Thursday, October 15, 2009

An outsider's view from inside the National Equality March

There have been a great many things said about Sunday's National Equality March in Washington, DC, calling into question the actual attendance numbers and the significance such an event can have. From the ground view, for a middle-class straight white man there to support his friends within the LGBT community, there was an energy and passion among attendees from around the nation that was undeniable. And, for the workshops and training sessions on organizing and activism alone, the event can only be seen as worthwhile and a great achievement.

I now live in the DC area (after a decade in Los Angeles), and the ability to go to events like this has already become something that's easily taken for granted. But, when three friends from Boston - Olivia - and LA - Lise and Tricia - asked for a place to stay so they could come to DC and take part in the march, I was given the great gift of an opportunity to contribute in a very personal way.

All three arrived Saturday morning after red-eye flights and bus-trips and we soon got moving to one of the two events we planned to take part in for the weekend. Heading downtown, we ended up at Union Station where we picked up a quick brunch and kept our eyes peeled for anyone who might be taking part in a flash mob that was supposed to take place (but that we were getting no details on from the website or the associated text number...)

Unsure of where to go or what to do, we milled around the station until one of us noted (Me? Lise?) there was a very large number of presumably gay and lesbian young adults present. We quickly figured out it was a go and took part in a public piece of performance art meant to show, "This is What Equality Looks Like". In one second we were in position, and in the next with a high-pitched "whoop" from one of the organizers it started and a flag stating the flash mob's theme unfurled. I went down on one knee as if proposing to Tricia, while Olivia did the same with Lise. Gay couples held hands, or embraced in silence, and the entire station went quiet as some took part and others puzzled over what was going on. And then it was over, but not without a lot of cheering, photos of the demonstrators and networking and discussion afterward.

Despite many workshops to be held throughout the weekend - with many of which appearing to be filled online - this was our one-and-only event for Saturday, so we spent the afternoon seeing DC - tourist sites, Dupont Circle, Pho 14 and Fab Lounge (a lesbian bar) - and talking about the politics of the event itself. As an outsider looking in, I learned there were many issues I didn't know I didn't know. And, these ideas would be echoed throughout the weekend.

Most notable to me, everyone was aware of and had opinions on the Human Rights Campaign's dinner with a keynote speech from President Obama, with said speech sounding less like "change" and a lot like "more of the same." I know the HRC is seen as the leading advocacy group for gay rights in the United States, but I didn't realize they more-or-less avoided taking part in the organization of the March. What's more, the group seems to have become synonymous with affluent gay white men as noted by a Democratic activist I met several years ago in LA, Vincent Jones, as he livetweeted the HRC's dinner: "I wonder how many LGBT folks know most ppl @ Stonewall riots were trans, poor, & people of color, very different than ppl @ #hrcannualdinner."

With that in mind, there are issues of race and gender within the LGBT community, as in any other community, and with such a homogeneous face representing the community at the establisment's table many issues facing women, minorities or transgendered individuals often go overlooked, for instance one I'd never pondered that Lise pointed out. If there is a pay gap between men and women, then lesbians are twice-disadvantaged by this pay disparity. Where a gay male couple will have two men making the standard, a lesbian couple will have two people making less than the standard wage for their work, adversely effecting many lesbians financially.

And so, despite the HRC's reluctance to embrace the march, and the House of Representative's most prominent gay member, Barney Frank (D-MA) more-or-less ridiculing it on Saturday, it was encouraging to see diversity both on the stage and in the crowd of Sunday's march. Men and women, black, brown, white, Asian and everything in between. Gay, lesbian, straight, transgendered and bi, it was an event that embraced the message of the day: Equality.

Though we rushed to get to the heart of the march - having arrived a little late - we caught up with the marchers on Pennsylvania Ave. Following the march route from the White House to the Capitol, despite the low estimates of attendance noted in the press, protesters stretched as a solid mass for block upon block. With various groups in the crowd expressing their solidarity with the LGBT community, from the Socialist Workers and ANSWER to immigration activists, everyone stayed remarkably on message.

It was youth that brought energy to the crowd with chants, both resolute and forceful. But, just as inspiring was the man who carried a poster listing the years - going back several decades - he had marched on Washington for equal rights, or two older women - easily in their 70s - walking hand-in-hand along the route. Still another older man pushed his walker along, determined to march, with the help of two younger men on either side.

Along the route, other demonstrators who didn't march stood and showed their support. A group of protesters in pink tutus caught the eye, but it was an interracial couple, black wife and white husband, that grabbed the attention of all of us with their hand-written sign, "Our marriage was once illegal, too!"

As we approached the Capitol the sheer number of protesters became apparent as the main area of the Capitol lawn had filled with more than half of the march left to arrive. We, like many others went to the side lawn to hear the speeches, taking opportunities throughout the afternoon to venture into the crowd and take photos.

Despite the dismissive attitude of the HRC and Frank, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered politicians and activists from around the country spoke on the dais, side-by-side with union representatives, celebrities like Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City, and civil rights activist Julian Bond. In doing so, this coalition showed solidarity in holding President Obama to his word to the LGBT community on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, gay marriage and many other forgotten promises.

While many in the audience gushed over Lady Gaga, Bond’s presence as chairman of the NAACP and a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee reminded all that equal rights and justice are more rarely granted by government than fought for and won by organized action. But, it was a speech by Aiyi’nah Ford early in the day that for me, despite some needed polish, recalled the passion and determination of activists of the Civil Rights Movement.

For me, despite the criticisms I've heard, the events brought a wide array of individuals, old and young, of many colors, religions and orientations in common cause. Being with my friends, holding their hands, supporting them, marching with them on a beautiful day while banging on the doors of those in power, it was possible to see a near-future where we all share equality that goes beyond words and dreams.

Thanks to Tricia for the photos from the event (though to be fair I took some of them, but using her camera...)


Anonymous said...

Hey, a good post, man. Thank you for doing what our Happy Happy Joy Joy News Machine refused to do.

puddy said...

nicely done Rob. interesting points about race/gay issues and the pay discrimination of lesbians. sad to hear that the hrc and barney frank weren't supportive. is there a follow-up demonstration scheduled? will you be attending any other demonstrations in general in the near future?

mrmoonpie said...

Glad you liked our sign!

Comrade Kevin said...

I'm glad for the big turnout and hope that this energy can be channeled towards the most successful strategy. I'm still looking to see how righteous, justified indignation makes its way into active policy and hoping that someone will open the path.

libhom said...

The real reason Barney Frank objected to the NEM was that it put a spotlight on the lack of action by Democrats on lgbt issues. Frank always has put partisan politics ahead of lgbt civil rights.

libhom said...
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