Thursday, July 30, 2009

Former LGBT March Organizer Speaks Out

from GAY CITY NEWS - 07.29. 2009
Top-Down “National March for Equality” Won’t Wash
by Steve Ault

As one of the lead organizers for the LGBT community’s first two marches on Washington — in 1979 and 1987 — my ears perked up when I heard there were plans for a new one.

I checked out David Mixner’s website where the “National Equality March” was announced, ostensibly for and by the LGBT community, although the name of the event was devoid of any such reference. The date was set, as was an overarching statement of purpose, but unlike the earlier actions, there would be no specific demands.

Despite rhetoric invoking the “grassroots,” it appears the leadership already had been decided: Mixner, and a few self-selected others. The whole package was signed, sealed, very neatly wrapped, and then delivered to the LGBT community as a fait accompli.

To date there have been four national marches on Washington organized by the LGBT community — in 1979, 1987, 1993, and 2000. The first three were great successes; the fourth a fiasco marked by a huge event-day rip-off of participating small business people, followed by bankruptcy, lawsuits, and an FBI investigation — not to mention a turnout a mere fraction of the 1987 and 1993 marches.

By no coincidence, the first three were run democratically, with grassroots involvement in decision-making and organizing; the fourth — the grandiosely named “Millennium March” — had self-selected leadership and a decision-making process closed to the community.

Briefly, here’s how our first three marches were organized and structured. The primary decision-making steering committee, national in scope, was comprised of delegates elected at regional meetings, assuring representation from all parts of the country while also mandating gender parity and inclusion of people of color. National organizations and spokespeople from unrepresented and underrepresented constituencies were added to make sure just about everyone had a seat at the table. The leadership was in turn elected from and by the steering committee. This decision-making process — admittedly contentious and chaotic at times — won acceptance as fair and inclusive. The ability to be both heard and represented motivated people from all over the country to commit time, energy, and resources to building these marches — a factor at the very heart of their success.

In each instance, when the big day finally arrived, we reveled in and were empowered by our accomplishment. The first three marches on Washington strengthened our movement largely because they were democratically-run grassroots efforts on a massive scale. They have thus become milestones in both our developing self-awareness and our history as a politically effective community. They have even served as models for other movements seeking social change. Some traditions are worth fighting for.

That’s not to say a future march must be organized exactly the same way in order to succeed. We should, of course, take full advantage of the many new social networking technologies available to connect us with each other. But these technologies cannot replace what is unique about face-to-face meetings and old-fashioned grassroots organizing — experiences crucial to building and sustaining a sense of community.

The importance of process also becomes obvious when considering the major issues:
To Have a March or Not: The issue of resources and priorities inevitably arises from the ways in which a national action affects local or statewide work. Under current economic conditions, the matter of resources, in the case of both organizations and individuals, is especially relevant.

And If So -- When to March: Three months is a very brief lead-time. Such short notice precludes a real grassroots effort that, by nature, takes a while to get off the ground, the Internet notwithstanding. Some would maintain that a march should be held during the year leading up to a presidential election for maximum impact.

What to Call It: The name we give to our community, which evolved over time to become more inclusive, was incorporated into the title given to the first three marches; not so for the fourth, and apparently that will also not be the case for this one. There are different viewpoints on this question, but they have not been debated.

What It’s For — the Political Message: Focus can be lost with too many demands, but unlike the current endeavor, usually a demonstration does include a set of demands. Perhaps a happy medium is best. Some would argue that change is more important than “equality” — that before demanding an equal slice of the pie, one should consider whether the pie itself is rotten.

True, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is idiotic, but what about the role played by the US military? As for marriage, some will point out that its allocation of benefits based on relationship status discriminates against the unmarried. If so, is extending access to a prejudicial institution the way to go?

With HIV/ AIDS and more, no one can deny the unique and historic intersection between the needs of the LGBT community and the issue of health care. Is it not possible, in fact, that a single-payer health care system could benefit far more members of our community than all the topical equality issues combined? Doesn’t this discussion merit open debate?

The Program: Who speaks for and represents the community is always a hot topic — and no small matter.

Related events: In previous instances, related events were planned in addition to the march and rally. Most frequently, a lobbying effort was included. But in conjunction with the 1987 march, we organized a huge, empowering civil disobedience action at the US Supreme Court protesting its Bowers v. Hardwick decision the year before upholding the sodomy laws of Georgia.

There’s a lot to mull over, a lot to debate, and a lot to decide. The issues raised here are but a few possible examples, presented not as endorsements, but as an indication of how the current discussion could easily proceed. One thing is certain, however — the discussion needs to proceed openly, with decisions made democratically.

Differences between the grassroots and top-down models are evident in their contrasting approaches to the inclusion of people of color. With the former, representatives are selected by and from their communities and are part of the decision-making process of the entire effort from the outset. With the latter, people of color are selected by the leadership — after major decisions have already been made — and are used to lend the event and its planners a veneer of credibility.

The experience of working out the structure and putting the marches together served as a unique and indispensable training ground for many burgeoning activists and movement veterans. The overwhelming majority of those who helped build these events would undoubtedly concur — arguing strenuously that a new generation of LGBT activists should not be deprived of a similar experience.

Organizers of the current march may claim we’re at a critical moment and just don’t have time to do it any other way. This response won’t wash. In 1987, the Supreme Court had recently decided that our sexuality could define us all as criminals; our very existence was challenged. Meanwhile, we were in the depths of a devastating epidemic with a president who wouldn’t even utter the word AIDS. Yet, we took no convenient or facile shortcuts. Building a community-wide mandate was too important.

Coming up with an idea, promoting it, and then testing it is all well and good. Self-selecting leadership for an event that purports to represent and speak for an entire community is not. A leadership style or process that makes raising community issues akin to petitioning Caesar is simply not acceptable. Earlier generations of LGBT activists would not have tolerated this power grab. We must make our voices heard now.

Native New Yorker Steve Ault, who can be reached at, served as co-coordinator of the first National March on Washington for Lesbian & Gay Rights in 1979, and co-chair of the second in 1987. He was a member of the Gay Liberation Front and a founding board member of the LGBT Community Services Center of New York City. For more information about the LGBT community’s marches on Washington, check out “The Dividends of Dissent,” a book by Amin Ghaziani, and visit This discussion can also be informed by an Internet search on the “Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament.”

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