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Whose Millennium March? | The Nation

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Whose Millennium March?

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The Millennium March has indeed involved some of the most clueless organizing in gay American history. Yet what is also striking is how much the march organizing has changed, largely in response to the criticisms, and how little that matters to its opponents. The "faith and family" framework never really took, and with Robin Tyler's resignation last fall, even the showbiz-style "Look Ma! I'm gay!" pep-rally quality faded a bit. Director Dianne Hardy-Garcia, a Texas state lobbyist, instead argues that "we need our marches to be beyond visibility," and emphasizes the goal of increasing voter registration and turnout. The hardworking board and staff are unusually diverse (although board member Michael Williams recently resigned, saying, "The board as a whole let me down as a new board member and a person of color"). Based partly on an "open balloting process" through their website and some gay print media, this winter the board finally nailed down its "working vision," which includes "family values" but also racial justice, legal protections for LGBT youth and ending workplace discrimination. The speaker list, drawn in part from an open call for nominations, has expanded beyond celebrities to include Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, Presidential HIV/AIDS Advisory Council director Daniel Montoya and transgender activists Dana Rivers and Jamison Green, among others. Eventually, three months before the march, the board did release an overview of its budget. And, should the march generate profits, the board has pledged to distribute 30 percent to statewide organizations, 30 percent to national organizations of color and another 30 percent to other community organizations, and to share registration lists with local, state, regional and national organizations.

About the Author

Joshua Gamson
Joshua Gamson, an associate professor of sociology at Yale University, is the author of Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk...

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These actions are, the AHC maintains, too little too late. "Everything they've done has been cosmetic and superficial," says AHC member Leslie Cagan. Adds Dobbs, "Every step of the way they've tried to co-opt our principles." Early on, march organizers held a discussion of the issues attended by major organizations' directors, along with Ad Hoc Committee members, and initiated some "town meetings," but these scrambling efforts and the other modifications have seemed only to fuel the opposition. The process, critics argue, was flawed at inception, and no amount of Band-Aids can repair the damage. A board whose members, of whatever color, are not accountable to community organizations, a couple of screaming matches in Chicago and Minneapolis, and "input" from those with access to the Internet do not a democratic movement make.

The Millennium March on Washington will probably be a decent party. Although it will not mobilize nearly as many participants or attract as much media attention as the earlier marches, there will be stars and crowds of regular folks, voter-registration tables, cruising, rainbow flags, a mass wedding, T-shirts, doses of political rhetoric and thanking of corporate sponsors. Some of those attending will not even have heard about the behind-the-scenes controversy--which is entirely written out of the march website--and many will be inspired by the crowds. As a moment in movement history, though, it has already been much more than a party and a lot less fun.

The main story the march opposition wants to tell--of a movement dominated by arrogant, corporate-style, money-driven organizations geared toward assimilation through the marketing of acceptable gayness--is not untrue. The charge that some national event was organized from the top down would have sounded ludicrous less than a decade ago; there was no top from which to organize downward. But as the HRC grew and presumptuousness morphed into power, it began to look a bit monstrous, like it was sucking up the movement and spitting it out in its own image. In large part, what has made the HRC's growth possible is the successful marketing of a particular kind of gayness--for the most part, unsurprisingly, the white kind with money--that accompanied it. The more privileged among gay men, and to some degree among lesbians, have watched themselves become comforting cultural icons, represented flatteringly on the pages of glossy magazines, on Will and Grace and Dawson's Creek, in Rupert Everett, Ellen DeGeneres, Anne Heche and Melissa Etheridge. Less marketable gay people--poorer or darker or older or more radical in their gender and sexual practices--remain mostly invisible. The HRC has found in those tasting respectability its major donors, and in the HRC, the Out magazine of politics, those lucky folks have found their institutional body.

Still, that is only part of the story. Although, as Dobbs claims, "the studied eye can still see HRC fingerprints"--the HRC is well represented on the board and remains a major source of funds and publicity--both the HRC and the UFMCC have publicly distanced themselves quite a bit from the march itself. "The story really is how these two powerful organizations called a party, and how opposition to the call made them back off," says NGLTF executive director Kerry Lobel, who resigned from the march board early on. The Millennium March might actually be seen as an embarrassment for the HRC, even something of a slam.

Wherever one falls on the details of the dispute, the march controversy has focused attention not just on the HRC's agenda-setting power but on important new conditions in the movement as a whole. "The fundamental way in which the movement has changed over a long decade," says historian D'Emilio, "is that it is so institutionalized now, not just at the national level but even in a lot of states and big cities, and so much of the work of a gay movement is able to be done on a day-to-day basis by full-timers who have an organizational base. It's a different world. Unaffiliated people--who are the people that organized the other marches, and many of the people opposing this march--find themselves out in the cold." The LGBT movement has shifted from one of loosely affiliated activists to one of organizations.

Understandably, this freaks some people out. An organizational movement is a different sort of creature, and some of the opposition to the Millennium March is just a recognition that if you're not a member of an organization in the LGBT movement in the twenty-first century, the creature may well bustle along without you. Even more important, as the movement has built itself into a set of organizations, big questions have started to beg for answers--less the jazzy questions of political vision and strategy than ones of movement structure, of who is even positioned to ask and answer questions about vision and strategy. It is these urgent, unanswered questions, splattering painfully onto the Millennium March, that have transformed a pride picnic into something of a high-stakes mud fight. The crucial political moment comes not as people gather on the Mall but as they rethink and rework the movement after the mud has dried.

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