As many as 200,000 people marched for LGBT rights in Washington, DC, this past Sunday in a bold attempt to reinvigorate the vision and strategy of the LGBT movement. Yet despite the impressive turnout–a surprise to the organizers and certainly to the march’s critics–and despite the dazzling sun, the sea of rainbow flags and rousing speeches delivered in front of the Capitol, the most inspiring thing about the National Equality March (NEM) this weekend was not the march itself. It was instead the energy, the impatience, the vision and the leadership bubbling up in the strategy and activist events surrounding the march that opened my eyes to the potential significance of the changes under way within the LGBT community.
From its inception in a blog post just five months ago by veteran gay rights campaigner and antiwar activist David Mixner, to its grassroots organizing strategy and shoe-string budget, to its powerful new message demanding nothing less than full equality at the federal level, the movement being built around the march has defied the conventional rules and wisdoms of the established LGBT movement. For Mixner, this is “the coming of age of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement,” the emergence of a new generation of grassroots activists, impatient for change and determined to bring it about.
While Mixner’s call to action was taken up by fellow seasoned campaigner Cleve Jones, the drive behind the NEM and Equality Across America, the organization created to plan the march and turn momentum into action, comes from a new generation of activists and organizers. Kip Williams and Robin McGehee, aged 27 and 36, spearheaded the organizational effort. Neither had any experience of national organizing before the march, and they had limited connections to established national organizations. According to Nicole Murray-Ramirez–the only gay activist to have served in a national capacity with all four previous LGBT marches on Washington and one of three national co-chairs of this one–the youthfulness of the NEM’s organizing committee is unprecedented: “This weekend…is truly handing the torch on,” he observed. Wayne Ting, a 25-year-old LGBT activist and NEM organizer, puts this down in large part to Proposition 8, the citizen-initiated ballot measure that outlawed same-sex marriage in California after the state’s Supreme Court had ruled it legal, the “first time in our generation that we saw something move backwards.”
Over the weekend, I spoke with 17-year-old James Neiley, a high school student from Vermont and one of the youngest members of the NEM’s steering committee, about his determination to get his “slice of the American dream,” and with Chloe Noble, another NEM organizer who is walking 6,000 miles across the country to raise awareness of LGBT youth homelessness, about her faith in a new generation of “young, powerful and passionate activists.” I listened to Cleve Jones, protégé of Harvey Milk and tireless activist for gay rights since the 1970s, deliver an impassioned speech to an overflowing crowd at Busboys and Poets restaurant and bookstore, gracefully but forcefully handing the torch to a new generation, in which he has profound confidence. And I witnessed the frustration, even rage, of protesters outside the Human Rights Campaign’s Annual National Dinner, where President Obama was about to speak to an appreciative black-tie crowd–protesters who could wait no longer for reforms to protect them in their jobs and in the streets, to allow them to serve their country in the military, and to grant them equality in marriage.