The Oct. 11 demonstration of 250,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, along with their straight allies, in Washington, D.C., marked a potentially huge turning point in the struggle for equality.
The demand of the National Equality March was clear: “Full equality for all LGBT people in all matters governed by civil law in all 50 states. Now.” What was unknown was what the turnout would be.
This march was organized unlike the other national marches for LGBT rights held in 1979, 1987, 1993 and 2000. This time, the more well-known and established organizations with more resources at their disposal did not mobilize in any significant way. The march was organized at the grassroots through social networking sites and word of mouth.
Initially spearheaded by David Mixner, best known for his break from the Clinton administration over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and Cleve Jones, who began as an intern of Harvey Milk and later conceived of the AIDS quilt, the call to action was picked up and carried out by a new generation of LGBT activists. Known as Stonewall 2.0 or the Proposition 8 Generation, these under-30 activists were galvanized when California’s Prop. 8 overturned marriage equality in that state in Nov. 2008, leading to tens of thousands of militant protesters taking to the streets throughout the country.
The hundreds of thousands in attendance at the National Equality March were overwhelmingly young people. Of course every generation was represented; one marcher’s sign read “I’m 82, Gay and Still Waiting for My = Rights in My Lifetime? (Better Hurry!!).” Another’s read “Beaten by Cops in 1965 [for being gay]. Still Waiting for Equal Rights.” The diverse crowd mobilized in massive numbers, coming by bus, train, van, car and plane from Texas, Florida, California, Michigan, Maine and every state in between.
The Party for Socialism and Liberation and the ANSWER Coalition (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) were among many progressive organizations that participated in the march with signs, banners and spirited chants.
The march took place at a key historical moment—during the first year of a Democratic administration that made many promises to the LGBT community while on the campaign trail and then failed to deliver. March organizers invited President Obama to address the rally. Instead of accepting this invitation, he spoke the night before at the fundraising dinner of the Human Rights Campaign. In his speech, the president promised a receptive audience, as he did prior to his election, that he will repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and carry out other pro-LGBT measures.
But the next morning, marchers were far less sympathetic to the Obama administration. Having been stripped of their right to marry in California, constitutionally banned from having it granted in Florida and Arizona, and denied the right to adopt and foster parent in Arkansas on the same day as Obama’s election, those marching had good reason to demand that the time for full rights is now—not at an undetermined point in a promised future.
The throngs of marchers gathered in downtown Washington, D.C., marched right in front of the White House and then to the Capitol Building for a rally on the West Lawn.
The keynote speaker for the rally was Julian Bond, the chairperson of the NAACP, who stated clearly: “I believe gay rights are civil rights.” The rally included grassroots activists, union leaders, elected officials, and celebrities, including singer Lady Gaga, actress Cynthia Nixon (“Sex and the City”), writer Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) and the cast of the Broadway musical “Hair,” which accepted a financial loss to close its production for the day to join the march and rally, as well as Matthew Shepard’s mother, Judy.
When Cleve Jones took to the stage at the rally, he said, “We are equal. We are equal. And you, if you believe that you are equal, then it is time to act like it. A free and equal people do not tolerate prioritization of their rights, they do not accept compromises, they do not accept delays, and when we see leaders and those who represent us say you must wait again, we say no, no, no longer will we wait.
“You heard our president give a beautiful speech. He delivered it well. But he did not answer the question when. And there are those who say that we must wait for our president and give him some time because we’ve got wars and we’ve got an economy in a tailspin. But we remember eight years of peace and prosperity under another Democrat, a man named Bill Clinton, who went to our parties, who took our checks, who wrote flowery proclamations and gave some of us some great jobs, and what did we get out of that, we got Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act.
“We say no more, no more, no more.”
Jones was just one of many speakers who made it clear that promises made by Democratic Party politicians are not enough, and every time this sentiment was met with thunderous applause and cheers from the huge crowd.
The turnout, character and spirit of the National Equality March made it clear that a new generation of LGBT organizers and leaders has emerged with a clear message of independent struggle that will not be the tail to the kite of a Democratic Party that accepts their support but offers none of substance in return.
This is the only path that will lead to full equality and ultimately liberation. It is a struggle that, despite significant advances for the LGBT community, is desperately needed in the face of continuing anti-gay and anti-trans violence, employment and housing discrimination, police brutality, and local, state and federal laws that deny LGBT people equal rights and protections. The Oct. 11 demonstration held great promise that a militant and radical new generation can emerge to win that struggle.