Revolution #181, November 1, 2009
Looking at Change in the National Equality March
A couple of hours driving out of New York, we got a preview of the energy, spirit and youthful character of those headed for the National Equality March in Washington, DC. At a rest stop along the highway we ran into a bus full of students on their way to the protest. At first glance it seemed like a typical school field trip. But looking closer, you could see, these kids were definitely edgy, out to make a statement against the mainstream. And they exuded a kind of excitement and anticipation that reminded me of what it was like to go to your first big demonstration.
The call had gone out for people to march and rally in Washington, DC on October 11—to demand: "The United States must end its system of inhumane segregation that continues to discriminate against LGBTQ (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer) Americans..." The message had crisscrossed the country, through Facebook, Twitter, e-mails and more. Especially on campuses, it struck a chord: "To remain silent is to endorse hatred. So we add our voices to the increasing millions who demand justice, freedom, and equality for America's LGBTQ citizens... We urge our students, no matter their sexual orientation, to organize buses, planes and trains, so we may express our unity and unwavering commitment to freedom and equality. Now is the time to speak out against this outrage and now is the time to march side by side in a powerful show of force in the struggle for freedom."
So the buses came from up and down the East Coast and beyond. And others came in carloads, on trains and planes, from as far away as California. Many tens of thousands converged on Washington, DC to stand up and fight for basic civil rights: "Equal protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in all matters governed by civil law in all 50 states. Now."
A Just Demand!
As people streamed into McPherson Square, it was striking how young the crowd was. There were clearly many veterans of the gay movement, those who have filled the streets to demand gay rights over the last two decades. But a big and significant part of those who formed up today were probably in elementary school when the last national gay rights demonstration happened in DC in 2000.
The first group I talked to were from Silver Spring, Maryland. When I asked them why they came, they were clearly anxious to get to the march. But they gave me a few minutes. The first to talk was a young woman who said she was there because she supports equality and feels strongly that "the role of allies are just as important as the role of activists within the LGBT community." She said, "We need to show that we're here not because of a personal issue but because this is a human rights issue." An older woman in the group quickly interjected, stepping up to my microphone to say: "Well, I'm here for a very personal issue. My son is gay. So my awareness of his opportunities in life has been heightened. I run the GSA at the high school, the Gay Student Alliance." When I asked her where she thinks the gay rights struggle is at and what people should be doing, she pointed to her son standing next to her and said, "You should ask him." He added a few quick thoughts: "I feel like it's reached the point now where the public attitude is just at that point where it's beginning to shift more. So I think this is at a crucial point when we could actually get more public support on a lot of issues and it could cross over to a very mainstream thing, for people to see it's not odd—because it's not, it's everywhere."
Under this system, LGBT people are denied many basic legal rights and several people I talked to compared the gay rights struggle to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s—which in part, was a fight for Black people to have basic rights they were denied by law.
This view, that gay rights is an issue of human rights, of basic civil rights, was something I heard throughout the day. For many, especially those of the post-'60s generations, this seems like something that should be as simple as a, b, c—the idea that we're all human and should all have the same rights. But then people feel a real disconnect to what they see in society: This is supposed to be a country where we have gotten past prejudice and discrimination, where every one deserves certain basic rights. So why is there such condemnation, denial of rights and outright assaults against those who just want to be with the person they love?
The current struggle for LGBT equality is, in fact, part of a larger battle over the whole direction of U.S. society. And for all those who hate discrimination and oppression—and especially from the point of view of revolutionaries who are fighting for a world free of all oppression—this march and this cause were very important to support and join. And we have to seek to make this a powerful struggle that exposes and goes up against this system.
Overall, the march and rally had a real feeling of celebration and pride. There were gay people from many different walks of life. There were older gay couples who have faced discrimination for decades. One couple carried a sign that said: "Beaten by cops in 1965—still waiting for equal rights." Lots of straight people came to express their support. A contingent from Princeton marched, all wearing orange T-shirts, carrying a sign in their school colors that said, "Even Princeton." There were student groups from Amherst, Ohio State, Florida, Georgetown. I talked to gay youth who had come by themselves, on their own from far away, conservative places—to stand up and be in a crowd where you are accepted and don't feel harassed, condemned and threatened.
A group of students who organized a bus from Vassar agreed to be interviewed. One woman told me, "Vassar is really accepting, we're with a group that focuses on political aspects of things, we got it together, sidewalk chalk stuff, activism. The group has over 100 people. I support gay rights, I'm straight but feel strongly about this. I wanted to show that Vassar is very open to everyone, so I came here in support." Another student in the group voiced a sentiment I heard from others—that one of the reasons they came was because they were looking at this march in an historical context and wanted to be able to say they were here.
I heard Judy Shepard speak at the rally—this was the 11th anniversary of the death of her son, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student who was tortured and murdered for being gay. And today, LGBT people still face the terror of knowing that they could be beaten or killed just for being gay.
The article in the issue of Revolution we were distributing talks about how LGBT people are forced to live in fear and told they should live in shame; how transgender people face particularly extreme attacks, and the high rates of attempted suicide among gay youth. The article points out, "The fact that millions of youth, and people of all ages, live under this kind of constant terror, and that this system creates a situation where over sixty percent of all LGBT students feel unsafe in school is a profound indictment of the system and the oppressive morality and relations it engenders and enforces." (See #179, "Washington, DC October 10-11: Gay Rights—A Just Demand! Support, Join the March for Equality," #179, October 15, 2009.)
The Friday before the march in DC, a gay man, Jack Price, was viciously attacked in Queens, New York. A shocking video on YouTube shows this brutal beating—two men taunted Price and yelled anti-gay slurs before punching and kicking him. Price, who suffered a broken jaw, fractured ribs, a lacerated spleen, and the collapse of both of his lungs, was in a medically-induced coma for almost a week.
Talking About Change
The continuation of such attacks was certainly on the minds of many people at the Equality March. But at the same time, there wasn't a lot of urgent anger and condemnation. More, people felt like the guy from Silver Spring, that we still need to struggle, but things are headed in the right direction.
One woman told me, "I love the idea of social justice, fighting for all kinds of different rights, the idea of being here and knowing that we could be making a difference with what we're doing, even though it might be a small step, it's still a step toward a greater good. It's just a really good feeling." I asked her what she thought it will take for people to get equality and she said, "It's going to take time and understanding and what we're doing here, speeches, making other people feel how we feel, teaching people, things like this will help. What else can we do, support by marching, non violent actions. As a student I feel like going to these types of things is my way of supporting, the more that we show how much we care, then hopefully politicians, people who can make a difference in politics and things will change. I hope that will happen, that's why I'm here."
A Black student from NYU told another Revolution reporter, "I think the march is going to show Obama and the rest of the U.S. government, how much it is that we need to stop it now, how urgent of an issue this is instead of something that needs to be dealt with at some point—not eventually, it's a now issue." Another student told me, "It will take time and showing that a lot of people are behind the cause. The number here is astounding. I wasn't expecting this many people. If we just keep on showing that this many people are behind the same cause then eventually we'll get there."
There were more than a few people who expressed real frustration, doubt and in some cases anger at what Obama is and is not doing around the issue of gay rights. But a lot of people said they believe that this big show of support would be heard in the halls of governments and that Obama would have to listen. There was a widespread sentiment of hope and optimism—that I have to say, is framed by pretty low sights—and a lot of illusions about the nature of this society and what can and cannot be achieved under the economic and social relations of capitalism.
I had several people tell me they thought things were improving in this country, "step by step" and "little by little." Only a few days earlier Congress had moved toward including attacks on gay people as part of the legal definition of what a "hate crime" is in this country. This is like the government passing a law today saying it's illegal to lynch Black people (which they didn't do until almost 100 years after the end of the Civil War)—and getting people to think this is a "step in the right direction." And meanwhile, Black youth are being gunned down in the streets by the police and hundreds of thousands are being warehoused in prison.
I couldn't help compare this lack of a larger vision to the times when, not that many years ago, youth took to the streets militantly demanding an end to globalization and chanting slogans like, "we demand a better world."
There were people I interviewed who were clearly very unsatisfied with the state of the world and had clearly done a lot of thinking, trying to understand what it is about this society that gives rise to systematic inequality and discrimination. For example one woman, who told me she considers herself a revolutionary, offered this explanation: "There has to be a scapegoat in every era and we happen to be it. Minorities historically have undergone oppression, this is our turn, and so it is our time to reach equality... women were originally property and the whole concept of the family is created around the CEO of a corporation, which is a male." I sold her the copy of Revolution with the article that talks about how male supremacy/patriarchy arose with class society and today stems from and is perpetuated by the very nature of the capitalist system. When I asked her what she thought about this she said she thought capitalism, although it isn't a good economic system, actually helps in terms of the struggle for equal rights. She said "Corporations are becoming more open to diversity because this group of people creates revenue. Like unions have the power to regulate. Same thing with gay people—buy gay, promote gay, we have our own subculture so you have to go ahead and sell it to us and accept us because you know we won't buy from you. So capitalism in a way works to our advantage."
In general people saw this struggle as working within the current setup—trying to change the government and the thinking and culture in society so that gay people are accepted into the mainstream. Some people expressed this as part of the overall struggle against oppression. For example, one young guy said, "Whatever form of oppression we may have, sexism, homophobia, or racism—we're all connected and we all have to come together and understand and try to combat this problem. Although we had the Civil Rights movement in the 50s, racism still exists, we still have problems with racism, African Americans are not hired because they are African Americans, even though no one says this."
And there were also many in the crowd who include in this the struggle for gay people to be allowed to be part of the U.S. military. There was a contingent of gays in the U.S. military, marching in uniform. And the rally featured a U.S. soldier who had fought in Iraq, calling on Obama to get rid of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
So it was very challenging for people when we said not only that people should not enlist in the U.S. military—which tortures, rapes, and kills in the service of global empire—but that what we really need is a revolution to get rid of this whole capitalist system. We united with people's desire for a society where human beings treat each other with respect, where there is no longer discrimination of all sorts. And people listened to what we had to say about how this will only be possible in a socialist society based not on profit, but on mobilizing the masses of people to build a whole new society aimed at getting rid of classes and emancipating all of humanity.
In this whole mix, people were very open to hearing what we had to say about revolution and communism. We talked with people about the need for a completely different kind of society and got out the RCP statement, "The Revolution We Need... The Leadership We Have." And we had some interesting discussions with people about what it will really take to get to a place where people are not discriminated against because of who they love—or because they are a person of color, or because they are a woman.
In some ways, people recognize that even if the people win some concessions, like legal equal rights—this won't change the fact that we will still be living in a country that wages wars around the world, turns everything and everybody into a commodity, is destroying the environment, has no real future to offer the masses of minority youth and is deeply patriarchal. And I hope the people who got a copy of Revolution at the march will read and grapple with the article about gay rights, especially where it says: "The capitalist-imperialist system we live in rests on a foundation of exploitative and oppressive economic and social relations. And the male-dominated traditional family both mirrors and enforces these relations, as well as all the backward ideas and values that reflect and promote all this. Patriarchy, traditional gender roles and traditional thinking about men and women all stem from and prop up the oppressive property relations in this society... And for those who rule over society, shoring up the traditional family is part of a whole package of imposing and enforcing a whole set of 'traditional values,' like racism, women being subjugated to men, and hatred of immigrants."
One of the last people I talked to at the end of the day told me, "We can't focus on one issue to the detriment of all others. Everything is connected. If you care about women's rights in America, you should care about women's rights in Afghanistan. And if you care about what's happening to gay people here, you should look at what's happening to gay people in Iraq. And we need to be aware that there's a huge racism that happens when police are tasering people and we're calling it a non-lethal weapon and we're using it mostly on young Black men. And one third of young Black men in this country are incarcerated. It's completely ridiculous. These aren't separate issues, they're completely connected."
This is a good place to start a real conversation about what kind of real change is and isn't possible in this system of capitalism-imperialism. And what kind of change—what kind of world—we need to really put an end to all the different forms of oppression the people face.
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