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 The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has withdrawn its support, as have the gay labor group Pride at Work and statewide gay lobbies in New York and Illinois.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 YorkDeborah Glick, Tom Duane, Margarita Lopez, and Christine Quinnsigned 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 PlanetOutwhich recently subsumed The Advocate and Out magazineis 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 signincluding the one Glick and her colleagues releasedand, 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 profitsalong with its huge state-by-state databaseover 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."
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 rightsit 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 acceptanceand 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.
"We don't have pride marches with 700,000 people, like you do in New York," Hardy-Garcia says. "I've been to marches where people had to wear bags over their heads. Even if you have rights in New York, we don'tand you have an obligation to provide a moment for us to feel we are not alone, so we can go back home to do some very dangerous work. You have a duty to support us."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.