WASHINGTON, D.C.—They voted for change when they voted for Obama. Now, the LGBT community is making its growing impatience with the president heard. But calling for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act weren't the only reasons tens of thousands gathered in D.C. to put pressure on Washington. Unlike previous gay rights marches, the National Equality March on Oct. 10 and 11 was largely a grassroots effort, perhaps signaling a change in how the community—specifically the younger generation—will tackle equality issues.
In May of this year, civil rights activist David Mixner called on presiding gay rights leaders to organize a demonstration, but with a caveat: “If they won't do it, I appeal to our young to come together and provide the leadership.”
The march met with increasing resistance and doubt from large gay rights organizations, who feared the timing was bad and the energy could be better spent on state-level campaigns for legalizing same-sex unions. Plus, it was a holiday weekend, and Congress wasn’t in session. Still, the young answered Mixner’s call. Grassroots involvement changed the message from marriage equality to full equality as organizing duties fell on individuals and small groups. Kelly Hutton, a UNM graduate student, used Facebook and e-mail to organize a team from Albuquerque to travel to D.C. Facing pessimistic predictions of low turnout by bloggers nationwide, Hutton stressed the impact any number can have. “Grassroots is very important, even when it’s just two people,” she said as she prepared to leave to D.C.
Hutton's party joined up with American Veterans for Equal Rights and One Struggle, One Fight-NM, reflecting similar efforts across the country. While larger organizations have an ability to draw big numbers to events, it was the banding together of hundreds of smaller factions that caused the National Equality March’s attendance to swell. By combining efforts, groups that normally focus on single issues united to form a full-equality message.
While protesters marched together, each was mindful of his or her individual motivations. Dimas Natividad from Clovis said as the crowd began to gather, “I want to be the voice for small-town New Mexico, who really doesn’t have a voice.”
““What do we want? Equality! When do we want it? Yesterday!”
National equality marchers
Also from New Mexico, retired Army Lt. Col. Steve Loomis proudly displayed his Bronze Star and Purple Heart as he hoofed it to the Capitol. He shared his story with other veterans while waiting for the march to begin. He’d been discharged because of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell just days before being eligible for retirement. He described his fight to be reinstated, which went all the way to federal court before he won. Joseph Rocha, a naval officer candidate who outed himself, shook hands with Loomis as they compared the circumstances that led to their dismissals. Rocha told the Alibi he stood with the veterans to show Naval Academy students “what their future looks like—a military that embraces gays.”
The march began at McPherson Square and wound its way through D.C., ending at the Capitol. They carried handmade signs and large banners, reading: “Levitikiss My Ass,” “The Separation of Church and Hate,” and “Hey Obama, Let Mama Marry Mama.” Marchers shouted lively battle cries. “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” the throngs yelled. “What do we want? Equality! When do we want it? Yesterday!”
Student clubs represented several universities, including Princeton, Amherst and Vassar. Faith-based organizations also attended, with Episcopalian and Universalist Unitarians boasting the largest turnouts.
Diverse subgroups within the LGBT community made a strong showing, such as the Utah Bear Alliance, gay families and drag queens. Straight allies came in support of friends, children and the community as a whole.
Marchers ranged in age from the very young, in strollers, to the elderly, in wheelchairs. The bulk of attendees appeared to be in the 18- to 35-year-old age demographic.
The weekend also featured several workshops, events and demonstrations in addition to Sunday’s march and rally. At the last minute, NOH8 Campaign called for a Don't Ask, Don't Tell protest, whose demonstrators wore duct tape over their mouths. Stopping at the White House, they removed their tape, symbolically “breaking their silence.” The protest ended at George Washington University, where organizers credited participants for the turnout. The unscheduled demonstration had gone viral, with supporters forwarding texts and Twitter messages resulting in more than 300 people at the protest.
Coinciding with Saturday’s events was the Human Rights Campaign’s annual dinner. The HRC is the nation’s largest gay rights organization. President Obama was a featured speaker at the dinner, where he assured the audience he would work to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
The weekend’s events culminated in a rally on the east lawn at the Capitol. David Mixner, who called for the march earlier this year, congratulated protesters for the turnout. Cleve Jones, known for his work with Harvey Milk and the AIDS memorial quilt, reinforced the marchers’ demands for full equality. “We are equal in the eyes of God,” he said, “and soon will we be equal in the eyes of the laws in this land.”
Jones also addressed controversy within the LGBT community surrounding the demonstration. “There were some who doubted whether you would show up or not. I was never one of them.”
Pop singer Lady Gaga took the stage and, like many speakers, chastised the event’s detractors. She singled out openly gay Rep. Barney Frank, who earlier in the week called the march a waste when he said, "The only thing they're going to be putting pressure on is the grass."
“But this grass is ours,” Lady Gaga rebutted.
Obama’s speech at the HRC dinner was referenced by several speakers. Many of them expressed that they expected more. “I’m sorry,” singer Billie Myers said, addressing the president directly, “but I didn’t like your speech.”
For others, the president’s spiel brought cautious optimism. While there is hope he will do as promised and strike down Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, few are taking his words as a guarantee, despite urging from the HRC to have patience.
NAACP Chairman Julian Bond summed up a theme that had become central to the rally. “Good things don't come to those who wait, but they come to those who agitate."