Editors' note: Steve Publicover is a former DC resident who lives in southwestern Virginia.
The National Equality March in Washington, DC yesterday was all about re-energizing the LGBT rights movement by tapping into the passion of our next generation. That passion was in evidence everywhere at the march and rally from start to finish. This morning Time Magazine estimated the attendance at 200,000.
Paul and I arrived at the Vienna/Fairfax/GMU Metro station just after 10:00 a.m. Sunday. We found our seats on the train as about a dozen George Mason University students and a 40-something lesbian couple from Winchester, Va. took their seats near us. Within minutes our group of strangers was chatting away and joking with each other as if we'd each other for years.
One of the women from Winchester wore a t-shirt from the 1993 march and we traded our stories of being in the nation's capital on that amazing day. She was a veteran of many marches and rallies and was soon giving the GMU kids some motherly advice about not engaging with counter-protesters and making sure they didn't have any concealed weapons or other banned substances on federal properties like the Capitol, the Mall and our destination, McPherson Square, where the kick-off to the march would take place.
As we made our way from the Metro into the bright morning sunshine, I looked around at the familiar surroundings of my old stomping grounds and headed to the staging area for the kick-off. At the corner of 15th and I streets, we met George, owner of Roanoke's George's Flowers and chatted a bit. He and his friend had made the trip along with Roanoke Equality's Frank House. I called Frank on my cell and arranged to meet him near the port-a-potties, which was what we needed right about then.
The square was already filled with people from all over the country when we met up with Frank and his partner Dick. At the north end of the park, crowds of young people had gathered and were chanting slogans to the passing double-decker tourist buses. As tourists from all over the world gave the thumbs up and snapped pictures, the crowd erupted in cheers.
We headed to the south end of the park where volunteers were organizing the various groups into their assigned places within the march. One thing was made clear; they wanted the young people up front. What a stroke of genius it was for Cleve Jones to tap the passion and energy of our LGBT youth. They are the future leaders of our fight and are part of a new generation that cares less about the gender of the person you love than your ability to love.
Looking down H Street, I noticed a group of people about a block away heading in my direction. In the middle of the group was a big man in a wheel chair. Though I couldn't yet make out the man's face, I knew immediately that it was David Mixner, the former Clinton adviser, author and activist who had issued the call to arms five months ago that had brought us all to DC.
I walked over to him, introduced myself. I told him I was a gay blogger from Roanoke, VA, and thanked him for challenging us to stand up and for our rights. Clasping my had with both of his, he said, "It's an honor to march with you." I replied that it was an honor to shake his hand. I was so awestruck at that moment, that I didn't notice the elegant blonde woman dressed in black who had accompanied him, until Paul pointed her out. It was Judith Light. The actor/activist who has been such a staunch supporter of LGBT rights for so many years, would be marching along with us.
As the march began, there were counter protesters with bull horns and placards with bible verses telling us what abominations we were. Each time they began a new tirade, they were shouted down by the thousands of queer kids who would lead us to the Capitol.
We made our way through streets of DC en masse by the tens of thousands. Young and old, side by side, gay parents with their kids, straight parents with their LGBT kids, siblings marching in support of their LGBT brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews marching for their queer aunts and uncles who couldn't be there. Ahead of us all was Cleve Jones with his signature bull horn, shouting directions and coordinating our every move with the DC police who cleared our path.
The march route was lined by press, photographers, families of tourists from all over the world and ordinary people going about their business. Cheers of support greeted us at every step. As we passed the White House, the crowd paused, chanting, "Hey, Obama! Let Mamma Marry Mamma!"
As we turned south onto 14th street, I looked over to see lesbian comedian/activist/Bilerico Project blogger, Kate Clinton standing on the corner with Martina Navratalova and former Human Rights Campaign president Urvashi Vaid. Kate Clinton had performed at Roanoke's Pride in the Park in '04. As my inner stalker took over, I went over to Kate, introduced myself as a gay blogger from Roanoke, Va. and thanked her for coming to our little piece of nowhere. I was trying to be witty, but it came out more like the ravings of an idiot. She shook my hand and graciously agreed to pose for a pic. I should mention that as this was going on, Martina and Urvashi were quietly moving away from the scene, trying to blend into the crowd. I don't blame them. I would have done the same thing.
After what felt like about two hours, we arrived at the Capitol grounds as the entertainment was starting. Paul and I found a spot up front in the shade and turn around look behind us. The sea of people seemed to go on forever as the DC Gay Men's Chorus performed.
The list of speakers was immense, but here are some of the highlights:
Actor Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) told the crowd, "It's time for us to make the president move beyond word. The right sentiment just isn't enough any more."
Lt. Dan Choi, who was discharged last year under Don't Ask, Don't Tell, said, "Some of us have come very far and sacrificed so much to be here, but love is worth it."
Out lesbian New York City Counsel president Christine Quinn issued a challenge to members of the House and Senate, saying in her loud, brassy and passionate New York voice, that requires no microphone, "Look me in the eye and tell me I am not an American!"
Later in the afternoon, as the crowd grew weary and began to thin out, Lady Ga Ga was introduced, not to perform, but the speak. The crowd pressed forward with renewed enthusiasm and cheered as the pop diva, looking surprisingly demure, told the masses, "Today is the most important moment of my career". She then addressed Rep. Barney Frank, directly. "We are putting more than pressure on this grass. today this grass is ours." Frank, who is openly gay, but did not support or attend the march, said last week that no one in Washington would even notice the march and that the only pressure marchers would create would be on the grass.
At about 4:00, as we made our way with dozens of our LGBT brothers and sisters to Union Station to catch the Metro, we met Lawrence Webb, the city of Falls Church, Virginia's first openly gay African-American City Council member. Webb had also addressed the crowd Sunday, sharing his experiences and encouraging LGBT people to get involved and seek public office. Lawrence, who said he knows Floyd County, and his partner Clifton were delightful and more than happy to pose for pics. The next time you're down this way, guys, please give us a call.
After all the ups and downs of the past year with marriage equality victories and defeats, unkept promises from our president and careers and lives being ruined by DADT, I came away from the National Equality March with a sense of renewed hope and energy.
For as long as I can remember, one of the code words we use to identify each other as LGBT has been "family". (As in, "is he/she family?") As I marched through the streets of my old home town, I felt more at home than I have ever felt in my life, surrounded by tens of thousands of family members whose names I did not know.
We are indeed a family. We know that when we are in a strange city, we can find each other, have an instant rapport and and fell welcome. I saw it in the veteran marchers watching out for the first-timers. I saw it in the eyes of mothers standing up for and marching with their queer kids. I have experienced first hand it in the streets of Paris, France and Charlestown, WV. I experienced it again yesterday, as if for the first time, in our nation's capital.
As for naysayers like Barney Frank, he's become the cranky old uncle that nobody listens to any more. Sorry, Barney, as the old saying goes, "Lead, follow or get out of the way." It's time for the old guard to make way for the new.
We will get through this. We will win our constitutional right to love and marry and raise families of our own and to serve our country proudly and openly because we have something our detractors do not have, the strength of family.