The Millennium March -- three years and $2 million in the making -- is fast becoming the biggest civil rights rally no one seems interested in attending.
The Human Rights Campaign and Metropolitan Community Churches, the nation's largest gay political and religious organizations, are sponsoring the march, hoping to showcase a maturing gay movement that is increasingly turning its attention to kids and marriage. The new push in 2000 is "full equality under the law," and the April gathering is supposed to highlight that effort.
Gay marches on Washington have certainly drawn large crowds before. The first, in 1979, attracted about 100,000 people, and those numbers swelled to about 250,000 in 1987 and 300,000 in 1993, according to National Park Service estimates. The throngs massed along the three-mile stretch of parkland between the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol to give gay issues a much-needed face and political voice.
But the Millennium March is producing yawns within the gay community, and in some cases outright opposition.
Some number of people will undoubtedly attend, if for no other reason than to hear a planned Melissa Etheridge concert. But unlike its predecessors, this year's march does not appear to be gaining traction among the national gay community. Potential participants from San Francisco and the West Coast seem particularly lukewarm about making the trek to Washington yet again.
The uninterested say massive marches are no longer relevant. Gay people are readily visible, and accepted, like never before, be it with domestic partnership benefits in the workplace or roles in sitcoms. And the resources devoted to organizing a national march, some say, could be put to better use locally, where ongoing fights against anti-gay laws and bias can be targeted more effectively.
Finally, some of those who are most opposed say they are upset at how the 2000 march is being organized: Its existence was decreed by only a few sponsors without grass-roots support or input. They resent the HRC and MCC's presumptions of what the new gay movement will look like.
San Francisco's Robert Perez, who would seem to be a perfect candidate for the march, is typical of those who are not planning to go. Perez is politically aware and active in gay issues. He was the former spokesperson for the Stop AIDS Project, and currently works as a community outreach manager for KQED radio. Yet neither he nor any of his friends have made plans to go to Washington.
"I don't know of anyone who's going," Perez says. "In 2000, the country already knows we're here and queer."
Perez says there are better ways to spend the $1,000 it would probably cost to fly to Washington and stay in a hotel. "I'd rather give it to Al Gore to make sure he gets elected, or an openly gay candidate, or use it to fight the next Knight Initiative," he says. "It is unclear how much impact marching for a day in Washington will have. A national march in itself is not a bad thing, but it becomes problematic when it detracts from the fight at local levels."
March organizers concede that heavy infighting among various gay groups has detracted from the event's overall goal of building upon past successes. But they say the most contentious issues -- that the march represent a diverse gay community and address state and local concerns from the national pulpit -- have been resolved.
"Things have changed. We have made the march better," says Dianne Hardy-Garcia, the march's executive director. "It's good that people brought forth their issues, and we listened. But now it's time to forgive and come back to the table, because we have a higher cause here."
Interestingly, California's overwhelming passage of Proposition 22 this month -- the so-called Knight Initiative, which precludes California from recognizing same-sex marriages performed outside the state -- is being used as an argument both to attend and avoid the march.
March opponents say the failure of California to block the Knight Initiative is a perfect example of how investing in a superficial, one-day event in Washington detracts from resources needed to tackle real threats at home. "A national march is a waste of effort, when we have enough on our plate in California," says Vince Quackenbush, a San Francisco elementary school teacher who has frequently posted anti-march messages in Internet chat rooms sponsored by the Millennium March's Web site.
But Hardy-Garcia uses Proposition 22 as a rallying cry.
"In light of what happened in California, I can't believe that we don't have a need to march on Washington. I'm outraged by the Knight Initiative, and if that can happen in so-called liberal California, you can imagine what it's like in Texas, Oklahoma, or Alabama," Hardy-Garcia says. "We may have Will & Grace on TV, but our job is clearly far from done."
Quackenbush has no disagreement with that point. But he objects to the venue. "We should be having marches locally and at the state capitols," he says. "That's where the action happens, and that's where our business should be."
But Hardy-Garcia, a state activist herself in Texas before moving temporarily to Washington, D.C., to direct the Millennium March, argues that the national march can only help local causes.
"National marches inspire people to go home and take on the school board, or the city council, or the statehouse, and become hometown heroes," she says. "Activists are not born; they are made. And the march allows for that."
Quackenbush was 28 when he attended the first march on Washington in 1979. "That march was a cry for visibility," he says, when gays were angry about singer Anita Bryant's national campaign against homosexuals and the assassination of Harvey Milk, the country's first openly gay elected official. Quackenbush was also in Washington in 1987, rallying for attention during the AIDS crisis. He missed the 1993 march, and now is certain 2000 is not necessary. "There is no real reason to go," he says. "It will just devolve into a party."
New limits on marriage and adoption in some states, as well as impasses over hate crime legislation, are worthy reasons to march in 2000, Hardy-Garcia says. The mere rejuvenation of gay spirit gives her enough reason to march. "We need these moments every so often to renew our conviction to keep fighting for equality, to celebrate who we are, and to feel energized and powerful," she says. "That energy is what allows us to do great things. That's the point."
Duane Cramer, who serves on the Millennium March board and is helping organize from San Francisco, says the march has been a tougher sell to people here and others who live in urban centers like New York and Los Angeles that have vibrant gay communities. With lots of resources and large gay pride parades each year, many do not feel a need to travel to Washington. But for the sake of others in the country who do not live in a Castro or Greenwich Village, "I hope they reconsider," Cramer says. "Some people are spoiled here, and there is a small group opposed to the march, but it is needed to create new activists and energize existing ones."
Certainly, a crowd of some size will gather April 30. Washington is an easy day-trip by train for most on the Eastern seaboard. But there is a palpable lack of interest about the march as a historical turning point, or must-do event.
No-shows like Perez say they were demoralized by ongoing reports in the gay press about the sagalike organizational troubles of the Millennium March. "That part is sad and depressing," he says.
Many saw the involvement of the Human Rights Campaign, a powerful gay Washington lobbyist group, as merely a platform to increase its own influence and membership list. There was a lot of dissent from activists who claim that the HRC's money stays in Washington and does not benefit their local causes. "Let them call it the HRC March; it's not my march," Quackenbush says.
Even Pride at Work, a national coalition of gay union members affiliated with the AFL-CIO, has taken a stance against the Millennium March. Howard Wallace, who organizes health care workers in San Francisco, says Pride at Work objected to the march's "undemocratic" organization. "We couldn't support a march that was not open to the whole movement," he says. "They can make token gestures, but it is still a top-down organization and an awful lot of people feel left out of the process."
The mainly HRC-sponsored event, Wallace says, doesn't represent the breadth of the gay movement. "It started out with a super-assimilation approach that made us all very white and upper middle class," he says.
Hardy-Garcia says the march as it is now is very inclusive. "Instead of bitching that things aren't right, I have worked to make them right," she says. "I'm convinced this will be a great march for everyone. You will see plenty of leather, and transgendered people, and people of color, and youth, and gay parents and their kids, as well as our heterosexual family and friends. We're a movement of toddlers to 90-year-olds. This is everyone's fight."