Phil Reese

Why the March worked

Filed By Phil Reese | October 12, 2009 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: National Equality March, politics, Washington D.C.

Saturday specs.jpgnight 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.

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I'm glad that the organizers didn't give up when all of the orgs and bloggers said NOOOOO!

I watched Cleve debate Joe Solmonese the other night. Joe seemed very angry and tense, Cleve seemed calm and comfortable in his position.

I'm sure that Joe is in a very uncomfortable position, probably being told to get his "people" to fall in line but, I believe that those days are over.

I'm not an HRC hater but times are changing and I'm glad.

If 1/3 of the people at the march come home and get busy fighting for equality we will be unbeatable.

Thanks to all of you that went, I wish that I could have gone, too.

The NEM worked because it addressed the needs of ALL LGBT people.

We heard the president defend the needs of transsexual people for workplace protection because the statistics on the underemployment and unemployment of transsexual people dwarf those of the gay and lesbian people he spoke to on the eve of the March.

He spoke at length of Diane Schroer, the transsexual soldier who was first hired by the Library of Congress--with impeccable qualifications--and then fired when then he informed them he would be transitioning and coming to work as a woman.

She won a significant lawsuit.

Marchers themselves declared that everyone couldn't be equal until all were equal and that that meant ENDA as well as Shepard/Byrd must include not only transgender people who are gay and lesbian people expressing their sexual orientation in non-normative ways, but also transsexual people--many of whom are not gay/lesbian--and transgender people who are not gay/lesbian or transsexual and are expressing their sexual orientation in non-normative ways.

The speakers at the March spoke of the Trans Murder Monitoring Project's declaration that every third day there is a report of a trans person being murdered somewhere in the world--this despite significant reporting problems including many transgender and transsexual people being considered gay and lesbian and their killings being described as the deaths of gay and lesbian people.

The speakers, as well as the president, went on at length about the Trans Day of Remembrance and the annual slaughter of transgender and transsexual people with particular pride because this was first brought to the attention of the world by Gwen Smith a transsexual woman in the San Francisco/Bay area.

The president assured allies of transsexual people that he will insure the health insurance bill he signs into law will include provision for the medical treatment of those with the medically diagnosed condition of transsexuality, including counselling, hormone replacement and sex reassignment surgery.

Hearing the president and the leaders of the March speak in such strong terms about the most marginal in society lead participants to have great confidence about returning to their homes with renewed commitment to work for the explicit equality of all LGBT people.

So right, Jessica. I wish I had included that point now, because its so important. Very good insight!

"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."

Voting closes in less than 3 weeks. They had better stop thinking and start acting, or all they'll be doing is the old "Post-Prop 8 Street Dance."

I'd like to think you're right, Phil, but the two returned marchers I've spoken with both came home with the message that state/local laws are irrelevant because 'we're going to get Congress to pass a Gay Civil Rights Act' that will take care of everything everywhere at once.

Dude, they're so wrong! We need to put 100% of our energy into ALL of our battles, not just some! We have to give 100% locally, 100% statewide and 100% Federal, AS WELL as 100% to all of our neighbors around this nation. That's 5200%! Luckily, I think one thing that this march will do is appeal to allies and help us bring allies into the fight in greater numbers. Without them we can't get anything done, but with them, we can do everything!

Michael @ | October 13, 2009 5:14 AM

There's some insight in what you say, but there is also an assertion of such ignorance, arrogance, and INSULT ..."As our old model of activism (which is more a method of fundraising than activism) begins to evolve and change....".... you owe an apology to countless people who made it possible for you to be as out as you are.

Not to me, though I was getting fired and clubbed to the ground as an out gay person probably before you were born, but to, among others, several of ***those who spoke at the NEM-related event I produced Saturday: a DADT Protest and Memorial for Leonard Matlovich, the first servicemember to out himself to fight the military ban. That was 1975—and it wasn't about fundraising—where were you.

Do you think the Mattachine was about fundraising? Do you think the Daughters of Bilitis was about fundrasing? Do you think the Comptons Cafeteria Riot, or Stonewall, or the White Knight Riot was about fundraising? Do you think the zaps of the American Psychiatric Association that forced them to stop labeling gays as mentally ill was about fundraising? Do you think ***Randy Wicker led a protest of the military five years before Stonewall as a fundraiser? ***Frank Kameny-led protests at the White House, State Dept., Pentagon, and Independece Hall starting in 1965 fundraisers? Do you think people fighting Anita Bryant, and John Briggs, and Lyndon LaRouche ad infinitum were simply trying to put money in their pockets?

Yes, fundraising was involved. ***Troy Perry went on a hunger strike in 1978 until $100,000 in seed money was raised to organize to fight Briggs' anti gay teachers referendum. It took 16 days. Could YOU go without food for 16 minutes?

Was ACT UP just about fundraising? How much traffic did you FORCE shut down Sunday rather than simply asking the police ahead of time to reroute it? Where was the civil disobedience?

***Tracy Thorne-Begland, ***Jose Zuniga, and ***Dan Choi, like Leonard, choice to sacrifice their own careers to help end the ban. ***David Mixner, who flat-lined barely two months ago, arrived to speak at our protest/memorial Saturday and the rally Sunday by WHEEL CHAIR! How did you get there? What did you risk?

You actually think you and your clique are somehow the Chosen Ones and those who descended on Washington in 1979 [again, where were you?] and 87 and 93 and 2000 were insincere halfwits just trying to raise money?

You believe you have so much to teach? Here's something you need to learn: the only difference between your arrogance and self-importance and that of the groups you disdain is that they arrived at theirs while you're starting out with it.

You're so right! We've come a really long way, and if it was not for activists like my podcast cohost, Ace Lundon who was fighting for our rights and trying to court allies in the early 1970s, we wouldn't have the voice we have today. To be fair, I may be young, but I'm not a new activist. I've been fighting hard since the first year of Bush to not be thrown under the bus. I've even done a lot of that fundraising that I talked about--fundraising is NOT activism, but our activism has no effect on those in power without the fundraising to make a bigger impact on them and make sure they are paying attention and getting the right message. However, the thousands of hours and thousands of dollars I've put into the movement in the past 10 yeras do not matter today. What matters is what we go from here. I'm including all of us in this sense of newness I talk about--we've come a long way baby, but we've got longer yet to go, and we need to see today as the beginning of a new chapter in our movement.

However, I hope you didn't think that I meant to do anything other than encourage EVERYONE with this piece. If you took it as a slight, I apologize, because I do appreciate everything you've put into the cause, Michael! I also sometimes get the 'hey, what am I chopped liver?' blues when talking to youth around here in Champaign IL when they talk like none of us ever thought to have a march before or something!

However, today isn't about me--its about them. What they're going to bring to our movement is going to be 100 times what I ever did because THEY did all of this. These young people were told from DAY ONE it could NOT be done--they couldn't do it in the budget they set and in the timeframe they had. They went and did it anyway. This is about them because they did what I SHOULD have done 10 years ago. Think Bigger. Ignore 'impossible.'

I know some sweet little undergrads who went to this march that seem to think nothing existed in our community before Harvey Milk, thanks to the movie coming out while they were in High School. We definitely have a lot of educating to do. Wait until they find out what ACT UP did to Jesse Helms' house in 1991! Or the young folk who shoved a banana cream pie in Anita Bryant's face! Wait til we teach them the words to "We are the stonewall girls!"

How about when I used Alan Chambers' visit to CMU during Pride week (insult to injury after passing Prop 2) as an opportunity to raise thousands of dollars from across the state of Michigan to improve programming out of the LGBT center? I personally left him a voicemail for him with his host, thanking him for coming to campus and helping us raise so much money!

They're going to love those stories, and we're going to tell them. They'll figure out soon enough we're not so stupid and ineffective.

Remember, when we started doing those things, though, we were really young. We were hopeful, we were idealistic, and we were eager impatient and angry--and we were warned lots and lots NOT to do those things. We did them anyway and we ought to be proud we did.

But today, I want to be about them. Being told, we can't, we shouldn't and we musn't wore on us and made it difficult to be as creative as we wanted to and should have been sometimes. Lets change OUR tone. Lets let THEM thrive and flourish and get into trouble in all sorts of ways we never thought to!

Our hard fought war is going to be WON by THEM. We need to give them the encouragement that they need now. The time to feel appreciated for our work will come--they won't forget us, as long as we won't forget them.

The fact is that we need both local action and federal action together, now. Speaking as one originally from Maine (Elsworth) I do not think that the March drained people from working in Maine. There are lots of volunteers up there already, and Mainers will not accept being told what to do by too many outsiders. I think that lots of volunteers there are a good thing, a huge flood is undesirable.

Our next Marches or rallies out to be in New York and in New Jersey, preceded and followed by lots of lobbying at the statehouses. These states have been teetering on the edge of passing full marriage forever now. It's time for a throng to show up, and demonstrate LGBTQ power.

By the way, locally, I think that the March was great for issues here in Washington DC (where same sex marriage was just introduced in the city council) and in Maryland. There was intense news coverage, coupled with articles about what the local LGBTQ issues are ,and how things stand.

We have not had a March since 2000. It would have been ridiculous to let a decade go by with such an event, full of fresh images for the current generation of activists. No only must the torch be passed, but we can not let the flame be extinguished.
Too many in the LGBTQ community are too comfortable right now, they feel, to bother going out and demonstrating. The horrible gay bashing of Jack Price (still in a coma) in New York this past Friday should remind people how much still needs to be done.

I printed this comment out, mounted it, and had it framed! Thank you, I couldn't have said it better myself!

I have to agree with Michael, the wheel was already invented.

Also, hate it all you want but money is a large part of this fight and you better be able to raise it.

I am very glad that the youth is ready to pick up the pace. It will take knowing exactly where we have been to push us further.

We can teach them on the job, though, no? Its time we stopped burning out our younger activists by forcing them to prove they're worthy of giving of themselves for the rest of us. If you're young, and you want to help out--come along and do what you can. We just need to respect one anothers' gifts more in this movement, rather than only focus on the things that make the most sense to us.

This march happened because of the efforts of the youngest among us, and even I was poo-pooing at the beginning of it all because I was skeptical. I'm glad they didn't listen to me. I wish MORE of us who have worked for years on LGBT activism had gotten behind them earlier and been more encouraging.

By all previous rules, this event should have totally flopped and had NO attendees. The most conservative estimate from a mainstream outlet today is 150,000. Time Magazine--maybe some of us have heard of it--estimated 200,000. I was there, at the beginning the crowds stretched beyond 3rd street with marchers still pouring in from Pennsylvania Avenue. There were more than 200,000 people there--more than 300,000 people there, but we'll go with Time's 200,000.

By all previous rules, this event should have totally flopped.

Obviously the rules are changing and its our youth changing those rules. Let's help them by supporting them. If we treat them like equals, they WILL respect the contributions those of us not brand new to activism have made for half a century (I've only been doing this 10 years, but still, I wouldn't consider myself a rookie). But if we DON'T respect them as equals, I have to admit they have a good point.

I worked for five years in Michigan before coming to Illinois on LGBT activism every single day. I spent thousands of dollars and raised tends of thousands more. I planned protests, I lobbied, I educated and I advocated. We still don't have any Federal laws that protect the whole community, and MICHIGAN has Prop 2--and its painful for me to admit this since I worked SO HARD to stop Prop 2; skipping classes and taking leave from work so that I could call and canvass and be at polls for 12 hours on election day--but we FAILED the youth by allowing that to pass. Where was our righteous anger, why weren't we in faces every day saying "I AM AN AMERICAN, AND I WILL NOT APOLOGIZE FOR IT!?!" We failed them time and again.

We've done a lot, but they have a point--we keep looking at organizing in the same old ways, and yet success CONTINUES to allude us. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We'd be insane not to welcome this new spirit and new ideas into our movement, and give these young people the encouragement they need to show US how its done--and the patience to let them make some mistakes as they're learning.

It just should not be "I'm a pro, watch how its done" anymore. It needs to be, "What's YOUR idea and how can I help?" Make our crazy excited youth feel equal in this fight. Guess what they are!

Sure they weren't there in the 70s fighting homophobia, criminalization and institutionalization. They weren't there in the 80s fighting AIDS, in the 90s fighting oppression or earlier this decade fighting Bush. They weren't there because they weren't born! Or if they were, they were far too young. We can't FAULT them for that.

This is still THEIR fight as much as it is OUR fight. The youth that made this march happen are oppressed just as much as we are. It shouldn't matter that we've been oppressed for longer than them because they were zygotes--we're all second class citizens, and I refuse to tier it anymore than I refuse to buy into being LESS than ANY other American.

Join these youth, learn from them and teach them. Teach them everything that we know so that we can make sure they avoid our same mistakes. But I said TEACH not PREACH. We have to get off of our pulpits and get down into the trenches with them and lets learn from one another while we're lobbying, strategizing, publicizing and... well... DOING!

I find it interesting people who continue to push this narrative about fundraising- and how this was the grassroots speaking up, that we are smashing old paradigms.

The same funder who has given millions to HRC, Bruce Bastian, put up $100,0000- half of the budget for this march.

As someone who lives in DC, I'm frankly getting tired of California-driven politics. The organizers of this march, were overwhelmingly from California- and great.

However, in two months or less, DC will have a marriage equality battle right here, and god knows that got very little attention from march organizers.

I know the DC crowd came out to fight for Prop 8, but it surely looks one-sided to me. I definitely will not be taking two weeks off work to volunteer in California again.

Hopefully the march was a success to those who attended and will get them motivated for change.

But even if this march got 50,000, and I doubt it did, that would put it at 10% of the 2000 march on Washington which got close to 600,000.

Seems like the bar was set pretty low.

My friend, I have not heard as low as 50,000 in ANY of the mainstream news outlets I've been checking. CNN, Seattle PI, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC and yes, the Capitol Police who were standing there all put their estimates well over 150,000. The Capitol Police attend these all of the time. The pool between first and third is 200,000. They said it looked like more than 250,000. Casually to anyone who asked. I'd have to assume this is most likely a more conservative estimate. They saw our press passes, they knew we'd quote them on what they said--THEY said 250,000.

Having been there, having gotten word several times about what the police were telling the other press I was with, having looked out at the crowd myself and taken a picture posted here yesterday ( shows a sea of people past third street... I am VERY comfortable saying that 50,000 is ridiculously naievely low. Or perhaps from something like WorldNetDaily or FoxNews.

When the REAL news puts it at 200,000 and one has to go sifting through the internet to try to find SOME sort of marginally credible news source reporting an extremely small number... sounds like sour grapes to me.

I don't think it's fair to compare this march to the millennial march in 2000. The other was planned for two years before it started, was funded by HRC, and was basically a party/fundraiser.

Pride in DC usually attracts 250K, from what I've read, but that's not a fair comparison either. People are always more willing to show up for a party than they are for a political rally.