Report from the Front Line: Challenges to Proposed Millennium March for Gay Rights Growing
This month marks the 30th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village, NY. The three nights of confrontation with the NYC Police Department is celebrated as the beginning of the contemporary lesbian/ gay/bisexual/transgender movement. There is plenty to celebrate as the lives of lgbt people have changed dramatically in those 3 decades. But what has grown into one of the major civil rights struggles is riddled with serious political problems.
Here's a look at one struggle within this movement., something I've been invovled with for over a year. This snap shot should shed light on the bigger picture.
In February 1998, the two largest national lgbt organizations, Human Rights Campaign and Metropolitan Community Church, announced an event to be held in Washington, DC, in the spring of 2000. The decision to bring the lgbt community to DC was made by a handful of people in Washington without any input or involvement from activists around the country. The original conveners were joined by the Latino Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Organization (LLEGO), and in June of 1998, an invitation-only meeting was attended by close to 40 executive directors of lgbt organizations/ They agreed to move ahead with the MMOW and began selecting a board of directors. Since then, the hand picked board has expanded itself, hired an executive producer, lined up a major corporate sponsor, held one public meeting in Minneapolis and sent out some press releases. They have done virtually nothing to let our community know about their plans, or to develop structures for meaningful participation in decision-making about the event.
Right from the beginning, critics have argued that a decision which will have a powerful impact on our community's time, energy and resources was made by a self-selected group without even a gesture toward community involvement.
The MMOW's top-down, closed door process flies in the face of this movement's history. The 1979, 1987 and 1993 national marches were run democratically: each time, the decisions to march, the date, the name and the demands were made with the most open participation possible. Instead of building upon these models, the initiators of this event did not include grassroots organizers who do the daily work of the lgbt movement, or even other national organizations. As if this arrogance is not bad enough, the initial decision was made by five white people meeting in Washington, DC.
The Ad Hoc Committee for An Open Process came together in the spring of 1998 and brought a proposal to create a democratic process to discuss the possibility of such an event to the invitation-only meeting last June. There were 65 signatures on the call: today more than 500 people have signed on.
By the spring of this year, there were new signs that the event was not gaining momentum. In April, the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force resigned from the MMOW Board and issued a letter critical of the Board's process. The head of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition had resigned from the MMOW Board earlier. Pride At Work, the AFL-CIO recognized lgbt organization, has endorsed the Call for An Open Process, as has BiNet USA (the nation's largest bisexual organization) and It's Time America (a national transgender organization). The National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum withdrew an early endorsement of the MMOW and the National Organization for Women is reconsidering its conditional endorsement. The newly formed National Stonewall Democratic Federation (a network of lgbt Democratic Party clubs around the country) added their name as a signer to the Call for An Open Process.
In response to the challenges the board of the MMOW has said they are open to input from community activists. Yet, they hold steadfast to their position that there will be no reconsideration of the most important decision: to hold their event on April 30, 2000.
Recently, changes in how they operate were announced, giving the appearance of addressing issues the Ad Hoc Committee and others have raised. There is a real concern about the cosmetic nature of the changes; for instance:
The MMOW Board has been expanded to include a majority of people of color and a majority of women: not selected by the diverse lgbt communities, they were hand picked by those in charge. Future board meetings are supposed to be open, although there's been no announcement of when or where they will be. There will be some time for "community input," and beyond that it's not clear what role, if any, community people will be able to play. The MMOW Board is supposed to establish a "Leadership Council" - two people from each state and a representative from each endorsing organization. It's still not clear how state representatives will be selected, or what decision-making power they will have.At the end of May, the Ad Hoc Committee sent a letter to their board requesting , among other things:
1) MMOW projected income and expense budget.
2) A copy of, or at least a summation of, any contractual arrangements already entered.
3) The guidelines, if any, being used to determine corporate sponsorship.
4) A complete list of the members of the MMOW Board with their contact information.
5) Clarification of how decisions are made within the MMOW structure, and information about how their proposed leadership council will be put together.
The Ad Hoc Committee received the following reply: "In response to your certified mail memo dated May 27, 1999, all public MMOW information is, or will be, on our web site at www.mmow.org." So far, virtually none of the information requested can be found there.
Two questions keep coming up:.
1) "Is this the fourth national lgbt march on Washington or something different?" They try to project their event as the fourth national march, attempting to tie it to the inspiring, energizing experiences of those three marches. Don't be confused - the planning for the MMOW is a complete break with our movement's history and our commitment to inclusion and democracy. For one thing, there is not even a plan to march . . . the only plan is to hold a media event on the Mall!
Their own statements indicate the point of the event is to identify and exploit our community for a marketing strategy. In the announcement about the sponsorship of PlanetOut, they say:
"Corporate sponsorship of the Millennium March on Washington offers extraordinary visibility, promotional and brand-building opportunities to companies looking to reach the affluent and loyal gay/lesbian market through the largest community event in history. Sponsorship packages include extensive on-line presence on the March web site, millions of impressions through our advertising and promotional materials, and high-visibility on-site recognition."
2) "Isn't there some value in periodically marching on Washington?" There are many times when it was important to march on Washington. In large part, the success of these events came from an organizing process that included a strategy for how such an event helps build a movement. We are not opposed to marches on Washington or other public expressions of our demand for justice and equality.
Some suggest going to Washington is not a good use of our community's resources or energies and that our focus needs to be on local/state organizing. While the foundation of our movement is in its local organizing projects, a strong national presence can help give us greater coherence and visibility. Instead of pitting local and national efforts against one another we should be looking for the balance between the two.
The issue is not whether marches on Washington are useful but how our community decides when the political environment and the state of the movement make such an action opportune. That decision is difficult and complex, requiring an open, broad-based discussion. With the Millennium event that discussion has yet to take place . . . and it looks like it never will.
Much More Is at Stake Here What's happened with the MMOW sheds light on other problems in the lgbt movement. Many of us are deeply concerned about the increasingly conservative direction taken by some of the national leadership, and we've found there are many lgbt activists around the country feeling the same way. A few examples of what's so troubling:
Last fall the Human Rights Campaign endorsed NY Senator Al D'Amato for re-election, even over the strong objections of grassroots activists. In the summer of 1998, twelve national lgbt organizations signed on a full page, supposedly gay, ad in the New York Times. The ad was a response to earlier hate filled anti-gay ads. The anti-gay ads needed to be countered, but the piece from our organizations bought into the framework of the right wing by projecting only the most mainstreamed version of who we are as queer people. In the fall of 1998 we learned that GLAAD, our movement's media watch-dog, had accepted $110,000 from the Coors Foundation. The Coors family continues to be one of the largest donors to right wing think tanks and organizations.The open and ongoing challenge to those in charge of the MMOW has sent a signal to others: it is not only possible to question authority, it is necessary to do so!
And we have begun a discussion about the possibility of helping to organize something we are tentatively calling a queer radical congress. Motivated by the success of last year's Black Radical Congress, we have started to reach out to other lgbt groups - mostly locally based efforts - to explore this idea. To be honest, the Ad Hoc Committee is not interested in, and believes it would be a bad idea, to initiate a call for such a gathering by ourselves. This project will only be successful if it grows out of the work already unfolding around the country . . . if it is built from the bottom up.
Ad Hoc Committee for An Open Process P.O. Box 1114 Old Chelsea Station New York, NY 10011 email: firstname.lastname@example.org web site: www.foranopenprocess.org