The national pratfall
Published Thursday, 23-Jul-2009 in issue 1126
A GLBT march on Washington should be a great idea. It should energize the pro-equality community and rally the nation. It should move the president and push Congress into repealing all those laws that punish us for the “crimes” of living and loving while queer.
The Oct. 11 National Equality March, spearheaded by longtime activist Cleve Jones, should do all those things, but I fear it won’t. Even worse, the event could damage the movement at a pivotal time.
That’s because the march has a fatal flaw: It asks GLBT Americans and allies to waste time, money and energy traveling to Washington, D.C., when we need to stay home and organize in our own backyards.
This flaw is born from a fundamental misunderstanding of how change comes to the Capitol. D.C.-based lobbying is important, but true change only arrives via events that happen far outside the Beltway.
Here’s the hard truth: No one wins a vote in the House of Representatives or the Senate until they’ve changed attitudes in places that are dozens, hundreds and thousands of miles from Capitol Hill. All the visits to Congress and all the rallies on the National Mall aren’t half as important as what happens in Des Moines, Fresno, Baltimore, Dallas, Boston and hundreds of other places in the country.
Take the case of Democrat Nancy Pelosi. Why do you suppose the Speaker of the House is pro-GLBT? Is it because she is a saint who supports our cause even when her constituents don’t? Not exactly.
Since 1987 Pelosi has represented the 8th District of California, which encompasses the Castro. Not only does her district include the highest number of same-sex couples in the nation, but it has also been the site of the most sustained GLBT organizing effort in history.
Beginning in the 1960s, continuing with Harvey Milk’s campaigns, moving through AIDS activism and up to today, the 8th provides a model of how GLBT people can organize locally. These days an anti-GLBT politician could neither get elected nor stay in office in the California 8th.
Here’s a political pop quiz.
Question: When will the Defense of Marriage Act, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on lesbians and gays in the military and other discriminatory laws be repealed?
Answer: When 219 members of the House and 60 senators realize that their constituents no longer support politicians who work against equality. Those numbers are the votes needed to pass legislation and send it to President Barack Obama for his signature.
Although march leaders say they intend to organize all 435 Congressional districts, pulling people out of their hometowns and sending them on a costly trip won’t do that. If only 5,000 people attend the march and each one spends a mere $500 on travel expenses, this one event will burn through $2.5 million that could have been put into local organizing.
The cost is worrisome in the midst of a record-breaking recession. An upcoming vote on marriage equality in Maine and another possible vote in California also need all the financial support we can provide.
March organizers aren’t villains, and they’re not fools. I’ve long admired politico David Mixner, who first raised the possibility of a march; organizer Torie Osborn, former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; and Cleve Jones.
The California 8th wouldn’t be what it is today without Jones. He also helped transform attitudes about AIDS and gave people a way to cope with the epidemic’s emotional devastation by founding The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
On this project, though, I respectfully disagree with my three heroes.
Mixner blogged that “having matured into a full-fledged civil rights movement, it is essential that our community move outside its own comfort zone.” If I’m reading him correctly, he’s talking about the march and bringing straight friends and allies with us to D.C.
Once again, I respectfully disagree. I don’t think that joining an anonymous crowd in a gay-friendly city like Washington, D.C., takes much courage, even if we drag our straight family and friends along.
For GLBT people and our allies in Missouri, Maine and other states that control key votes in Congress, moving outside our comfort zones means demonstrating in our own backyards. These often-conservative places are where our voices – and the voices of our straight family and friends – must be heard.
A GLBT march on Washington should be a great idea. Sometime in the future it might be. Just not today.