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Washington Marches: Past and Present
by Chuck Colbert
2009-10-07

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The 1987 March on Washington protesters outside the U.S. Supreme Court Building. Photo by Tracy Baim


With this weekend's March on Washington coinciding with Gay and Lesbian History Month, Windy City Times is taking a look back at the previous Marches on Washington and their impact. See each issue this month for more history-related articles.

"On your mark. Get set. Go."

Those six words may well be the marching orders at noon this Sunday, Oct. 11, when tens of thousands of LGBT activists and allies— participants in the National Equality March—trek the short distance from a 15th and I streets staging area, wiggling south, west and then south again down Pennsylvania Avenue to the U.S. Capitol for a rally, tentatively scheduled for 2 p.m.

Nobody knows how many people will show up in Washington, D.C., for the Columbus Day Weekend event which, in addition to the march ( www.nationalequalitymarch.com ) , includes an offering of workshops, seminars, rallies, prayer services, media training and family-friendly events. ( See www.equalityacrossamerica.org for a full listing. ) .

And yet longtime gay-rights activist, author and blogger David Mixner said earlier this week he's hoping to best the numbers of "tea baggers," a reference to last month's Taxpayer Tea Party March on Washington, which drew an estimated 40,000-60,000 people.

"I don't know if it's going to be 50,000 or 75,000 or 100,000," who show up, he said in a recent interview. "I don't care." Whatever the turnout, "It's more than are out there now. Someone has to speak out and hold [ the president and Congress' ] feet to the fire."

Six months ago, Mixner first floated the idea of holding a national march, blogging on www.davidmixner.com about the progress—or lack thereof—in Congress to advance LGBT civil-rights legislation.

"There will never be a better year than 2009," he explained recently over the telephone, referencing 60 Democratic senators and a substantial margin of Democrats in the House of Representatives. "We'll never have a better set of numbers. And it's essential that this community come together in force and make clear that we want it all now."

Back in May, "I wrote that it was time for a march, and I hoped that the national organizations would organize one before the year ran out."

And Mixner said, "It they don't do it, I said, someone would rise up and meet the needs; and that is what happened."

Displeasure with the congressional and the White House foot-dragging on gay-rights legislation was not the only impetus for the march.

Also at play was last fall's nationwide eruption of fury and disbelief over passage of Proposition 8 in California, a constitutional same-sex marriage ban, a ballot-box setback that galvanized a whole new army of activists, the college- and post college-aged generation, young people used to attending gay dances and doubled dating with straight couples.

Many twentysomething and thirtysomething young people who, for the most part did not personally experience discrimination, suddenly became outraged—in fact, politicized—when the largest state in the union rolled back same-sex civil marriage rights.

Communicating among themselves—venting anger and turning their rage into community organizing and protest—rallies sprung up almost over night to protest what they perceived as Prop 8's grave social injustice.

Sure enough, in the brave new world of social networking media, young activists employed new technological tools. And voila—the 2009 National Equality March makes history as "first Internet march," an event put together primarily outside the Beltway by using Facebook, Twitter and text messaging.

For now at least, it is wait-and-see approach regarding turnout and numbers, although the initial widespread reservations and criticism have given way to a groundswell of support, especially among bloggers and many national LGBT community leaders and activists.

While mainstream and LGBT media coverage has yet to crescendo, "There's a ton of chatter" out there, said, Amin Ghaziani, Ph.D., referring to increased reliance on electronic political organizing. Ghaziani, a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at Princeton University, is the author of a 2008 book, The Dividends of Dissent: How Conflict and Culture Work in the Lesbian and Gay Marches on Washington, a sociological study and historical assessment of the four previous gay marches ( 1979, 1987, 1993, and 2000 ) .

What's different about this march? For one thing, Ghaziani sees a generational shift. "If we look at who is involved on Facebook and Twitter, it's the younger generation," he explained. "And that can be exciting" insofar as "there has been a buzz for the past nine months about what kind of momentum do we have in the movement or the perennial question of how to get young people involved in political organizing." 

Yet for baby boomers and seniors, the new organizing can be frustrating. Ghaziani sometimes hears from members of those two demographic groups a line going something like this: "I haven't seen anything about this march. I don't know what's going on. It's not like before where I did see fliers in coffee houses and read about the marches in the gay press."

Still, one common thread unties the post-Prop. 8 generation with all others—increasing impatience with the slow pace of national civil-rights legislation. For example, forty years after the Stonewall uprising in a New York City gay bar—an event sparking a nationwide upsurge of gay-rights activism that ignited a truly grassroots LGBT civil rights and liberation movement—not one single piece of federal legislation has been enacted to protect LGBT Americans from discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression in employment, let alone hate crimes protections.

Even worse, federal law commonly referred to as "don't ask, don't tell" continues to codify a ban on openly gay military service members, while the Defense of Marriage Act ( DOMA ) denies equal status and benefits for married same-sex couples at the federal level, while permitting states to deny recognize of same-sex marriages now performed in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa, and Vermont. Many jurisdictions have gone further, banning same-sex marriage through state legislation and/or state constitutional amendments.

And so the demands of this, the fifth gay march on the nation's capital are simple—yet urgent: "Equal protection in all matters governed by civil law in all 50 states." Now. No more waiting. No more excuses.

To ensure sustained activism and energy, the National Equality March Weekend ( Oct. 9-11 ) aspires, moreover, to be more than a three-day event. National march co-chairs Kip Williams and Robin McGehee and others, including Harvey Milk protégé and AIDS quilt founder Cleve Jones, envision a permanent institution ( www.equalityacrossamerica.org ) to continue advocating full equality by creating a LGBT community and grassroots structure in all 435 congressional districts.

But until participants in the National Equality March make their presence known, "It's very hard to know what to expect," said John D'Emilo, Ph.D., professor of history and gender & women's studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "I must say what is most unpredictable about this march is its occurring in this age of Internet organizing because the amount of on the ground activity seems to be happening online."

He added, "I am interested in results. And we will learn whether [ online organizing ] succeeds in getting people to Washington." Assuming that the march is successful by numbers, he went on to say, "one thing that will mark this march as different, I suspect, from all others, is that it will include large numbers of heterosexuals, allies, and younger folks in their twenties and thirties, who came of age in the new social and cultural world where queer seems pretty ordinary in places and the marriage issue itself, is the issue they identify with."

What about the march's timing at this point in the movement's history? "This is a very good time for the first time period around LGBT issues—as opposed to AIDS issues," D'Emilo said. "This is a moment when a lot could happen in Washington, D.C. If there was ever a time a march could accomplish something by focusing energy and attention, this will be the time for it—specific and concrete [ legislation ] through Congress," he said, mentioning DOMA repeal, passage of ENDA and hate crimes protection.

Historically speaking, however, successful marches are usually not connected with achieving external objectives, such as passage of legislation, D'Emilo explained. Agreeing with that assessment, Ghaziani said his research suggests "Marches serve the movement as 'activist defibrillators' that jump start activism and get people involved." He added, "in previous marches the most vibrant effects of the march has been producing organizations in local areas that end up staying in existence long after the march." For instance, Ghaziani said, "Local political organizations produced National Coming Out Day."

What else should observers of the National Equality March look for as indicators of success? The extent of coverage in the media ( both mainstream and LGBT outlets ) , the demographic profile of participants—and not just numbers but age, race, and ethnicity—as well as the organizational representation of participants, D'Emilo and Ghaziani suggested. Identifiable indicators of "visibility" can also be telling. "Things like how many rainbow flags do you see on the Mall," added Ghaziani.


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