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The Boston Phoenix All Grown Up

The recent March on Washington showed off the gay movement's growing success at breaking into mainstream American life

By Dorie Clark

MAY 8, 2000:  SATURDAY, APRIL 29, Washington, DC -- Days after Vermont enacted the most sweeping gay-rights law in the country, coming within a hair's breadth of granting full-fledged marriage rights to same-sex couples, hundreds of thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are descending on the capital for Sunday's Millennium March on Washington (MMOW), the first national gay-rights march since 1993.

The day begins with a nod to current events. The Reverend Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a gay Christian denomination, will be performing a mass same-sex wedding -- $25 a pop, including a certificate -- at the Lincoln Memorial. Happy couples with matching rainbow T-shirts bearing slogans like "peg and lori, april 29, 2000" crowd alongside the Reflecting Pool. But the real action's near the dozen or so anti-gay protesters on the steps of the memorial. I stop to snap a picture of a goateed gentleman wearing a "got aids yet?" T-shirt, flanked by a small boy holding two Ken dolls on a string, glued into a permanent state of anal sex. From a few feet away, the man calls out to me, "You know, if you'd repent and let your hair grow out, you could probably get a nice husband. I bet you'd be pretty sweet." I tell him, "Thank you."

Ironically, most of the invective I've heard about the Millennium March has come not from the Sodom-and-Gomorrah types, but from grassroots gay activists angry at MCC and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest gay political group, for calling the march without consulting other g/l/b/t organizations and community members (see "No Place Like Home," below). But the shrill internecine squabbles and lack of unity about the best use of community resources, though they may undermine turnout, reflect the gay movement's growing political sophistication and success over the past seven years at breaking into mainstream American life.

I walk down to the Millennium Festival and am stymied by blocks and blocks of chain-link fence. I can see the revelers inside but can't get at them. I'm getting angry at the city of Washington, thinking they did this because they're afraid we're going to litter or something, when I finally find an opening and realize why we're blocked off: you have to pay $5 to get into this gay street fair. I pay up and check out the booths. There are pride T-shirts, nonprofits such as the National Gay Pilots Association and the Mautner Project for Lesbians with Cancer, more pride T-shirts, food vendors, and corporations -- AOL, PlanetOut, United Airlines, K-Y jelly, pharmaceutical companies. It's like a bigger version of DC Pride, only I don't have the pleasure of running into friends, and I had to pay admission. Jennifer, a student at Virginia Tech, complains that "it's straight-up consumerism and they're ripping everybody off." But, she concedes, "they've got to make their money back somehow."

I start to bristle. Not because I've wasted money, but because this was supposed to be one of the best parts of the weekend -- gay people milling around, owning the streets, having fun. But it's less enjoyable for me than other Pride marches I've attended. I can't even pick up babes here. I see tourists, bad lesbian haircuts, tacky jackets made out of rainbow flags, and I think: I'm too cool for this. Maybe I should have stayed home.

I take the Metro over to RFK Stadium for the Equality Rocks concert, organized by the HRC. I accidentally bump into a woman's leg. She takes the opportunity to start talking with me. Am I going to the show? Where am I from? Where am I staying? Her name is Paula and she's from Chicago. She's got to be at least 15 years older than I am, but she's cute and has an even cuter Midwestern accent, so we keep talking. I manage to get the seat across the aisle from her at the next stop. The car is crowded; a gay man (also on his way to the concert) stands in the aisle between us. I can tell she's interested because she actually taps him and asks him to scoot up so the two of us can talk. After a few stops, he moves back again, and she repeats the procedure. I'm sure he indulges us only because he's gay too.

The car seems to be filled entirely with homosexuals, and when we step out at the Stadium/Armory stop, a huge cheer goes up. This is the first palpable buzz of excitement I've felt this weekend. It's Paula's first national march. She grabs me from behind and shakes my shoulders: "This is so exciting!" The crowd erupts twice more before we get up the escalator and have to say goodbye, because we're sitting in different sections. She makes sure to ask for my e-mail address. I am immensely gratified. I would have felt like a failure if I had gone to a march on Washington and not one woman had flirted with me.

Approaching the stadium, I feel an almost reverential awe as I see three huge HRC equality flags flanking an American flag. Is it possible to feel patriotic toward homosexuality and HRC? They've executed everything so well. They're handing out small HRC flags for free, so people can wave them during the show or at the march tomorrow. The line-up is a who's who of gay luminaries: Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche, George Michael (performing in the States for the first time since 1991), k.d. lang, Melissa Etheridge, the Pet Shop Boys. There are plenty of allies, too: Ellen's mom, Betty; Tipper Gore; Chaka Khan; Kathy Najimy from Veronica's Closet; Kristen Johnston from 3rd Rock from the Sun; and Garth Brooks.

No one's too excited about the early performers. People are milling around, buying beer and soda. But by 7:30 p.m., everyone snaps to attention, myself included. Ellen DeGeneres appears on stage and receives a four-minute standing ovation. As the night progresses, I have to reassess my afternoon revelation that I'm too cool -- especially when k.d. lang starts belting "Constant Craving," her huge pop hit from 1992, which happens to be the year I came out. My eyes fill with tears, and my entire body starts tingling. As an out urban dyke, I don't get a high anymore just from being around other gay people. But it seems I can still be hit in the gut, remembering the fear of coming out and the few sources of comfort -- like this one.

Equality Rocks is like a Disney ride, with all the highs and lows choreographed brilliantly for a gay sensibility. HRC truly is the classiest and cleverest of gay organizations. They bring out the families of hate-crime victims -- Matthew Shepard's parents, James Byrd Jr.'s sister, people affected by the Jewish Community Center shooting -- and I can tell it's going to be schmaltzy, and it's meant to manipulate us into being sad. It only gets worse -- or more powerful -- when they exit, and Melissa Etheridge comes on and starts singing "Scarecrow," her tribute to Matthew Shepard (the person who found him strung up against a Wyoming fence said that from a distance, he looked like a scarecrow). Melissa gets us to sing along and wave our hands. The man sitting next to me leans over afterward and says in a hushed voice, "Was that chilling or what?"

SUNDAY, APRIL 30 -- The march is just starting when I arrive. The gay and lesbian bands come first, followed by more than two hours' worth of quirky affinity groups (Gay Mormon Fathers, gay veterinarians), colleges, and state and national organizations. The groups with the largest turnout seem to be, unsurprisingly, the two organizations that initially called the march: the Metropolitan Community Church and the Human Rights Campaign (though HRC distributed so many free flags and signs, it's likely they co-opted a large number of random, unaffiliated attendees who just wanted to march with somebody). The clear emotional favorite of the day, as is the case at every pride march, is the PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) contingent. These sweet, older straight moms and dads provide hope to gays who don't have the relationships they might want with their own parents. Again, I find that my cool goes only so far. I get along terrifically with my mom, but I'm wiping away tears as the PFLAG parents march by, carrying signs such as WE LOVE OUR DAUGHTER AND OUR DAUGHTER-OUT-LAW and MY GAY SON IS PERFECT JUST THE WAY HE IS -- AND SO ARE YOU!

The Boy Scout contingent gets big cheers as a result of the Supreme Court case that was heard earlier this week, and everyone basically bows at the feet of the woman whose sign reads PROUD TO BE A NATIVE VERMONTER. But it's the Southern states that turned out in droves -- especially Georgia, Texas, and Florida, according to the march's executive director, Dianne Hardy-Garcia. "Maybe that's a sign the South has been under siege for a while," she says. Indeed, New Englanders seem to be in comparatively short supply. "States like California, Massachusetts, and New York may not need this [march], but we do," says Luci Malin, the president of Utah's National Organization for Women chapter. "In somewhere like Utah, we need the national presence to reinforce what we're doing at home. It helps when stuff comes out in the AP wire and our local papers pick it up. It raises awareness and helps us achieve our goals."

The speakers are the usual combination of celebrities (almost all of whom appeared at Equality Rocks the night before) and semi-obscure community activists. Some, like NOW's prominent leader, Patricia Ireland, get off good zingers: "I think the 'W' in George W. must stand for 'worse.' " Others, like Martin Ornelas-Quintero of the gay Latino group LLEGO, drone on about perceived slights to Spanish speakers. The line-up of more than 90 speakers is a little much for the audience to follow closely: "I sort of get ADD about these things," says one restless woman. For better or worse, it underscores the g/l/b/t movement's lack of a commonly recognized leader, a fact that got HRC into hot water with many grassroots activists when the group decided to organize the march in the first place. People are watching attendance closely to see whether the internal controversy has hurt turnout.

As New Yorker Earl Plante puts it, "It's more subdued this time around [compared to 1993], but I'm still happy to be here." That seems to be the general consensus. For many first-timers, however, the day is intense. Carina, a student at the University of Maryland, says, "It's pretty awesome. The turnout is incredible. We've been crying all day. When Anne Heche spoke, Ellen -- when we got off the Metro and saw all these people."

From the stage, Ellen says she's just heard there are more than 750,000 people at the rally. Moments later, MMOW Board co-chair Donna Red Wing announces, "There are 900,000, maybe a million people here today." The organizers are obviously playing a little loose with the numbers, and they can afford to. The US Park Police stopped providing official head counts in 1995, after they were criticized for an alleged undercount by the Million Man March. The Park Police estimated that 300,000 people attended the 1993 gay-rights march, but the Washington Blade (the local gay newspaper) puts the figure at closer to 750,000. Everyone seems to think there are fewer participants this time around, but organizers can claim to have increased the turnout by using their own numbers without fear of a competing "official" version. The closest to hard comparative data that I can get on Sunday night is a sales tally from Lambda Rising, a local gay bookstore; owner Deacon Maccubbin reports that they did 55 percent to 60 percent of what the 1993 march brought in.

The Reverend Irene Monroe, a board member of the Millennium March, believes that age played a big role in determining who came to the Mall and who stayed home. "My generation is a bunch of marched-out gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people," says the fortysomething activist, who stays in touch with young people by lecturing on college campuses. "I think this is a march for a new generation of people," Dianne Hardy-Garcia adds. "I don't mean that in reference to chronological age. I heard that from a 50-year-old woman from Tennessee -- 'I'm in a place where I can finally march on Washington.' "

I think they're right. The gay insiders, the grassroots types, the activists with street cred stayed home. In general, they would agree with openly gay congressman Barney Frank: "In '87 and especially '79, people didn't know who we were, and it was all about visibility. But we're beyond that now. I think the time has come for more-sophisticated political tactics."

I spent my first two years of college at a small women's school in Virginia. I was one of a handful of out lesbians, and I sported an egregious number of buttons on my backpack as my daily act of radicalism. I transferred to Smith College in Northampton for my junior year, and the buttons came off. The campus was so gay-friendly that I thought it would be gauche to wear them. Visibility and basic tolerance are not an issue anymore in much of New England. We don't need buttons on our backpacks, or marches in DC, because we know there are others like us and don't need to bolster our self-esteem. New England's comparative absence at the Millennium March showed America what's to come -- civil unions in Vermont, a bunch of activists in Maine staying home to work on their November ballot initiative, Boston dykes so brimming with empowerment they'd rather serenade each other at the Amazon Poetry Slam (which was slated for the same day as the march) than leave town for an infusion of gay culture. The dissent over the Millennium March shows that the battle for gay rights is being won far more quickly in some parts of the country than others. Utah may still be fighting for visibility, but in New England, we're here, we're queer, and everyone's gotten used to it. The NRA, Barney Frank notes, "doesn't have marches. They're smarter than that." And we're getting to that point too -- the point where we can stay home, confident of our place in the social fabric, knowing that Charlton Heston's talks at local universities will draw more angry protesters than anything we could come up with.

No place like home

New England activists took a pass on the controversial Millennium March

MONDAY, APRIL 24 -- Friends keep inviting me to make weekend plans with them. Friday night Roberta Achtenberg -- the former Housing and Urban Development appointee Jesse Helms famously dubbed a "damn lesbian" -- is speaking at the Kennedy School of Government. Greater Boston NOW is doing a fundraising concert Sunday night with Kris Delmhorst and Megan Toohey. Sunday's also the monthly Amazon Poetry Slam. I have to keep saying, No, I'm going to be in Washington for the Millennium March. It occurs to me: isn't anyone else going to be there? Who are they expecting to populate queer events if not themselves?

"We have sold out!" proclaimed Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest gay political group, on the night of Saturday, April 29. Her triumphant statement was a reference to Equality Rocks -- the gay Lollapalooza that HRC sponsored as part of the weekend's Millennium March on Washington (MMOW) for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights -- for which 45,000 tickets had been sold. But ever since march plans were first announced, in February 1998, angry grassroots activists have used those same words in reference to the event itself, and not with Birch's proud inflection. Many simply stayed home.

The Millennium March was the brainchild of HRC and the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a gay Christian denomination. The possibilities were grand -- gays were fighting for both political and religious acceptance, and the year 2000 presented a unique opportunity to set an empowered, activist tone for the millennium. But the messengers were imperfect: MCC's involvement signaled to some that more-radical, nonreligious people would not be welcome, and HRC -- with an annual budget of $21 million, and a blue-and-yellow equal-sign logo that is the gay equivalent of the Nike swoosh -- had become the group queer activists loved to hate. When the two organizations, already viewed with suspicion, announced the march without consulting other g/l/b/t groups, an immediate backlash ensued.

A group calling itself the Ad Hoc Committee for an Open Process sprang up to decry the march. Op-eds flooded gay papers across the country. Organizers refused to call off the event, but they were forced to make major strategic changes, such as broadening an early focus on "faith and family" to include seven other action points: hate crimes; employment nondiscrimination; racial justice; health care; gay rights for youth and seniors; privacy rights, such as the repeal of sodomy laws; and the right to serve in the military. Early expectations of a million participants dwindled to hopes of simply besting the turnout for the last national march, in 1993 (300,000 by the US Park Police count, though most think the numbers were higher).

Many New Englanders, although not directly affiliated with the Ad Hoc Committee, were troubled by the march. Openly gay congressman Barney Frank opposed it on the grounds that "marches do nothing politically." "There's obviously no conflict between marching and sending letters or getting involved politically," Frank said. "But people only have so much energy. They'll come to the march, and some people will think they've done something political, and that's ass-backward. I hope they'll prove me wrong by showing what an inspiration it was to get involved."

Democratic and labor activist Tom Barbera, who was involved in planning the 1987 and 1993 marches, didn't attend MMOW. He believes organizers didn't reach out adequately to the grassroots, and that the resources expended on the march could have been better used locally. "They talk about voter registration," he says. "Where does voter registration take place? I've been doing voter registration for 20 years. I don't register Massachusetts voters in DC. I register them in Massachusetts."

David Garrity, the president of the Maine Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance, skipped the march in favor of meeting with volunteers across the state to organize for a November gay-rights ballot measure. And Mark Sinico, a Boston resident, found that the plans didn't even disrupt the schedule of his gay softball team. "We went around the room checking if this weekend was good," he says, "and no one there knew of anyone who was going [to the march]. So we decided to go ahead and have our games this weekend." He explains, "It [the march] might be great to energize activists in other areas of the country that are still struggling, like the South, but for activists in major cities, it doesn't really mean that much to us."

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