An Uninspiring March on Washington

YOU'VE ALMOST GOT TO PITY the hapless organizers of the grandly named Millennium March on Washington (MMOW) for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) civil rights. The event, scheduled to take place in the nation's capital April 30, has been castigated since it was announced two years ago. Sometimes criticism can shed light, but in the case of the MMOW there's little real debate, and even less light, just endless polemics between the gay left and the "queer" far left. It's hard to side with the critics, but it's also difficult to support the event's organizers.

You might recall that back in February 1998, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's biggest lesbigay lobby, and the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, the nation's largest lesbigay religious association, proposed a gathering on the National Mall in Washington during the millennial year. The theme would be as novel as it was straightforward: "Faith and Family." This seemed to be smart politics, meant to focus Middle America's attention on gay and lesbian partnerships, gay parenting, gay children, and so on, and to stand up to the religious right's drumbeat that gay love is both "a sin" and a threat to families.

Immediately, there was an uproar of dissent by grassroots "queer" activists. Michael Warner, one of leaders of an "anti-assimilationist" group called "Sex Panic!" proclaimed that "faith and family is an extremely exclusionary theme. ... It is a massive repudiation of the lessons of decades of gay activism" - which, in Warner's view, has presumably been about opposing faith and family (just as the religious right says).

Shortly afterwards, in spring 1998, the Ad Hoc Committee for An Open Process was formed. The network of anti-MMOW grassroots activists charged that the organizers of the march were top-down authoritarians who blithely ignored the supposedly "democratic" organizing principles that had buttressed previous gay marches in the nation's capital. "The way the Millennium March was conceived, articulated, promoted and put out there has really been an insult and a slap in the face to our own history as an l/g/b/t movement," said Leslie Cagan, a long-time New York City-based lesbian activist and member of the Ad Hoc Committee. Of course, others pointed out that what the Committee seemed angriest about was that its cadre of long-time activists, many on the political far left, hadn't been in control of the process this time round.

That's not to say that those activists who did wind up in control of the board of directors for the MMOW have done any kind of a rational job. In fact, they quickly caved into the radical critics and jettisoned the Faith and Family theme. And, as with previous marches, they have taken the admirable goal of racial diversity to an extreme, resorting to race- and gender-based quotas that border on the absurd - a requirement that their governing board be at least 50 percent people of color, regardless of who actually shows up willing to do the work. Is it churlish to note that all non-white minorities together are well under half the U.S. population (which is still 73 percent non-Hispanic white)?

Nevertheless, that wasn't enough for the critics, who are, of course, even further to the left than the MMOW board. Despite the quota, several groups representing people of color have formally distanced themselves from the march due to concerns about "non-inclusivity." As Ad Hoc Committee member Mandy Carter said recently, "One of the ongoing lines that MMOW uses is that 'we have a 50 percent people-of-color board.' When you hear that, you might make an assumption that there would be a huge people-of-color presence for the march and in issues being discussed out there. But that hasn't been the case."

No, as quota critics have long maintained, heavy-handed quota schemes don't promote true racial diversity, only politically correct tokenism. In short, rigid quotas create superficial diversity but work against the equality necessary for true community.

Also in response to charges that the march wasn't "inclusive" enough, the MMOW formally made "racial justice" one of its eight announced "priority issues" on which the march and rally will focus. By this, of course, the organizers mean support for affirmative action programs based on government-mandated racial preferences.

Another "priority issue" announced by the MMOW is hate-crimes legislation. This goal has long been at the forefront of the HRC's political agenda. What's been obscured is that many gays and lesbians, including some activists, think that hate crime laws are a terrible idea, and that punishing a crime based on what the perpetrator was thinking is a dangerous precedent. Hate crime laws would make the penalty for bias-motivated crime more severe. But the criminal justice system has worked well in recent bias-crime cases, including the Matthew Shepard murder. What "greater sentence" than life in prison would hate-crime advocates have demanded? Certainly not the death penalty, which many progressive activists also oppose.

Before concluding, let's look back at the previous March on Washington for gay rights in 1993, which the Ad Hoc Committee has been holding up as a model of democratic organization. In fact, march organizers had mandated 50-percent minority quotas on state organizing committees. Again, if anything less than representation reflecting actual demographics constitutes discrimination (as affirmative action advocates maintain), then gay white men were discriminated against by their own rights march.

Moreover, the '93 event had come under fire for extraordinary poor execution: Due to a complicated march route thousands spent the day waiting to step off the green, and many had still not done so at the end of the day as the rally on the Mall across town was ending. Writing in the liberal "New Republic" magazine, Jacob Weisberg noted that the '93 march "was appallingly organized, failed to coordinate even a single time for a photo-op on the Mall and had as its most memorable quote a lesbian comedian's remark that Hillary Clinton was 'at last a first lady I could fuck.'"

The PC quotient at the '93 event, broadcast live on C-SPAN, was taken to bizarre extremes. The march platform made opposition to welfare reform one of its key planks. Not one speaker who wasn't squarely on the gay left was allowed to address the rally, and the scarcity of gay white male speakers at the all-day event (you could count them on one hand, literally) didn't go unnoticed by the crowd.

Back to the future. In addition to "racial justice" and "hate crimes legislation," the other "high priority" issues announced for the MMOW range from ending GLBT discrimination in the workplace (i.e., support for the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act) to GLBT health care issues (i.e., support for some version of nationalized health care). But shockingly, the whole issue of the right of gays to serve in the military is missing from the MMOW list. And this, despite the fact that in a poll conducted over several months by MMOW organizers and promoted as a "national ballot" that would make for a democratic agenda, that the "right to serve" took eighth place. But MMOW organizers completely dropped it from their announced listing of priority issues.

So I wouldn't hold my breath expecting this year's event in Washington to be much more "inclusive" of the entire lesbian and gay community, at least if diversity is defined as a variety of ideological viewpoints. You won't be hearing anyone from, say, the Independent Gay Forum, a group of libertarian, moderate, and conservative lesbian and gay writers. And I'd be shocked if someone from the Log Cabin Republicans were actually allowed to speak.

The MMOW's currently output of uninspiring, politically correct boilerplate was, I suppose, predictable. But what an opportunity has been missed to take a novel approach away from the politics of grievance. In fact, the MMOW had once shown some promise of originality in delivering a powerful statement for gay affirmation and equality that would have been stronger than the litany of give-me's that will now be the event's focus - and which still won't appease the critics on the left.

Maybe it's time to jettison the idea that we can all come together for one event with a common call for action. But maybe, just maybe, that in itself is a sign of progress.

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