A March Toward Irrelevance?

This weekend, thousands of gay people will descend on Washington to participate in this year's National Equality March, which calls for "equal protection in all matters governed by civil law in all 50 states." Organizers have planned workshops and genteel cocktail hours leading up to Sunday's march on the Capitol, but these events aren't really what most people are coming for.

For many attendees, the weekend will largely be a social affair, with all the trappings of a carnival. Cobalt -- a stalwart of D.C.'s gay nightlife scene -- helped kick off the festivities with a "best package" contest Thursday. And while well-connected lobbyists and rich donors will hear Obama speak at the Human Rights Campaign dinner on Saturday, everyone else will be attending the Imperial Drag-Trans Extravaganza: ''Marching for Equality ... in Heels'' at the M Street Renaissance hotel. Visitors also have a raft of -- as one venue put it -- dancestravaganzas to choose from.

Gay-rights marches have played an important role in the history of the movement: They increased visibility, helped change attitudes about gays and lesbians, and united members of the community. But in the 1990s, public opinion shifted dramatically in favor of gay rights. This is the byproduct of steady activism over the past few decades but is also attributable to the urgent response to the AIDS crisis. In light of this national attitude change, it's worth asking whether general "awareness raising" marches are as effective as they once were.

When the Stonewall Riots occurred 40 years ago in New York City's Greenwich Village, repressive social mores and laws forced gay people to conceal their sexual orientation. Gay sex was illegal; homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder; and the FBI kept files on known gays and their personal associations. The riots, which erupted after police tried to close down a local bar, were a spontaneous response. Local papers picked up the story, and Stonewall became the iconic spark of the gay-rights movement.

In the late 1970s, when pageant winner Anita Bryant was gallivanting around the country pushing legislation that barred gays from teaching in public schools, gays and lesbians organized the first march on Washington to protest the destructive campaign and increase social acceptance of homosexuality. The effort largely failed to prevent discriminatory laws from being passed, but it mobilized gay-rights supporters around a common foe. The AIDS crisis in the 1980s inspired dramatic demonstrations from Act Up, a coalition founded by rabble rouser Larry Kramer. Activists stormed Grand Central Station, wrapped then-Sen. Jesse Helms' house in a giant condom -- and ultimately helped change national health policy. This weekend's cocktail hours, workshops, and marches have little of the immediacy of these historical moments, which is why many people choose to sit them out.

We haven't reached the end of the gay-rights movement, but the modern issues we are fighting for -- achieving marriage equality, passing the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, and repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and Don't Ask, Don't Tell -- aren't really issues of visibility. People know we're here and that we're queer, which is to say that the public-relations war has been won in many respects. The most recent New York Times/CBS poll shows that 63 percent of Americans favor either gay marriage or civil unions. An even greater majority thinks gays should be protected from job discrimination. And young people, the best indicator of where we are headed, overwhelmingly support gay rights; based on polling data, 38 states would have marriage equality if only those under 30 made the laws. Of course discrimination still persists, but in 1990, few would have thought marriage would be on the table in a serious way. At the time of Stonewall, marching publicly as a gay person was a seditious political act. It's just not anymore.

Today, we are not responding to an immediate threat, like we were with the Anita Bryant and Act Up protests. Instead, the campaign billed as the Equality Across America movement, with its laundry list of things it is supposed to represent and associated workshops, is ultimately incoherent. The march has a theme but no message. Because of this, most of the press coverage -- and talk among those in the gay community -- has been about Obama's speech at the HRC, or the fact that Lady Gaga is appearing. Visitors to D.C. mostly talk about what hotel to stay at over the weekend, where to go out, or what the best way to get into the city is. In other words, it's a typical pride parade.

But with an administration in office that ostensibly supports gay-rights issues and a Democratic majority in Congress, it should be a watershed moment. It's the first time in which gay-rights leaders are in a position to put real pressure on Washington. Instead of having a general "awareness raising" campaign where gays say they want equality, organizers could have instead presented the administration with a concrete list of demands -- and a deadline for each. For example, Obama should immediately suspend Don't Ask, Don't Tell discharges and set in motion the formal process to repeal the law. In the next six months, he should campaign publicly for passage of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which would make it illegal nationwide to fire someone because of their sexual orientation. By the end of 2011, he should have a similar campaign to end the Defense of Marriage Act. Having these concrete goals makes for better slogans -- "End Goal? ENDA 2012!" perhaps? -- and they also provide a metric for progress.

Then the message would be clear: Act now, or future marches will be protests. Groups like the HRC could also threaten to withhold contributions to Democratic candidates until real progress is made. Instead, what we currently have is a weekend of glitzy events where politicos hobnob with donors and the rest of the gay community caps their weekend vacation with a feel-good march.

At the last pride weekend I attended in New York City, I awoke on the day of the parade dehydrated and with a headache. I had stayed up late the night before and drank too much. By the time I dragged myself out of bed, the parade had been going on for two hours. What a shame, I thought. But the shame was not that I missed making an important political point; I regretted missing the pridestravaganza of go-go dancers, baton twirlers, and floats passing by.

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