Why I'm Marching

By Michelangelo Signorile

Originally published on Advocate.com August 24 2009 12:00 AM ET

COMMENTARY: The time is now for an LGBT march on Washington, and every one of us should be heading to D.C. for the National Equality March planned for October 10-11. Let me explain why, first by reviewing recent events. Then we'll look back a little in history.

Last June, amid growing criticism of President Obama's foot-dragging on LGBT rights and after the despicably homophobic Defense of Marriage Act brief, the White House hosted a cocktail party to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Stonewall. It was nice for us to see a president commemorating the Stonewall riots for the first time. But it was an even better event for Obama himself, a great photo op, in the midst of the outcry, showing gay people -- dubbed by the media as LGBT "leaders" -- applauding him.

Leaders? The crowd included an overwhelming number of Democratic Party hacks and donors, Beltway social climbers, careerists (specifically, former gay group heads now looking for jobs), PR flacks, lobbyists, sycophants, and assorted sellouts. The fabulously superficial -- including a fashion editor who sits front and center at every New York fashion show -- were there too. And everyone was enthralled by the event, clapping uproariously for the president. Many of those present had raised lots of money for Obama and for the Democratic Party-or gave generously themselves -- and probably worked for 20 years to see the day when they could have cocktails and hors d'oeuvres in the White House, using the good china no less!

I say the crowd "included" these people because also present were hardworking chiefs of gay groups, a few of whom actually have made a difference. There were also people like Matthew Shepard's family -- his parents, Judy and Dennis, and his brother, Logan -- who've worked tirelessly on our behalf. And there were some legendary activists, such as Frank Kameny, who paved the way for us all.

But noticeably absent were people the White House sees as troublemakers and who, as a result, weren't invited to the event. These were people who worked for -- and raised money for -- candidate Obama but criticized the president in the weeks prior to the reception. I'd argue that there probably wouldn't have even been a cocktail party if it hadn't been for these people's protests. And, to that point, I'd add that the White House is pretty naive if it thinks a little East Room glad-handing is enough to quiet the masses of fed-up gay people. But I digress.

Obama gave a speech at the event that repeated the promises he'd made on the campaign trail -- about ending "don't ask, don't tell" once Congress sends him a bill, getting rid of the Defense of Marriage Act, stopping discrimination, and on and on. Everyone toasted him.

But just months later, the president is already back to his pre-cocktail party mode: quietly backing, if anything, the incrementalist approach -- as pushed by the Human Rights Campaign, Congressman Barney Frank, and others who are giving him cover -- in which we pass a hate-crimes bill, then eventually move on to the toothless Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which exempts small businesses and religious organizations and isn't needed by people who live in some of the country's most populous states (since they already have statewide protections) or work for almost any Fortune 500 company (since most already have corporate policies banning employment discrimination). Then maybe we'll slowly move on to some of these other things, like discrimination in housing, discrimination in public accommodations, serving openly in the military, marriage equality, and so forth. Of course, at this rate the Democrats might lose control of Congress-and Obama, the White House -- before any of this is ever achieved.

A lot of people are saying we need to think big -- real big -- and that we need to stop denigrating ourselves by settling for crumbs, which we never get anyway. Perhaps we need an omnibus LGBT rights bill that covers everything -- go for it all, and leave it at the feet of Congress. Maybe we should amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include us. What about going for the most urgent things rather than the easiest-like pushing hard for the president to issue a moratorium on "don't ask, don't tell" -- something he has disingenuously said he can't do and that gay groups more or less have given him a pass on -- rather than sitting idly by and watching careers be destroyed while we continue to investigate options for overturning the policy?

We should be inspired by the people around us who are taking different and refreshing approaches at winning full equality. People like those behind the group American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is backing the Ted Olson-David Boies federal legal challenge to California's Proposition 8 despite the tension that's created with gay legal groups petrified of taking the issue to federal court.

It's time for these new, even risky approaches, and it's time to ask for it all -- now. That's why I'm going to Washington for the National Equality March -- called for by legendary activists David Mixner and Cleve Jones -- even though, like others, I wasn't initially down with the idea. It's time the rest of us showed up on the National Mall and let Obama know that the cocktail party crowd -- the suck-ups, the sycophants, and the scaredy-cats -- doesn't represent us. We want full equal rights (or at least see a substantial commitment to moving in that direction) -- not photo ops and wine spritzers.

It's not that I was ever really opposed to the idea of a march. To the contrary, as listeners to my Sirius/XM radio show know, I've been talking about marching on Washington ever since the morning after Election Day. For me, it's been a matter of historical precedent: The black civil rights movement wisely took advantage of a window of opportunity in 1963, when Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress. Republicans could no longer be blamed for the lack of civil rights protections, and marchers knew that media attention would put pressure on the Democrats and shame them into action.

We have that same window of opportunity today.

But that's not to say I was immediately sold on this march. I didn't think there was enough time to organize (I thought we'd need at least a year) and I thought it made more sense to march when Congress was in session (rather than out on Columbus Day recess).

Activist Cleve Jones came on my show and pretty much dismissed my first argument: In the old days, yes, we needed a lot of time to plan an event of this magnitude. But with the Internet, organizing can happen at lightning speed. Indeed, the protests that popped up across the country in the weeks following the passage of Prop. 8 -- including one that I helped organize in New York City that drew more than 5,000 people -- are a testament to that.

To my second argument, Jones explained that holding the march on a holiday weekend means many more marchers will be able to make the trek to D.C. Besides, he said, it doesn't matter so much that Congress isn't in session. People should focus on lobbying back home -- at the district offices instead of on Capitol Hill-and they'll be trained to do so at the march. Even if the House and Senate were in session, Jones said, representatives and senators (not to mention the president) would likely find a convenient reason to be out of town. And really, after the Obama administration submitted that brief in defense of the Defense of Marriage Act, an alarm sounded -- and I think it told us all that we need to go to Washington as soon as possible, holiday or no holiday.

Others have argued that there are so many other important things happening around the country -- from organizing the repeal of Prop. 8 in California to defending marriage in Maine in a referendum this fall -- that this march might be too much to take on. These same critics have also pointed to the economy and the price of travel as arguments against a march.

But we're a big and resourceful group of people. We can do many things at once. We can always find a way. And we must. We can't wait any longer.

In 1963 many African-Americans from all across this country, many of them poor and with little means to pay for travel, did whatever they could to get themselves to Washington. The time was right, and historic. For us, the time is now.