No March Madness

The fervor isn't building for another gay rally on Washington

Next month, on a spring Sunday many hope will be warm and rain-free, hundreds of thousands of gay and gay-friendly folks from across the country will converge on Washington, D.C., to march in pursuit of equal rights for homosexuals. That is if, between now and April 30, a few hundred thousand gay and gay-friendly folks decide showing up for the march is worth their bother.

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."

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