A recent article in The New York Times emphasized the relative youth or newness to activism of many of the planners and participants in the demonstrations for same-sex marriage that have occurred since the passage of Proposition 8 in California.
Why did California precipitate so much activism while passage of those 32 state bans on gay marriage generated little except disappointment? I think the answer is fairly simple.
Most importantly, because Proposition 8 took away a civil right (that is, a right vis-a-vis the state) that had been granted by the state Supreme Court just a few months earlier. But also: because: California is by far the most populous state in the Union and what happens there holds significance for the rest of the country; because Prop 8 called into doubt the legality of those 18,000 or so same-sex marriages that had already been performed, including many from out of state; because pre-election polls had held out hope that Prop 8 would be defeated, so its narrow passage came as a shock and an insult; because Prop 8 was petty in that gay marriage provably was causing no harm to heterosexual marriage or society at large; and, finally, because it was seen to be a religious intrusion into civic affairs since Mormons, mostly from out of state, contributed half of the funds used to help passage of Prop 8.
Protest demonstrations suddenly occurred across California, followed by many smaller sympathetic demonstrations in other large cities, largely organized by technologically adept young people using new Web sites, social networking sites and other tools of the Internet. The Times quoted one 26-year-old woman who works at a search-engine marketing firm as saying, "I'm good at driving traffic to Web sites. That's what I do."
So the young people are bringing new life, new ideas, and a more rapid responsiveness to the gay movement. And, what continually surprises many of us who are older, they are finding substantial support from young heterosexuals who seem to see gay rights as their generation's big civil rights issue. It is, but we never received that kind of visible support before, and while it is most welcome it feels, well, a bit odd.
Now venerable activist Robin Tyler has trotted out the tired and hackneyed idea of a National March on Washington, which would be, if I count correctly, the fifth. But national marches haven't really accomplished much, and the last one lost money and created a good deal of ill will by stiffing its vendors. Not a good precedent.
Besides, marriage is a state issue, not one primarily determined by the federal government. So why protest to the federal government if you want to marry? And even though repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act is desirable, at this point it would affect only the residents of two states-Massachusetts and Connecticut, which offer same-sex marriage. It would be much more reasonable to hold off any national march until significantly more states allow gay marriage and the measure affects far more gays.
For a number of reasons, much better is the idea, now in the initial planning stages, of coordinated demonstrations at state capitals or major cities.
First, because more people will be able to be involved. Not everyone can take the time, and/or the time off from work to drive or carpool, or has the money to fly to Washington, particularly the young people who have been a mainstay of the recent demonstrations. California was a hotbed of activism in the last two months, but it is unlikely that most of the participants would be willing to travel 3,000 miles to some demonstration in Washington.
Then too, it seems particularly valuable to gear up activism in Southern and Great Plains states that are the least gay-friendly. A national march won't do much for them. But if they hold state marches, that would be new in a lot of places and encouraging to local activists. In addition, part of the point of demonstrations is to get gays (and our supporters) to meet one another and develop the kind of synergy that comes from scattered activist knowing one another and working together.
Local demonstrations would also give young activists a chance to contact their state legislators, probably for the first time, and make a case for gay marriage. It might well impress legislators that this is the way the wind is blowing among newer voters.
In truth, I have some doubts about the political effectiveness of demonstrations. But as a way of getting attention for your cause and garnering local press and television coverage, they cannot be beaten. And at this point, with a lot of older voters (and the legislators who cater to them) same-sex marriage still needs to prove that it can be a popular issue.