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A Movement & A Market

I Went to the Millennium March on Washington and All I Got was This Lousy George Michael Mousepad

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Pilar Vergara
TWO YEARS AGO the largest gay and lesbian political organization in the United States, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), along with the nation's largest gay and lesbian religious organization, Metropolitan Community Churches, called for a national gay and lesbian march on Washington in the year 2000. The Millennium March on Washington, which took place last Sunday, was bathed in controversy from the start. A small group of hardcore gay and lesbian lefties fought long and hard to discredit the march. Calling themselves the Ad Hoc Committee for an Open Process, the group churned out hundreds of press releases -- most demanding to know just what gave a national gay rights organization with 300,000 members the right to call a march on Washington.

Now, I'd like to thank the Ad Hockers for their hard work. They complained that decisions were being made behind closed doors. They complained that the march was going to be just a big party. And when they saw how many corporate sponsors had signed on, they complained that the gay and lesbian community is a movement, not a market. Finally, they urged gays and lesbians to boycott the Millennium March on Washington for Equality.

As I admire the Ad Hockers' passion, it pains me to report that the Millennium March on Washington was a success. Yes, Congressman Barney Frank stayed away, as did Washington state's Ed Murray. And thanks to the Ad Hockers' efforts, a lot of ink was spilled over divisions in the gay and lesbian community. San Francisco's obsessively out-of-touch gay newsweekly, The Bay Area Reporter, went so far as to encourage its readers to stay home. But gays and lesbians poured into Washington by the tens of thousands. I was at the marches in 1987 and 1993, and the crowds at the 2000 march were as large or larger. And if we judge this march by the same yardstick used to judge the last two -- i.e. media coverage -- even the Ad Hockers will have to concede that the Millennium March on Washington was a success. Once the media saw that the Ad Hockers' dire predictions for the march (No one was coming! It was going to be a disaster!) were false, the focus shifted from whether or not anyone would be marching to the demands made by the 300,000 or more marchers who did show up. From The New York Times to the Los Angeles Times, from MSNBC to CNN, the march got gay and lesbian issues an exhaustive airing in the middle of a presidential election year.

But hey, I don't want to give the impression that the march was perfect. There were plenty of perfectly insipid moments. For instance, when did George Michael become a hero in the struggle for gay rights? Until he got arrested with his pants down in a public toilet, George Michael was an insipid closet-case, occasionally taunted by that insipid out-of-the-closet-case Boy George. But there he was, at the Equality Rocks concert and the march, blathering about gay rights. George was even on the cover of The Advocate's Millennium March on Washington souvenir issue. And at both the concert and the march, Ellen spoke, Ellen's mom spoke, and Ellen's "wife," Anne Heche, spoke. Could someone tell me when the gay and lesbian civil rights movement became the DeGeneres' family firm? Must all of Ellen's relatives get their own speaking slot?

More problems: Victims of hate crimes were brought on stage at Equality Rocks, and we were asked to cheer for them. ("Good for you -- your son got killed!") And the crowd was almost entirely white, with lots of pumped-up guys walking around with their shirts off. When one speaker at the rally -- a black gay man -- gave an impassioned speech condemning "a bankrupt [gay] culture of uniformity" and "a homogenized homosexuality," I thought he might get booed. Fortunately, the conforming crowd members -- boys in their Gap T-shirts, girls in their Gap T-shirts -- were ignoring him. And they ignored the next speaker. And the next. Only when Ellen walked out did the crowd rise and cheer. Ellen was on TV, and Ellen is famous, and that's all that matters anymore. Ellen gave a rambling, off-the-cuff speech, and the crowd went wild.

Then HRC Executive Director Elizabeth Birch got up to speak -- and she made a reference to the Ad Hockers. "Some people did not want you to be here today," said Birch. "But you listened with your hearts... and you voted with your feet." People voted with their feet during Birch's speech, too, marching their asses off the mall and into a huge, fenced, concentration-camp-like pen that spread for blocks on Pennsylvania Avenue. A five-buck mandatory donation got you into the pen, called the Millennium festival, where marchers could enjoy margaritas, eat barbecue, and buy T-shirts.

In the pen I met a young gay couple from Chicago. Matt, in a Gap T-shirt, and Kirby, in an Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt, hadn't heard anything about a controversy. "We came to the march to show solidarity," said Matt, "and because it's a voting year." The boys felt the march was a lot less political than Chicago's annual pride parade. "It's more like Market Days," observed Matt, referring to an annual festival hosted by businesses in Chicago that want to appeal to gay and lesbian consumers.

Speaking of which, when my friends and I left the march, we passed an ad in a bus shelter near Dupont Circle, the heart of Washington's gay neighborhood. "It's not a choice," read the copy. "It's the way we're built. Subaru's all-wheel driving system. In every car we make." Gay-niche marketing drives Ad Hockers and other hardcore gay lefties crazy. We're a movement, they insist, not a market. But some of us are old enough to remember when Ellen DeGeneres, Melissa Etheridge, and George Michael were all closeted -- way, way back in the late '90s. Back then, gay lefties complained about businesses that didn't market to gays and lesbians. The beer companies, the vodka companies, the cigarette companies -- they made a lot of money off gays and lesbians, so how come they didn't advertise in "our" publications? This annoyed gay lefties to no end. Now everyone advertises in our publications, and gay lefties are still annoyed. And really, do we have to choose between being a movement and a market? Can't we be both?

But the pissing match between the HRC and the Ad Hoc Committee for an Open Process wasn't about marketing or process or openness, but about power. Who's gonna be in charge? After last Sunday, it should be clear to absolutely everyone that, like it or not, the HRC is in charge. The crowds at the march clearly weren't turned off by the HRC's top-down leadership. They want leadership -- what they don't want is to be drawn into endless, mind-numbing debates about how decisions are going to be made.

And while the great gay unwashed want leaders, the reception that serious people like Birch got compared to the reception that morons like George Michael got made one thing clear: Gays and lesbians want to be led by a person they've seen on TV -- someone attractive, who makes them feel good, and who isn't going to ask them to think. The ideal gay leader for the new millennium is not some smarty-pants like Elizabeth Birch or Andrew Sullivan, or anyone on the Ad Hoc Committee for an Open Process, but someone like that sock puppet in the Pets.com commercials. He's on TV; he makes us laugh; he'll never get old; he doesn't ask tough questions; and he gives us permission to shop. He's too cute and funny not to be gay, so it's only a matter of time before the Pets.com sock puppet gets busted in a public bathroom somewhere. Then the editors of The Advocate will put him on the cover of their magazine, and inform us that the outed sock puppet is a hero in the struggle for gay rights.

Finally, if I may venture a very specific criticism of the Ad Hockers: Telling gays and lesbians to stay away from Washington because the march was going to be a big party was a mistake. Outside of pleasure-hating, hard-left, gay political circles, most gays and lesbians love parties. Instead of trying to convince people that the march was being run by monsters -- who happen to be part of a mainstream gay group with 300,000 members, an organization that worked hard to make the event as pleasurable as possible -- you Ad Hockers should've convinced people that you were in charge. You should have told gays and lesbians that the march was going to be an all-day, open-process teach-in, complete with diversity training, plenary sessions, street theater, and a rally that would go on until the last Latvian lesbian leather-daddy got to speak. People would've stayed away in droves.

 

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