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Why the National Equality March was a success

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By the time I got home Monday morning, I was totally exhausted, having driven the nearly 700 miles from DC back to BG the night before.  However, the sheer magic of the day before was still with me, and I couldn’t help but forget how I had felt looking up at the flag flying over Capitol Hill.  “This,” I thought, “is America.”  Looking around me, I saw people of all races, all ethnicities—men and women from all 50 states marching together in the name of equality.  That was the magic and beauty of Sunday’s National Equality March.

That’s a nice feeling to have, considering I was skeptical, to say the least, when the march was first proposed by David Mixner and Cleve Jones back in May.  Don’t get me wrong, I love big dramatic displays, and this march certainly had all the pageantry one could hope for.  But I didn’t think it was necessarily pragmatic.  Would they come?  Sure.  I mean, Mixner and Jones are the closest our movement has to elder statesmen, and the youth (myself included) were and are restless with the lack of progress being made, our passions being ignited or reignited following Prop 8.  But was a massive march on Washington really going to make a political or strategic difference?equality

In reflecting on the weekend, the short answer is “no.”  Congress wasn’t in session, they’re preoccupied with healthcare reform, and President Obama, while giving a lovely speech to the Human Rights Campaign on Saturday, still hasn’t acted on any of his promises and refuses to lay out a timeline for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, among other issues.  Yes, the Matthew Shepherd Act has inched closer to passage, and while welcome news, it is more an attempt to placate LGBT activists than anything.

Still, the march was a success.  Even if it doesn’t have direct political or legal implications for the gay community, it still did one important thing: it motivated and inspired millions.  Many of us, though passionate about the movement, have been pretty discouraged.  How could we not?  Marriage amendments in 37 states, including California thanks to Prop 8; no federal employment nondiscrimination law; violence and harassment in schools and workplaces; and no organized, cohesive movement pushing to change this.  We’ve seen our supposed leaders bickering over semantics and tactics and even duking it out for credit and glory, all the while forgetting this new generation.

I’ve been actively involved in the struggle for LGBT equality since 2004, when Kentucky passed its odious anti-marriage amendment.  Soon after, the gay movement in Kentucky fell apart, to put it nicely.  The leadership began shirking their responsibilities and a bunch of college students, including myself, really took up the mantle of leadership.  When Jason Johnson was expelled for being gay by the University of the Cumberlands in 2006, it was the Kentucky Collegiate Coalition, led by students from all over Kentucky, which took up the cause and staged the protest.  It was KCC that had conference calls in consultation with GLAAD.  Yes, the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, our statewide equality lobby, sprung for hotel rooms and “officially” cosponsored the rally with us, but it was Kentucky college students that led the movement against the University of the Cumberlands receiving public funds.

But eventually, we got burned out.  With no real support coming from the national organizations, which seemed unable to be bothered with a flyover state, and with our state organizations disintegrating into bickering and catty gay drama, the college students didn’t know where to go.  I’ll be the first to say that at 20 years old I was not prepared to be one of the statewide gay leaders.  The pressure got too much, and many of us simply moved on to other projects.  We lost a lot of bright young gay people to the environmental lobby, education lobby, and other progressive causes.  That’s not to diminish the importance of these other causes, but we need our best and brightest working for our equality, too.

The burnout experienced by many of us from 2004-2006 was replaced by rage and resolve after Prop 8.  We were aching for a way to involve ourselves, to be proactive, and to take this fight “out of the bars and into the streets.”  Prop 8 was a poorly run campaign, and the state leaders in California hardly deserve to be labeled as such.  The same seems to be true for most states.  The national organizations, on the other hand, took far too cautious an approach.  Perhaps they’ve been inside the beltway too long, but they are much more interested in playing the political game in DC than doing much of anything on the ground in a state like Washington, Maine, and certainly not Kentucky.

My generation—the Millennials—are a generation of “now.”  We’re not used to waiting.  If I want to know what my best friend is doing, I’ll text her.  If I want to hear Leona Lewis’s new song, I can download it on iTunes without leaving my bedroom.  If I want to read the latest news on Darfur, there are countless websites with endless updates.  We want things when we want them, and in our minds, patience isn’t a virtue—it’s unnecessary.

HRC, GLAAD, and the countless other organizations don’t seem to get this.  They counsel patience—patience with state laws, patience with Congress, patience with President Obama.  But patience isn’t a virtue learned by my generation, and in this case, it serves us well.  For we can ill afford to be patient any longer.  Not when our brothers and sisters are suffering.  Not when we are suffering.

Prop 8 woke up the gay community, especially Millennials, to the reality that equality doesn’t just happen.  We’re going to have to fight for it.  I think that was the point of the National Equality March.  It was to show the world that we’ve been awakened.  We get it now.

rainbow I’ve heard it said that this weekend was the passing of the torch.  The old guard has handed off the reins of the movement to a new generation of leaders, in our 20s and 30s, who are going to now do things our way.  I don’t know if this will happen right away, but I definitely think my generation is going to demand more of a presence at the table.  We want our voices heard, and our elders are going to have to listen.  Whether they will do this willingly is yet to be known.
What I do know, though, is what was evident in the eyes of the young college students I traveled with.  Yes, they went for Lady Gaga.  Yes, they went to be a part of history.  But something happened while they were there.  I saw in them an awakening, an understanding, a deeply personal connection forged to their cause and their identity.  I saw the tenacity of their convictions in their eyes, heard the resolve of their commitments in their chants, and felt their deepened understanding of the stakes and the movement.  They get it.

This is why the National Equality March was a success.  For the first time, the Millennials were given an avenue to show what they have to offer our movement, and I have to say, we showed everyone else up.  Where the national leaders have been content to wait, the Millennials descended on DC to show that we will wait no longer.  It’s not our forte.  We don’t even like to wait for espresso, so why would we wait for equality?  It’s true that the march may not change the hearts and minds of politicians.  But it did something just as important: it opened and inspired the hearts and minds of LGBT youth.

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Written by skylarjordan

October 13, 2009 at 5:25 pm

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