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Next Generation of Activists Steps Out


The sun literally shone down upon the LGBT movement Saturday as a crowd of roughly 200,000, many of them young and attending their first march, flooded onto the Capitol lawn on a warm afternoon and demanded that the U.S. government take notice of their message of equality.

"I told you they would come," said longtime LGBT activist David Mixner, who originally floated the idea of the National Equality March this spring. As he eyed the throng of marchers filing into place, he said, "Never underestimate the power of people who want their freedom."

Robin McGehee, codirector of the march, marveled at the sight as well.

"As a person who studied and watched the civil rights movement growing up in the South in Mississippi, and hearing the stories about 1963 and seeing the busloads of people that would just continue to come even though you thought they were supposed to stop -- that's exactly how I feel, they just won't stop," McGehee said.

Asked if she expected this many marchers, McGehee did not hesitate. "Absolutely not," she blurted out. "With no budget, no advertising, all on Facebook and Twitter -- it really was a viral effort and it was people who came on board and said, 'We're going to do whatever we can to help promote these efforts.'"

Attendees traveled from as far away as Alaska and Utah, often with their state and local LGBT organizations, determined to make their voices heard.

"I think this is really important for those of us that have never had an opportunity to march as well as people who are looking for a way to express themselves and in the current systems don't feel like they're being heard," said Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Utah Pride Center.

Larabee rallied Sunday morning in McPherson Square, the staging area for the two-mile march, with a contingent of 50 people from Salt Lake City, the place where lead organizer Cleve Jones first announced the march publicly in June.

"From that moment on, we were preparing to come to Washington, D.C. We've had a lot of excitement," she said. "We've never wavered in our commitment to coming here."

Many of those who responded to the Web-based call were young people, a number of them attending their first LGBT march of any kind on Sunday and full of expectations.

"I am looking forward to change," said Lividia Violett of Texas. "I want equal rights, and that's what's I'm here for, to jump-start our movement that's been stalled for so long."

Violett, 24, said she was galvanized into action by California's passage Proposition 8 last November, which ended marriage equality in that state, and the police raid on the Rainbow Lounge, a gay bar in Fort Worth, Texas, in June.

Her friend Elizabeth Pax, an organizer and graduate student from the University of North Texas, kissed her spontaneously.

Nearby, five proud "Aggies" from Texas A&M University in College Station joined the contingent of roughly 150 from the Lone Star State.

"We all decided to come here because we don't have anything like this going on in Texas," said Lowell Kane, program coordinator of the school's LGBT resource center. "It's an inspiration for all of us to see this kind of gigantic community coming together," he said.

Riley Bryan, vice president of a group for LGBT Aggies, expressed hope that the march would open a new chapter in organizing for his generation.

"I think the main thing is, it's going to mobilize our generation because there's nothing in our generation to kick us off and get us active," he said. "This is the thing that is going to activate us."

Other young marchers included 24 residents of the fine arts dorm at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. They said their school provided a grant for each of them to travel in a van and stay overnight at the low cost of $25.

"Our school's just really supportive," said Meredith Shea, a 19-year-old theater major.

As the march snaked onto a clogged I Street Northwst just past noon, two popular chants indicated marchers' impatience with President Barack Obama and Congress.

"Obama! Obama! Let mama marry mama!" pleaded some.

Others cried, "What do we want? Equality! When do we want it? Yesterday!"

Not everyone marching for the first time was under 30, as the march drew newcomers like Sebastian Paris of Florida, who felt called to action recently.

"This is very emotional," said the tearful 48-year-old. "This is my first march."

Paris posed on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House with a gay pride flag and his friend George Puccio from New Jersey.

The turnout and spirit of the marchers impressed veteran activists like the comedian Kate Clinton, who greeted marchers on G Street Northwest with her partner, Urvashi Vaid.

"I feel like I can retire," said Clinton.

The passion of the crowd was matched in temperament on the stage by stars and politicians, as well as activists old and new -- Judy Shepard, Cynthia Nixon, Julian Bond, Staceyann Chin, David Mixner, Urvashi Vaid.

"I have one simple request," Christine Quinn, the lesbian speaker of the New York City council, told the crowd. "Look me in the eye and tell me that I am less of a person than you are. Look me in the eye and tell me that my family is worth less than yours. And look me in the eye and tell me I am not an American."

As musical phenom and friend of the gays Lady Gaga surveyed the masses, she proudly declared the moment "the single most important" of her career.

"To Barney Frank," she said, "we are putting more than just pressure on this grass today -- today this grass is ours." Congressman Frank, the highest-ranking openly gay official in the country, had panned the march earlier this week, saying, "The only thing they're going to be putting pressure on is the grass."

But Lady Gaga wasn't the only one who was fed up with authority.

"When we're telling the truth about our love, our country slaps us in the face and orders us, 'don't ask,' and orders us, 'don't tell,'" declared Lt. Dan Choi, an Arabic linguist who is being discharged from the Army for being gay.

"Well, I am telling you that the era and the time for asking is over. I am not asking anymore, I am telling ... I am telling ... I am telling! Will you tell with me?" he implored, before saluting the marchers and walking off stage.

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Julie Bolcer