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.
So by the time I joined around 200,000 other marchers Sunday, who had traveled from across the country, each with their own stories, concerns and priorities, yet united by a simple but radical demand for full civil equality in all fifty states, I had some confidence that, even if this new vision and determination had not yet penetrated the Lady Gaga-loving crowd, the march would lead to more than the “emotional release” with which critics sought to dismiss it. The leaders spearheading Equality Across America have become increasingly alienated from the established LGBT advocacy groups. McGehee’s experience of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest LBGT advocacy group and host to Obama on the eve of the march, was that an “HRC representative would come in to town, and we’d meet over lunch, and never see him again.” Equality Across America, on the other hand, promises to “build a national grassroots network,” comprised of “Action Teams” in all 435 Congressional districts to lobby their representatives for full civil equality at the federal level. Where HRC also lobbies for federal-level change, organizers I spoke to complained of HRC’s detachment from the urgency felt at the grassroots, and voiced a perception that in its pursuit of access to political leaders (where their success is notable) HRC has sold the movement short.
Equality Across America takes a dim view of state-level victories, calling them “imperfect and impermanent.” The group points out that, considering marriage alone, over 1,000 rights and benefits are granted at the federal level (in addition to those rights granted on the state level) and notes the vulnerability of marriage rights won on the state level, such as in California. For strategy Cleve Jones looks back to 1963, and a parallel moment in which “great heroes of the historic civil rights movement” concluded that while they “would certainly have to continue to fight in places with names like Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery, they would have to set their sights on Washington, DC.” While they fear that Obama is stepping back from the very promises he reiterated to the HRC on Saturday night, these young activists have not lost hope, and they are determined to push Obama with all their might.
While this strategy resonates with the grassroots and younger activists, the reaction from existing state campaigns and national organizations has ranged from loaded silence to outright anger. State campaigners, especially in Washington, DC, and Maine, where referendums will soon be held on whether to reverse expanded rights for same-sex couples, accused organizers of failing to consult the wider movement and taking time and resources away from crucial state battles where victory is more likely. HRC and other national organizations such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force were slow to endorse the campaign, and even then provided only minimal support. In a recent letter to members, Joe Solmonese, head of HRC, called for patience, offering these encouraging words: “It’s not January 19, 2017 [the date when Obama’s hypothetical second term would end].” At the march itself, activists carrying an HRC banner seemed to have been instructed not to speak to journalists, deferring all questions for the organization to the organization’s communications staff. As the march approached, a slew of organizations offered late endorsements. Yet vocal critics of the march remain, such as Barney Frank, who on Friday declared the march “a waste of time at best,” adding, “The only thing they’re going to be putting pressure on is the grass.” These remarks stoked the flames of grassroots dissatisfaction with the LGBT establishment, provoking a volley of public rebukes. As Robin McGehee put it to the crowds gathered in front of the capitol, “You may say that marches don’t matter. I say that you are out of touch in the seat of power you are clearly enjoying.”
The movement building around the NEM has the potential to transform not only the message of LGBT rights, but its methods of organizing. The march, organized on a tiny budget, with only one paid staff member (who received the minimum wage) but a steering committee of over 100 unpaid volunteers, relied heavily on Facebook, Twitter, other social networking sites and blogs. Mixner said this was “probably the first Internet march that I’ve ever seen” with “no central office, no central staff…no phone number that you can call.” The total cost was under $250,000, “a fraction of the budget of any of the past marches,” says Williams. Organizers neither sought out nor accepted any corporate sponsorship. “Every penny…came from individual donors who believe in us.” And no funding was received from national LGBT organizations: “They didn’t offer and we didn’t ask.”
Unlike previous LGBT marches on Washington, the NEM did not target any single piece of legislation. Rather than organizing to march, they were marching to organize. To this end at least fifty-seven events were organized over the weekend, from strategy sessions, to grassroots organizing workshops and networking, to protests and vigils on various issues. Youth and student groups were especially prominent. At the “Impact: Speak Out Event” at Gallaudet University young LGBT activists heard from Kip Williams and Robin McGehee, communicated with their deaf peers, and shared their common concerns about safety and bullying at schools, about LGBT youth homelessness and about high suicide rates among the community. While marriage was a concern for some, others pointed to employment and housing discrimination and immigration as priorities over marriage. The event ended with a brief training session, followed by a “This Is What Equality Looks Like!” flashmob, organized via a text messaging system, where over a hundred young activists froze in Union Square station for about three minutes, before marching to the Capitol.
Around the same time a student protest had been organized against “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy banning LGBT people from serving openly in the military. David Valk, a recent graduate of UCLA and National Student Outreach Coordinator for the NEM, told me that the demonstration had been unexpectedly powerful: hundreds of protesters, alerted by text message, gathered at the Washington Monument and covered their mouths with duct tape for what was to be a silent protest. But to the organizers’ surprise, the protesters spontaneously started clapping–as Valk put it, “They refuse to be silenced.” As they marched past the White House, protestors ripped the tape from their mouths, pointed megaphones in the president’s direction and demanded an end to “don’t ask, don’t tell” before joining a rally of 500 to 1,000 people at George Washington University, where freshman Todd Belok was dismissed from the National Reserve Officers Training Corps earlier this year after he was seen kissing his boyfriend.
Questions remain about how to sustain the momentum from Sunday’s march. The immediate next step is a call to action, supported by an online Organizers Toolkit, to organize mobilization meetings in every Congressional district during the first week of November. The organizational weight of the HRC and other campaigns is unlikely to be thrown behind the Equality Across America campaign. As Jones suggested, many people “are deeply invested in pursuing…this older strategy” of piecemeal, state-focused reform. And while netroots activism clearly worked for the march, it’s less clear whether it can sustain targeted local activism. Williams acknowledged that they didn’t yet have answers to these “hard questions…about infrastructure” and expressed hope that “we’ll be able to work with the national organizations in the future.” Similarly, while the power of the message comes from its ambition and breadth, it’s unclear at what level and on which policies local groups should focus their efforts. Williams favors an “omnibus bill, which will be a package of legislation passed together, and/or an amendment to the Civil Rights Act to include LGBT people.” He declined to expand on this ambitious proposal, but it’s unclear that any member of Congress is interested in introducing an omnibus piece of legislation.
The organizers of the National Equality March, and of Equality Across America, clearly have a lot of work to do if they are to turn their success on Sunday into a sustained political movement. Whether their organizational strategies will be appropriate to this new task, and whether the activism of the leadership reached the crowds in Washington, remains to be seen. Yet at the very least the organizers of the NEM have altered the terms of debate. They have set out an inspiring new vision as only a new generation could have done, taking the LGBT movement beyond the dark days of the struggle against HIV/AIDS, standing on the shoulders of the giants of the civil rights movement, to catch sight of a goal that may be closer than you think: “Equal protection for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people in all matters governed by civil law in all 50 states.”