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March madness: political infighting raises questions about the worthiness of a Millennium March on Washington.

When Elizabeth Birch, the executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, put out a formal call for a march on Washington, D.C., in the year 2000, she envisioned vast, enthusiastic throngs stretching as far as the eye could see. Hundreds of thousands of gay men and lesbians would gather on the Mall in the middle of a presidential election campaign and then return home to make their presence felt in crucial local campaigns.

The reality, however, would prove considerably less dreamy. No sooner had the February 4 press release gone out than the nation's largest gay political group was deluged by criticism--much of it from local gay groups who would be conduits to any march on Washington--forcing Birch to place preparation for the so-called Millennium March on hold.

"I'm still excited about the vision for the assembly," says the beleaguered Birch, who spent the week after the announcement on the telephone debating the plan with gay leaders across the country. "But maybe this will give us all an opportunity to discuss the direction in which we are all going and get on the same page together."

Indeed, that discussion has been a long time coming. The skirmish over the march underscores a long-simmering debate among gay activists about the relationship between grassroots and national politics. The recent crushing defeat in Maine--in which the state law banning antigay discrimination was overturned by voters February 10--added urgency to the discussion. Despite a 5-to-1 fund-raising advantage and a huge lead in opinion polls, the campaign to block the repeal was beset by overconfidence, lackluster grassroots organizing, and a reluctance to rebut the argument that gay rights are "special rights."

"A lot of national groups raise funds to come out to the states and provide technical assistance to us locals, who obviously don't know what we are doing, because if we did, we would be in Washington working for them," says Dianne Hardy-Garcia, executive director of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, a statewide political group based in Austin. "But most of the time we know exactly what we are doing. We just don't don't have the money to do what's needed because the cash has already been drained away by the national groups."

But Birch contends that the state-versus-national division is a "false dichotomy." HRC, she insists, "has an incredible record of contributing to states that are facing political crisis. The problem is that we have all failed to build a meaningful relationship between state and national organizers. There is a lot of research and polling that needs to go on before we can articulate a strategy for the states." And, Birch points out, HRC raised more than $85,000 for Maine Won't Discriminate, the group that organized opposition to the repeal measure.

The idea for the national assembly came from Robin Tyler, a veteran activist who has organized women's music festivals as well as the rallies at the three previous gay and lesbian marches on Washington. Tyler approached Birch and the Rev. Troy Perry, moderator of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, both of whom enthusiastically endorsed the plan. The event would differ from previous marches in that it would dispense with the march through the city's streets and focus instead on a huge and boisterous rally at the Washington Mall. Birch says the event would put religion, the military, and family issues center stage.

Though Tyler received enthusiastic responses from eight other national groups in addition to HRC and MCC, critics of the national march quickly cited a litany of stumbling blocks, asserting, for example, that it would drain resources away from local organizing and that it was poorly timed, falling during a presidential election year with a lame-duck president and Congress.

Brian Bond, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based group that raises money for local candidates, circulated a memo blasting the plan. "The key to the success of the gay rights movement right now is local," he says. "Only ten states offer collective protections against discrimination, and there is a host of hate-filled legislation in almost every state legislature. We're obviously still trying to figure out the best mousetrap to fight these things."

To make matters worse, antigay political groups such as the Christian Coalition have shown considerable skill at grassroots politics, allowing the religious right to capitalize on organizing in local evangelical churches across the country at precisely the time the gay movement has had a less-than-stellar presence in many states. In Maine, for instance, the local chapter of the Christian Coalition produced a far higher turnout ratio than did Maine Won't Discriminate.

As a result of such strategic shortcomings, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, another Washington, D.C.-based political group, is calling for marches on every state capitol, scheduled for 1999. The protests would be organized by the Federation of Statewide Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Political Organizations, an umbrella group that NGLTF is coordinating. "The center of gravity is in the states," says Kerry Lobel, executive director of NGLTF. "Every local community has been an island unto itself, and we need to find ways of bringing people together to share ideas and strategies."

National marches may not serve the crucial role of advancing gay causes the way they once did. Sociologist Todd Gitlin, author of The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars, says the political currency of marches has diminished since the heyday of antiwar and civil rights marches of the 1960s and '70s. "Staging a march in the middle of an election year is especially risky business," he says. "If Americans don't like what they see on CNN or if political candidates feel forced to take a side, it could risk backlash. Whichever way the organizers end up going, the decision must be based on hardball political calculation and not on romantic notions about the glory of the movement."

RELATED ARTICLE: History of the march

Gay activists have a long history of organizing some of the largest marches on Washington in U.S. history:

1979: Spurred by the success of Anita Bryant's antigay Save Our Children campaign, more than 100,000 gays and lesbians marched on Washington in the first-ever national gay political gathering.

1987: The march was punctuated by a fiery demonstration on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to protest the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick ruling, which upheld Georgia's sodomy law, and the nomination of conservative Robert Bork to the high court. In what was to become a source of ongoing debate, attendance estimates varied greatly. March organizers put the figure at 650,000; the National Park Service, just over 200,000.

1993: By far the largest of the marches--organizers' estimate: over 1 million marchers; National Park Service: 300,000--it succeeded in generating enormous news coverage but failed to elicit enough support among Americans to prompt Congress to lift the military ban on gay and lesbian service members.
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Article Details
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Author:Bull, Chris
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Mar 31, 1998
Words:1165
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