Fight Club

A Gay March on Washington Spawns a Major Movement Rift

Despite the efforts to meet some of the dissidents' demands, their rallying cry remains: Too little, too late. It hardly helped when HRC executive director Elizabeth Birch told The Washington Post last month that the march's critics were "obsessive and single-minded." To Mandy Carter, these comments (which HRC insists were taken out of context) sounded all too familiar. When Carter tried to persuade Birch to embrace a more open organizing process last year, "her feeling was 'Why do we need to take time for those meetings?' For her, it just didn't make sense."

Carter has mixed feelings about the march, especially since its main constituency is in the South, where she is based. "I'm not wishing for the worst," Carter says. "But there's got to be an acknowledgment that something's not right with our movement. And if the numbers don't turn out, that might be a sign."

"I will acknowledge that this has been a very painful experience," says David Smith, director of communications at HRC. Indeed, the march imbroglio has revealed a major rift between the movement's many local groups and its Washington organizations.

When it comes to alienating activists, nothing beats HRC's endorsement of Al D'Amato over Chuck Schumer in the 1998 senatorial campaign. While Smith insists the endorsement was "rooted in sound political judgments"—D'Amato's modestly friendly attitude toward gay rights—it nonetheless gave the movement's imprimatur to a candidate who was strenuously antichoice. "The D'Amato endorsement ripped this organization apart," Smith admits, "and it resulted in a reconfiguration of our guidelines, so that community input would be taken into greater account." But the impression remains that HRC embodies a culture of arrogance and privilege, personified by its 36-member board that includes only two people of color. Says Smith: "We continue to be legitimately subject to criticism on that front."

The discontent is unlikely to be overcome by anything as simple as revised guidelines or a more integrated board. The fact is that HRC represents the sensibility of wealthy gays and lesbians, who, until recently, were far too closeted to have much impact. But as the movement has grown to include more affluent people, its central political agenda has changed to reflect their clout. Activists who struggled through the lean years have felt deeply disenchanted for some time by what their creation has become. HRC is a worthy target, but even if there were no rich and haughty enemy within, progressives would direct their disgust at the community's growing embrace of attitudes gay radicals call "assimilationist."

The Millennium March will showcase this mainstream drift in the most dramatic way. An early emphasis on "family, spirituality, and equality" has been abandoned by the organizers, but the aura of hypernormalcy persists. There will be a family area within sight of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a mass wedding along with speeches by the parents of murdered queers, and an emphasis on celebrities, as well as corporate logos splayed across the rally stage. "It's a marketing vehicle in search of a political purpose," says Dobbs. But even he admits that the march is only the most vivid symbol of a trend gay progressives find alarming. When corporate values dominate the movement, Dobbs maintains, "certain people are disempowered. You see it with labor, with leather, with people of color. Here you have big gay organizations and big gay media in one mutually beneficial conglomerate, circumventing the community. The question is, who's left out of this picture?"

But the most painful question for gay radicals may be: Why has this sensibility taken root? The answer has less to do with the power of HRC and PlanetOut than with a process activists themselves set in motion when their struggle made it possible for more and more people to live out and proud. The movement has spawned a post-Stonewall generation that has little in common its radical elders. These millennial queers came of age in a country where being gay is a battleground, but not an internalized source of shame that must be bravely overcome. They grew up in a media-saturated world that invites them to anticipate legitimacy, not liberation. And they live in a land where, in Marx's words, "everything solid melts into air"—including the collective memory of an affinity between gay rights and other struggles. They may be deeply committed to the movement, but they see no contradiction between assimilation and social justice. To them, the attention of corporations is a harbinger of acceptance—and niche marketing is a sign of power.

A similar rift occurred in the labor movement in the 1950s, when workers rejected radicalism for the material rewards of a newly prosperous America. Women who benefited from feminism did something similar when they stopped calling themselves feminists. The departure from radical ideals is the wages of success. So perhaps the real issue raised by this march is whether activism means expecting your progeny to abide by your values or accepting them as they are.

When asked whether he feels any solidarity with the tens of thousands of people who will descend on Washington this weekend, oblivious to the process wars, Dobbs says: "I'm neutral about them." That makes Dianne Hardy-Garcia, the march's executive director, see red. As a crusader against hate crimes, she cut her teeth in Texas, the gay-bashing capital of America. She knows what it's like to see a hate-crimes bill founder in the state legislature because of a last-minute intervention by the governor, George W. Bush. For her and her peers, this march is a chance to energize a new generation of warriors for a battle that is far from won.

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