Fight Club

A Gay March on Washington Spawns a Major Movement Rift

What if they gave a gay march and nobody came?

Seems impossible in a movement whose last demonstration on the Capitol mall, in 1993, drew perhaps half a million people. But the crowd at this weekend's Millennium March on Washington may be much smaller. A major disincentive for thousands of activists is the unprecedented opposition of major lesbian and gay groups. Not even the lure of an all-star rock benefit has quelled the dissent.

Some activists fear a poor turnout will strike the media as powerful evidence that the gay movement is a paper tiger. "It could be something our enemies seize on," says Cathy Renna of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Yet the bitterness toward this march is so intense that, despite such concerns, GLAAD has not endorsed it. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has withdrawn its support, as have the gay labor group Pride at Work and statewide gay lobbies in New York and Illinois. San Francisco's leading gay newspaper, Bay Area Reporter, has urged its readers to stay home. And last week, four gay officials in New York—Deborah Glick, Tom Duane, Margarita Lopez, and Christine Quinn—signed a joint statement of rejection. "My view is that the energies would be better used at home," says Glick. "It's not my responsibility to assure the march's success. I was never consulted about whether it's a good idea."

Glick's sentiments speak to the major reason why this march has caused such consternation, especially among progressives. Some bristle at its pursuit of corporate tie-ins. (United is the march's "official airline," D.C. hotels could kick back up to $400,000 in commissions, and the gay media company PlanetOut—which recently subsumed The Advocate and Out magazine—is a major sponsor.) Others are convinced the march will draw money and attention from state-by-state voter registration campaigns. And there are even objections to the Christian connotations of the word "millennium." But more than anything, what has the lavender left seething is that staple of existence in progressive circles: process.

Before the three previous marches on Washington, "it was like a call went out," says Mandy Carter, a veteran activist who was centrally involved in those events. "There were meetings after meetings. You had the social-justice crowd, and they knew how to do outreach." These painstaking rituals of inclusion mobilized a vast panoply of affinity groups, from leather men to people of faith, and they marched together behind a platform that demanded an end to apartheid in South Africa and the preservation of abortion rights. By contrast, this march's platform contains eight vaguely worded planks. Instead of explicit references to sexual freedom, there is a statement about "family values." And, despite backing from the National Organization for Women, reproductive rights are subsumed under the rubric of "privacy." "If anything," says the Reverend Troy Perry, founder of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, a gay Christian denomination, "in our community we're trying to have children."

Perry's MCC has played a major part in organizing the Millennium March, raising the wrath of gay secularists. But the greatest rage has been directed at the other major player in this event: the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay lobby that is by far the movement's wealthiest organization, with a $21 million budget. It was HRC that set this march in motion, providing meeting space and money (up to $200,000 in start-up cash and a $250,000 line of credit). Though some 40 groups had input, activists noticed right away that the traditional process of outreach had been all but ignored. "A small group of people with access to money think they can control an agenda for the entire community," says Leslie Kagen, an organizer of previous marches. "And if they come away from this event feeling strengthened, that will undermine our tradition of democracy."

Kagen is part of a new activist cadre that calls itself the Ad Hoc Committee for an Open Process. With some 700 members across the country, this group has done more than merely spread the word about its objections to the march. It has prepared statements for gay groups to sign—including the one Glick and her colleagues released—and, according to march organizers, it has badgered corporate sponsors and harangued people scheduled to speak. ("I can't speak for what everyone on the committee has done," says ad hocker Bill Dobbs.) The campaign has been remarkably successful because this loose activist network, thriving on e-mails and phone trees, is adept at reaching out to both the movement and the media. But the attack wouldn't have been so effective if many gay groups hadn't felt excluded by the march in the first place.

Under relentless criticism, HRC has distanced itself from the event (though it is still running the rock show as a fundraiser for its foundation). And the march's own board has pledged to turn a chunk of any profits—along with its huge state-by-state database—over to local "underserved" gay groups. But activists fear that the lion's share of the money will go to various promoters, former board members, and ultimately HRC. "I don't think there will be any profits, except from the rock show," says Matt Foreman of the Empire State Pride Agenda, a gay lobby that is still struggling to pass a hate-crimes bill in New York. "We're under constant attack," Foreman notes, "but we're also much more sophisticated now about how to work in tandem at the state and national level. That's really what's missing in the way this march was conceived."

Next Page »