It's been almost two weeks since I attended the National Equality March (NEM) in DC. The last time I went to a march in DC it was the 1987 event that was the inspiration for National Coming Out day. So, twenty-two years to the day, I was marching (occasionally trudging, often sauntering and from time to time even sashaying) at a big political event for LGBT rights. For the last two weeks I've been thinking about what has and hasn't changed in those twenty-two years. Not sure why it's taken me so long to be able to articulate anything interesting about it. Let's see if I can now. Over all I've been feeling positive about things. Politically and personally I'd say things have changed for the better. It's often a case of two steps forward, one step back, but that's better than the other way around.
In 1987 I was 21, a senior in college and attending with a group from school. I don't remember how many of us there were, but we took two college vans, and at the time the group felt huge. The LGBT group on campus had exploded that autumn, in part because the first year class had what was, at the time, an unusually high number of students who were already out. We 'old-timers' were impressed, even a bit intimidated, and we wondered what these confident people were going to do during their sophomore years, what with coming out already taken care of. I'm sure they came up with something.
So, from our small college (enrollment 1100) quite a handful of us chose to head off to the march. Several alumni joined us at the march itself, which reminds me of a funny moment. A woman I barely had known when she was one of the prominent lesbians at Earlham came up to me at the march and congratulated me on "finally coming out."
Feeling my hackles rise ever so slightly, I said, "um, I've been out for nearly three years." (That is to say, for at least one of the years she and I were in school together.)
"Yeah, well, but now you're OUT out. M__ tells me you've come out to your folks and everything."
"Yeah, I told my whole family and all my friends... three years ago."
This was when I learned that because it's news to YOU doesn't mean it's news. I've been careful ever since not to congratulate anyone on "finally coming out."
But back to the marches, here are are some comparisons and contrasts, in no particular order.
In 1987, the initial estimation from the Parks department on the crowd size was 500,000. Then the DC police department issued their estimate as 20,000. Yes, I typed the right number of zeroes in both cases. Five HUNDRED thousand vs. twenty thousand. Immediately after the Police number was announced the Parks department lowered their number to 20,000 as well. It's obviously still an impressive number, but, um, did the Parks department really get it THAT wrong at first? History seems to have accepted the half-mil figure as more accurate. I've been in other politically controversial actions where the numbers of participants varied widely, depending on who you consulted. Make of that what you will.
Everything I've seen suggests the 2009 crowd was about 250,000. One might be tempted to think the smaller numbers at this march is cause for concern, but I'm not sure I do. Maybe there is more complacency now, but if so, even that can be a weird sign of progress; more people are out, and have more rights than they did in '87. This march was planned in much less time than the '87 one as well, less than six months, by what is being famously described as a grass-roots movement. Marches always spark a certain amount of internecine fighting, but this one came with more of it than usual. Along with the usual arguments against marches as a whole (they don't accomplish anything, people just jump on the bandwagon, people would be better off taking REAL action, rather than just chanting slogans with their friends, etc.) this one brought up a lot of in-fighting between leading organizations and individuals. The Human Rights Campaign initially said it wasn't a good idea, but eventually sign on as a sponsor. Barney Frank, the week before the march, said it was a waste of time, the President didn't need the pressure, and people would do better to stay home and lobby their congress members. Given all that, I'd say 250,000 still sends a pretty strong, albeit vague, message.
I'm not going to devote a lot of time to question of the efficacy of public assembly. I don't doubt that many people come to these things woefully ignorant of the facts, issues and nuances. I'm sure plenty of people go home with a nice warm glow and never do another thing. But I obviously still think these marches are worth organizing and attending. Maybe it's just the theatre-lover in me, but gathering a lot of like-minded folks in as big a group as possible often gives me a morale boost in ways nothing else quite can. It's more than just being surrounded by lots of other LGBT folks. Here in NYC, of course, I could go to a different bar every night if I wanted to. While that may have its own charms, it's not the same as being outdoors, in the sun, feeling like we've taken over an entire city. Even when anger is the dominating influence, I still gain a sense of optimism. I feel reconnected to a larger community, or network of communities.
This trip I went down with a group called Broadway Impact, founded by members of the Broadway Theatre community. BI managed to find sponsors who paid for 32 buses to take New Yorkers to the march for free. Over 1400 of us took advantage of the offer. I was on the Sutton Foster bus, fyi. I still owe Ms. Foster a thank you note, I'm embarrassed to admit. That's next on my agenda. BI came about after three people attended the New York rally protesting the the prop 8 vote in California, by the way. There's an example of a rally galvanizing further action.
Since this group was founded by fairly young folks, most of my fellow passengers were pretty young as well. More than a few of them were clearly attending their first big march. It was fun to realize I was surrounded by people who were in the same boat I was back in '87. Occasionally I felt like a bit of a grandpa, or at least a jolly uncle, but that's an experience I'm having more and more these days anyway. I'm okay with that.
When I look at the changes that has happened since '87, I'm mostly heartened by them. Sure, there are plenty of statistics to feel bad about; it's still legal in 28 states to be fired just for being gay. 35 states still permit LGBT folks to be denied housing, or kicked out of their homes. I can't find the number for the states that have laws on the books denying same-sex marriage, I want to say it's 11, but it might now be 14. This is in addition to DOMA, which denies same-sex marriage on the federal level. I believe Florida has two such laws on the books, so you're doubly not allowed to get married there. They really really REALLY don't want the homos getting hitched in Florida. AIDS may be a manageable disease for many now, compared to '87, but the stats for infection keep rising, especially (at least in this country) among MSM (men who have sex with men), in particular MSM of color. As complicated as my issues are with the military, there's no doubt in my mind that DADT has been a fiasco of a policy, leading to the loss of thousands of valuable troops, and the needless destruction of careers. Violence against LGBT people continues; a particularly vicious case here in NYC occurred recently, to remind us that no place is safe.
But, then there's the glass half-full view. Five states have legalized same-sex marriage, domestic partnerships and civil unions exist in some form or another in other states or cities. Even just the press coverage seems better. In '87 the march was largely ignored by the mainstream press, and you have to remember, back then there wasn't a whole lot more besides the mainstream press. This year I was aware of big coverage before the march happened, even if most of it was squawking from the Rightwing wackadoos (O'Reilly had a lot to say), or articles (there was one in the Times) that focused on the in-fighting. I still see that as progress. As I recall, in 1987 I was unable to find any reporting on the march at all, in any newspaper or on any TV channel. I won't go so far as to claim there WAS none, I can't really know that. But our college library had a good collection of the national papers, and none of them mentioned it. None of them.
Maybe the biggest change between then and now all boils down the the internet. The story coming out now is that new media played a central roll in organizing the event, decentralizing the movement, putting control in more hands, and galvanizing younger activists. There's no doubt in my mind cell phones played a central role in the age old question of how people find one another in the midst of huge crowds, though they probably didn't help as much as people expected. More than once I heard someone screaming into his/her phone,"WHERE are you? -'By the rainbow flag' doesn't help. --EVERYBODY is chanting! -- WHICH Starbucks?'
Obviously the internet also meant there was a much wider variety of news sources to cover the march. Mainstream media may have still relegated it to a back page, or a side note, but I couldn't tell you if it did. I get most of my gay news online these days, where I have many more resources for finding information. Back in '87 my only gay news source was The Advocate. This is not without its risks of course; the interwebs are big, messy, and unregulated, so I need to do a lot of independent verification of claims. Then again, that was probably always the case (see above re: discrepancies in crowd estimates), and frankly, is just the way news, and democracy works. That reminds me of a fun moment.
At one point the crowd nearest me was chanting the fine old chestnut, "Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!" A guy near me laughed and said," yeah, this IS what democracy looks like." I knew he was thinking the same thing as me. Yeah, it's loud, messy, sprawling, inefficient, frustrating, unfocused, often misguided or ignorant, and probably the worst form of government there is, after you rule out all the other ones. This sprawling quality was evident in the speeches at the rally as well. There were roughly five million of them. A few were stinkers (don't sing a song if you don't know the lyrics, and don't hold the lyrics if you're never going to look at them, 'kay? Just sayin'), most were adequate and a small handful really stood out. Part of the problem is they all circled virtually the same issues. We want equality. We deserve equality. We're a community made up of people of all colors, genders, orientations, socioeconomic classes, ages, education levels, national origins and political beliefs. You earn extra points for every category you name, which meant a lot of speeches boiled down to long lists. Discrimination in all its forms (and again, list as many of them as possible) is bad and must be stamped out. Hate must be replaced by Love. I'm sounding flippant here, and I don't mean to. These points are all true, all valid. I'm just not sure I need to hear them five million times, from five million different people, including Lady GaGa (who, it has to be admitted, got the biggest crowd response), so by the time the keynote speaker JULIAN BOND comes on to give an INCREDIBLE speech, people are worn out and starting to wander off. Nothing against Lady GaGa either, I don't doubt her sincerity or commitment (she is reported to have done the entire march in five inch heels, by the way), and I am glad an attempt was made to have as wide a spectrum of viewpoints on the stage, but come ON. JULIAN BOND, for chrissakes!
Okay, to be honest, I don't really see a way around this. When one of the biggest tools of bigotry is silencing people, a good response is to give as many people as possible a chance to talk. Nor am I intending to belittle the contributions of performers and pop stars. Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, and Ossie Davis, just to name a few, had a huge influence on the Civil Rights movement, as artists and activists. When it comes to LGBT issues, visibility is a central issue. The more stories we tell, the more out people we have in every profession, the better things get. Maybe I have to remember that progress, like democracy, is rarely efficient. If I want efficient, I'd better try fascism. The trains run on time, by god.
Do I anticipate huge changes because of the NEM? No, not really. The fact is I rarely expect huge changes. I think we will continue to squawk, kick, sue and agitate, each according to our tendencies, we'll demand sweeping reforms and baby steps will result. The fight for equal rights is always fought on many fronts, and victories are rarely due to one action. Julian Bond's wisdom, experience and generous spirit will move some. Lady Gaga's passion and brash spectacle will move others. Kate Clinton's wit, Urvashi Vaid's articulate brilliance, Rufus Wainwright's wistful music, and Barney Frank's blunt political savvy are all making a difference, even if they also spend some time snarling at each other. Much as we may want to present a unified front (and the Civil Rights and Feminists movements have their own struggles with this issue), our goal(s) will always resist that, thank God. I forget that a lot. Nothing like a good march to remind me.