USA Today had a front-page story Tuesday that asks whether marches still matter. I haven’t read it beyond the headline, but like all great pundits (I’m looking at you, Joel Stein), I won’t let that stop me from forming an opinion about it and sharing it with anyone who keeps reading beyond this paragraph.
My friend Robin Tyler is a March on Washington aficionado, having been involved as an organizer of many of these events. Tyler, who came into her own as part of the Stonewall generation that rabble-roused us into the equal rights we’re just starting to gain today, is fun to spend time with because she not only can orate on what the LGBTQ civil rights movement is doing wrong today but she’s willing to share behind-the-scenes gossip on the great leaders of the movement back in the day.
I love that because civil rights movements are often sanitized so that a great leader like Martin Luther King is remembered only for his peace movement rally cries and not for his alleged philandering, while women like Kathy Kozachenko (the first out gay American elected to public office) and trans people of all genders (Google the Compton’s Cafeteria riot) are rendered largely invisible.
Tyler believes strongly in marches. I know this because she was the first to call for a national gay March on Washington, something Harvey Milk opposed, but which the community rallied around after his murder. She has been involved as an organizer in all of the national LGBT marches in the last 30 years, including the first March on Washington that happened when I was an adult queer, the second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. It happened in 1987, and though I was too poor to actually go to Washington. I remember seeing a video of it and weeping (in public!) because I was so moved and so sorry I had missed what I thought would be a pivotal moment in our history. It was the first time my generation had taken up the protest baton from the ’60s generation, and the first time LGBT folks had publicly marched to push the president and the country to acknowledge the AIDS crisis, which was then devastating our world, as well as the ridiculousness of recent antigay verdict in Bowers v. Hardwick. Jesse Jackson, Eleanor Smeal, Whoopi Goldberg, and Cesar Chavez were all speakers and marchers. and it was so phenomenal that it’s still called the Great March by many gay historians.
So let’s suffice it to say I believe in marches and the impact they can have on the world. But back to USA Today’s query, do marches still matter? The answer, I think, is no. Strikes still matter; workforce walkouts that force companies and government agencies to shut down, those matter. Riots, whether they’re in Oakland, Calif., or Egypt, matter because violence gets attention. for better or worse. And direct action, the kind we used to employ in the ’80s in ACT UP — die-ins in the street where we literally lay down and held a gravestone over our heads, large-scale protests that end up in arrests and on TV— those, I think, still work. In 1988, ACT UP shut down the Food and Drug Administration in the largest demonstration, at that point, since the Vietnam War, and Women ACT UP publicly shamed Cosmopolitan so much it retracted an article and lost sales for providing misinformation on women’s risks for contracting HIV.
But marches are a product of a different generation, one that could be moved by the swell of humanity before them. But each generation makes its own mark and is moved by different things. While the Mattachine Society, largely folks from the Silent Generation, took a micro approach to gay rights (its first big protest was a “Sip-In” in 1966 where members went into a bar, came out, and ordered drinks; read more here), the Baby Boomers wanted more direct action. They were the generation weened on Vietnam War protests and civil rights movements with great leaders like King and Chavez. Gen X, my generation, followed suit, sometimes joining the protests and marches and sometimes apathetically giving up on it all.
The last great LGBT march, the 2000 Millennium March on Washington, brought out even bigger celebs, from Melissa Etheridge and Garth Brooks to President Bill Clinton. At nearly a million people by some estimates, it was perhaps the best attended, though it showed signs of a changing world, exposing the underlying divisions under our LGBT umbrella, ending mired in both controversy and debt. It will be our last great LGBT march on D.C.
That’s because the Millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000, are the first generation to grow up with social media, cell phones, and the Internet. They are the first truly global generation in America since the first immigrants took over. And their worlds revolve around those little screens, which is why social media is the nexus of protest for them, not large-scale marches. Why march on Washington when with the tap of a screen hundreds of thousands can send protest tweets around the globe? It must seem a lesson in futility.
In addition, they are mixed-race, multigendered, and often label-free. Sure, they are out, whatever that means, but they may be using no labels or entirely different labels than their LGBTQ predecessors. And their friends are the same; some we may perceive as straight, but to this generation, it’s often all the same thing — truly the “all one people” that the Boomers and Coke commercials once promised.
The really revolutionary thing now would be for LGBT groups and activists to recognize that old ways of organizing, celebrating, and protesting aren’t right for this generation, and ask them what is.
DIANE ANDERSON-MINSHALL is editor at large for The Advocate and editor in chief of HIV Plus. She's a Lambda-nominated Bold Strokes Books mystery author and has been honored by L.A. Pride and NLGJA.