Scheduled for April 30, the Millennium March on Washington for Equality–the fourth national lesbian and gay rally on the Mall–may sound like your standard, good old-fashioned mass march on Washington. But in many respects it’s the first of its kind. It’s the first gay and lesbian march dot com, organized more through websites and advertising than grassroots mobilization. It’s the first called by a handful of people from two national organizations, who then invited everyone else to come along. It’s also the first in which bisexual and transgender people have been included as a matter of course, the first in which around half of those running things are people of color and also the first that many people-of-color, bisexual and transgender groups have consistently and angrily refused to endorse. In fact, by far the strangest and most revealing first of this march is the high level of opposition it has generated, not from right-wing homophobes and God-hates-fags groups but from gay and lesbian activists themselves. It is indeed an odd turn of events when bands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists are working as hard as they can to convince other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people not to attend a national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender march on Washington.
The Millennium March is the kind of diagnostic event that X-rays a movement at a particular historical moment, and what it shows isn’t all that pretty. It’s a picture of a deeply divided movement burdened by its own growth, tripping on the very changes it has built, its resources increasingly consolidated in a few organizational hands. Partly, the march shows off the tremendous growth over the nineties of one organization, the Human Rights Campaign, whose “organizational culture,” as University of Illinois, Chicago, historian John D’Emilio puts it, “has always been a culture of arrogance.” The Millennium March has come to symbolize, for its opponents, a movement increasingly run by what is essentially a national, corporate, business-as-usual political lobby, which collects funds while local and state groups struggle against attack. As HRC executive director Elizabeth Birch herself notes, “For a lot of people who dreamed of a different kind of world, the very notion that the Human Rights Campaign was involved in calling for this march was an anathema.”
But this bitter fight isn’t just about the HRC. The march and its attendant controversy also provide revealing snapshots of a movement that has institutionalized itself at all levels–a movement that has institutionalized pretty much everything except accountability–and is only now starting to come to grips with what that means.
This complicated story begins in early 1998, when Birch, two of her colleagues from the HRC and Troy Perry of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC), the largest religious organization serving lesbians and gay men, had lunch with Robin Tyler, an events producer who had worked on previous marches and had been floating the idea of a march for months. Shortly thereafter they issued a call–which Birch now says was “a colossal error in judgment”–for a national march, with Tyler as “executive producer” and the HRC providing seed money and infrastructure support. A press release went out, listing endorsements from several major organizations.
With anger over the HRC’s much-deplored decision to endorse Senator Al D’Amato still fresh, this move pissed off a lot of people, and organizers quickly found themselves on the defensive. In part, the call reignited ongoing debates in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movements about the value of expending resources on national efforts rather than state and local ones, especially at a time when so much action is taking place at the state level (the Hawaii and Vermont marriage cases, for instance, and anti-gay-rights initiatives such as California’s Proposition 22). In part, Birch and Perry’s articulation, on behalf of “the community,” of “what it means to be gay in this nation at the turn of the century” (their words) inflamed longstanding divisions over assimilation. In a press release one month after their initial call, Birch and Perry argued that “the priorities of our community have changed dramatically,” toward the pursuit of “stability in our relationships, health, homes and communities,” the “desire to legally marry” and the return to “the churches of our youth.” The march, they said, “is an unprecedented opportunity to celebrate our diversity as a community of family, spirituality and equality.” The tone of conservative, hypernormative cheerleading, not surprisingly, did not sit well with many of the people being invited to join the fun, especially those on the left.