budding activists and a politically left-leaning swath of LGBT folks and our straight allies of every age. The march cost far less than previous national demonstrations--under $250,000--and there was zero corporate branding either requested or desired.

The march punctuated not just a turning point in the LGBT struggle, but kicked the door open for an unapologetically straight- and labor-allied civil rights movement that organizers hope to collect into a national network called Equality Across America (EAA). EAA has already called for a Week of Initiatives November 1-8, during which activists in every locality possible should aim to call a meeting, show a film, hold an action or just take the first steps toward getting organized on the ground.

Joe Solmonese--effectively the CEO of Gay Inc. in his capacity as president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC)--expressed a particularly brash opportunism. HRC, which is the largest LGBT lobbying group in the country and pays Solmonese $338,400 annually, first denounced the march, and then endorsed it when pressure from below made it clear, they had nothing to lose by signing on and could benefit if the march was a success.

Though HRC never used its Web site or 750,000-person e-mail list to help promote the march, it leapt at the opportunity to parlay the march’s success into raising $200,000 for themselves less than 48 hours after the protest.

Those fired up and raring to mobilize after the march would do better to focus their energies and funds on those who have both the vision and desire to organize EAA into a genuine grassroots effort to demand full equality now.

The forces that came together to strategize and mobilize did so on a basis of shifting the national discussion away from state-by-state, issue-by-issue incrementalism, and toward full civil equality for LGBT people. Many organizers cut their teeth in the Obama campaign and feel, rightly, that without the mass pressure, President Obama never would have addressed LGBT issues as he did last weekend--and he never will act on those sentiments without an active and ongoing struggle.

Liberal activists are turning their gaze leftward, something that was clear to me in the enthusiastic response to my Sexuality and Socialism book tour, and the hundreds who packed into and around Busboys and Poets Café in D.C., cheering wildly as they listened to Cleve Jones and me speak on LGBT liberation the day before the march.

And the turnout on October 11 was, of course, the ultimate expression of a new mood of militancy and a posture of defiance in the face of liberal hand-wringing and right-wing belligerence.

But this march is just a start. We've got to keep up the fight and build EAA into the grassroots movement so desperately needed to win civil rights for all.

Further Reading

From the archives