Saturday night before the October 11, 2009 National Equality March, I stood in the Bauman Foundation meeting room with Kip Williams--N.E.M. co-chair--members of the Tides Foundation and Kip's gushing mother and sister. Kip looked really tired from a week of preparation; but more than this, Kip looked nervous. For the last five months, Kip has been selling something that, at first, almost nobody was buying: a hastily organized, shoe-string budget major LGBT march on Washington that no organization was willing to touch.
Coming in on the heels of Cleve Jones, Kip looked like he needed to take a seat, but instead he ran around the room greeting and thanking backers and continuing--to the very last--selling the march to skeptics. I pulled up a seat next to his mother and sister near the gruyere (cheese plates still confuse me) and merlot and chatted casually for a bit, then Kip's mother became quite grave for a moment, leaned in and looked me dead in the eyes: "How many people are actually going to show up?"
I'd thought about this myself. Dozens of students were coming from my town of Champaign Illinois alone, and I knew if a bus full of 50 people were coming from every little college town and decent sized city in the US, we'd be all set. I told her "Don't worry. I'll be shocked if its less than one hundred thousand. Its going to be huge." She hugged me, but in the back of my mind, I really hoped I was right.
The next day, I stood backstage at the March among celebrities, leaders and great organizers in our movement and other movements, and I looked out at the crowd stretching back beyond Third Street--a mark I'm told traditionally signals a crowd of approximately 250,000 (even the most conservative Mainstream Media estimate I've seen lists over 100,000)--wondering what Kip's mother was feeling at that moment.
At that time, Robin McGehee--the other March co-chair--walked over, and I introduced myself to her. She shook my hand but quickly transitioned into a hug of unbridled joy. The naysayers, for the moment, where going to have to hold their tongues. They had come. They had come from all over the nation, and they had confirmed the urgent need for a moment like this for our movement. They had come, young and old, black and white, woman and man, gay and straight, and they said "We're with you. Let's do this."
The critics had a lot to complain about. The March wasn't perfect--even if the rally turned out hundreds of thousands, there were little technical issues that made things a little dicey. The event was put together at breakneck speed in an impossibly short amount of time. The March inspired some really bad blood in the community, making it a very hard sell. The White House has dismissed these hundreds of thousands of folk who showed up as the "internet left fringe." Many still contend that it will harm the efforts in Maine to defend Marriage Equality there, efforts in Washington to protect domestic partnerships, and efforts in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to protect an anti-discrimination ordinance there, by displacing funds that may have otherwise gone to those three battles.
Not everything went smoothly. Media (especially those of us in "New Media") had a particularly difficult time understanding the constantly evolving rules about where we were and were not to go, kneel, sit or stand. The timing of things, the late start for the March and the bits and pieces weren't always the most desirable--symptomatic of a massive event like this being put on by people who may be a little out of the establishment.
However, with all of these small annoyances, there is great pleasure to be taken in the fact that the event was under-budget, with little or no corporate meddling; that its organization and planning was truly democratic and grassroots--with the duty of plotting and organizing the events of the weekend entrusted to those of us who called for each event. The weekend was owned by the whole movement, rather than previous marches which seemed owned by one organization or another. Most exciting for me, the March showed off the power of "New Media," as mainstream LGBT publications showed little coverage of the March. All attention brought to the weekend's events was brought there through blogs, social networks and old-fashioned word of mouth.
The March definitely worked
The March worked because Cleve Jones, David Mixner, Robin McGehee, Kip Williams and the march organizers called it: We needed this. People turned out because of a deep, guttural, urgent need to stand up and be counted. They could both simultaneously express their deep frustration and deep hope and optimism. It was about more than just feeling better, though. It was about sparking a big reaction. Most of the speakers repeated the mantra: "This march is a beginning, not an end." If this comes true, then when we look back we can say the march was definitely a success. However, today at least I can without hesitation say the March worked.
The March worked for six reasons. The March created positive attention for our LGBT rights, it inspired the budding activists in the movement, it groomed our movement's future leadership, it provided a great summit for new strategy creation and infrastructure building in the movement, it put positive pressure on the government and it pointed a big red arrow at Washington, Maine, and Kalamazoo.
My life has been almost completely devoid of television while in DC, yet every time I've caught the news this weekend, I've seen coverage of LGBT issues. Even my father has been calling me to tell me all his thoughts on the issues as they've been thrust in his face.
The President's Nobel Prize news was nothing but good news for the LGBT community. All eyes this weekend were on the President, and the President was confronting the gays, so the nation was watching us as well. Regardless of your opinion of the President's speech to the Human Rights Campaign Saturday night, it was unquestionably good PR for our work here this weekend and made the March and rally look like a powerful reaction to the President's words to us. Would C-SPAN have had live coverage of the big queer march had the President not announced he would be addressing our largest organization just one day before? I don't know, but I would guess not.
Talking about seeing Cleve Jones debate some march detractors on the news Saturday night, my dad called to tell me how he felt about all of this and expressed his agreement with those who were calling on the movement to wait. Ten years ago, my father was an avid opponent of LGBT rights, but today he's accepted the need for equality as a given - and merely disagrees with the tone of people like Cleve.
My dad's words now expressed a clear cognitive dissonance to me. Cognitive dissonance occurs when we are confronted with clear, immutable facts that are in clear opposition with our skewed world view. Cognitive dissonance occurs in the moments before we accept a new reality. My blue-collar Midwestern Reagan-Republican father is the posterboy of Middle America for me. If my father is experiencing dissonance, America is experiencing dissonance. The lightbulb is about to flip on.
Seeing my former Senator, Michigan's Debbie Stabenow, debating Senator Bob Casey on CNN the morning of the march, not about whether or not to extend equality but when, shows the conversation is happening and we're finally discussing the right things. America watched Lady Gaga, Cynthia Nixon, David Mixner and Julian Bond tell them not only is supporting equality the right thing to do, but an urgent need. This will influence the thoughts of more folk than I think we realize.
Looking at the future
Because of this, I think the March will also energize the movement. I see our only hope for success in our ability to appeal to our straight allies and convince them to make a big investment in our issues. Our youth are fired up now. They're going to go home and make this happen. We've emboldened our entire community, and we've attracted allies - made clear by the hundreds of pink ladies marching for a breast cancer cure who took a detour from their own cause's route to line Pennsylvania Ave and cheer us on. The fire is lit.
The third reason the March worked was because it groomed new leadership. As our old model of activism (which is more a method of fundraising than activism) begins to evolve and change, we're going to need to keep our leadership succession intact - the march organizers, the volunteers, the Join the Impact organizers and the social networkers that helped get people there are groomed to catch the torch as it passes. And they know what they're doing in this new Web 2.0 world. Kip Williams and I had a long conversation about the role of New Media in our movement. He gets it, and someday, he's going to be one of those leaders that effectively uses our resources to get tangible results. We've just put thousands of new leaders through boot camp, and it may yet be a few years, but soon we'll see the fruits of our labors.
While I was able to meet and discuss strategy with folks like Kip, thousands of other budding activists met with one another as well and began creating a quickly growing web of smart and capable luminaries that will take charge as our movement progresses. We were also joined in solidarity by hundreds of local simultaneous National Coming Out Day demonstrations organized by Join the Impact and other great grassroots groups. Our network of organizations and experts will join with our new leaders and create a whole new agenda for our efforts for the next few years.
When storied Senator Carl Levin went on television the morning of the March discussing not whether there would be a Don't Ask Don't Tell repeal, but when, we know that we put positive pressure on the Government to champion our issues. We're reaping the fruits already. In anticipation of the March, President Obama helped push Congressional leaders to make a move on the Hate Crimes bill. Likewise, the Senate is chomping at the bit to finish the job and get the bill to the President's desk. We saw Governor Schwarzenegger Monday morning sign the Harvey Milk Day and out-of-state marriage bills into law for the state of California. He sees that we're angry and knows he should probably not mess with us. By showing our numbers and our power, we've made a strong statement that the government can not ignore.
Finally, the March helped point a big, red arrow at Maine's 'NoOnOne' campaign, Washington's Approve Ref. 71 fight and the One Kalamazoo campaign. Detractors were afraid that the March would draw resources away from these three crucial battles, but instead attention was placed squarely on them throughout the rally and the events. Almost every speaker plugged the three big fights. Time after time, the speakers pointed to the crowd and challenged them to keep going and help bring victory in these three campaigns. Maine, Michigan and Washington have been brought to the fronts of a lot of minds. The hundreds of thousands of marchers, and the thousands more watching back home are now thinking about what they can do for Maine, Michigan and Washington. Even Adam J. Bink, a march critic, was able to parlay his presence in Washington D.C. on March weekend into a successful fundraiser to help get desperately needed money and expertise to Maine. Rather than harm Maine, Michigan and Washington, the March will potentially boost the battles.
The definition of success
Ultimately, only time will tell if the March was truly a success. This week, the President is likely to sign the Defense Department reauthorization, and, when he does, existing laws that provide bias crime protections will be expanded to include LGBT Americans under its umbrella. For the first time ever the LGBT community will be specifically protected under a Federal Law.
However, the success of the March will really rest on whether we will truly be able to translate this energy into action on the hill. As I write this I'm knocking on wood, but we have to consider the possibility we may have a mere year before the Far Right takes control of our Government again and puts a stop to our efforts to be recognized as citizens. As Adam J. Bink wrote in his Open Left piece, the definition of success for this March has nothing to do with the hundreds of thousands that showed up to D.C. or rallied in solidarity back home. "Success for our movement is a lot different. And it's difficult to quantify what makes this a success, the way historians attribute civil rights legislation in part to Dr. King's 1963 march."
But the March did work and so today, the congratulations and gratitude lies with the organizers.