Tag Archives: gay rights

My Dale Peck Problem

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Mayor Pete Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten Buttigieg. Photo: Michael Conroy/AP Images/Business Insider

I’ve had a few days to reflect on Dale Peck’s infamous piece for The New Republic. Bowing to pressure, the website deleted the article, but the internet is forever and you can read it here. Peck spends a full third of the piece speculating on Pete Buttigieg’s sexual role and says, in short, he is unfit for office because he’s going to be a randy old git once he gets to the White House. It was inappropriate, at best, and homophobic, at worst.

The article opens with an asinine and, frankly, pointless anecdote about a run-in with a stalkerish twink in 90s Manhattan. It’s only after this trip down memory lane that, whether you agree with them or not, Peck levels fair critiques of Mayor Pete and his policies. It’s after this, though, that we get into the controversial and problematic bits.

Before we talk about them, let’s state the obvious: Dale Peck is gay. I’ve seen people respond to this fact in three unique ways. One is to say it makes his homophobia even worse. Another is to claim it voids any accusations of homophobia. The final is to shrug it off entirely.

I don’t know if Peck being gay makes it any worse, but it doesn’t mean he can’t himself be an Aunt Mary, the gay version of an Uncle Tom and, ironically, what he accuses Pete Buttigieg of being. And it certainly matters that Dale Peck is gay. Because, whether we want to admit it or not, Dale Peck just spoke to America the way a great many gay men speak to one another, about men generally and about Pete Buttigieg specifically.

Mayor Pete’s historic run for the White House has, undoubtedly, inspired a great many gay men—myself included. I watched his announcement in South Bend and had tears in my eyes. As a gay man, only slightly younger than Mayor Pete, raised in a neighbouring state, I saw in him a lot of my hopes and dreams. The thought of the first couple, Pete and his darling husband, Chasten, moving into the White House, and them possibly adopting children while there, of the world seeing a loving gay couple represent the free world, was and is deeply moving in a way I cannot fully explain.

So a lot of gay people are extremely protective of Mayor Pete (and, by extension, Chasten), some of us so even as we are concerned with his politics. Reading Peck’s column, I found myself nodding along in parts. For the past 30 years gay men, and Americans in general, have been failed by the neoliberal policies of Pete Buttigieg and many of the Democratic candidates. There are concerns about his response to police brutality. There are concerns about his devotion to capitalism. There are concerns about his foreign policy (and lack of any true experience with foreign policy). All of these are fair critiques of Mayor Pete, and had Peck stuck with policy, I wouldn’t be writing this now.

Instead, Peck made it personal. The line that has gotten Peck in the most trouble is about whether Pete Buttigieg is a top or a bottom (and honestly, if I have to explain to you what that means, you’re reading the wrong blog):

The only thing that distinguishes the mayor of South Bend from all those other well-educated reasonably intelligent white dudes who wanna be president is what he does with his dick (and possibly his ass, although I get a definite top-by-default vibe from him, which is to say that I bet he thinks about getting fucked but he’s too uptight to do it)

Yikes. That’s bad. Other than President Clinton, I can’t think of another time there’s been this kind of graphic speculation about a president or presidential candidate’s sex life in a mainstream national publication. There is a reason for that: it is entirely inappropriate.

That doesn’t mean curious minds don’t want to know. Peck’s musings on whether Mayor Pete is a top or a bottom is something many, many gay men across this nation have wondered privately. The topic has undoubtedly come up from West Hollywood to Chelsea, Boystown to Little Montrose. I should know; I’ve had this discussion with gay friends myself.

But the key word, here, is privately. The discussions gay men have over thumping music in gay clubs or at private dinner parties in swanky condos are a far, far cry from the pages of a national magazine. Many gay men understand, as Peck clearly doesn’t, that some things we talk about amongst ourselves should perhaps not be discussed outside the community—and certainly not publicly.

It is also important to note that when most gay men discuss these things with their gay friends, it isn’t done maliciously. We’re not trying to weaponize gay sex against Mayor Pete. We’re not trying to be salacious for clicks or put in the forefront of the American consciousness what Pete Buttigieg does in the bedroom when what Americans ought to be concerned with is what he’s going to do in the Oval Office.

Are we being catty? Perhaps. Are we being crass? Yes. Are we being homophobic? No.

To me, though, that isn’t even the worst thing Peck said or did. Speculating on the sex life of a presidential candidate is sophomoric and tasteless, but the implication that a gay president wouldn’t be able to keep his dick in his pants is straight-up homophobic. Peck mentions the noted phenomenon of gay men going through a sort of “second adolescence” once they final come out. I’m going to level with you, I don’t know if there is any sociological or psychological evidence to back this up, but it is certainly a truism in much of the gay community—mostly older gays.

But it is not a truism to me.

Mayor Pete did not publicly come out until a few years ago. Relatively soon after coming out, he married Chasten. He hasn’t dated anyone else publicly. All of this, to Peck, is deeply suspect.

Is Chasten his first love, as Peck suggests? I don’t know, because I don’t know Mayor Pete. We’re not besties. We’ve never even met. Was he out to family or friends before 2015? I don’t know. Maybe. Did he date before that? I don’t know. Nor do I care.

And I think, here, we come to a great generational divide. I am 33, only a few years younger than Mayor Pete. I came out in 2001, when I was 15. My gay adolescence was my adolescence. To put that in perspective, I have now been openly gay for more of my life than I was in the closet. A lot of gay men Peck’s age couldn’t say that until they were in their 40s or 50s.

When I came out all those years ago, gay marriage was not legal in any state. But I still saw myself growing up, marrying a man, settling down, and having kids. That was what I wanted. Sleeping my way from coast to coast did not factor into my life plans. I came out after Ellen, after Will & Grace, while Queer as Folk was originally airing. Jack McPhee had a boyfriend on Dawson’s Creek. Bianca Montgomery had a girlfriend on All My Children. Gay was going mainstream, and I benefited from that. As such, my beliefs in what my life could look like were shaped by a burgeoning acceptance.

Peck’s… was not. He came out and came of age at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Homophobia was served carte blanche across this land, even in cities like New York. Gay men, and gay culture, was more subversive and immersive, and the rights of passage he and countless gay men experienced were deeply affecting. “I’m not saying I don’t want him to shave his chest or do Molly or try being the lucky Pierre… [t]these are rights of passage for a lot of gay men, and it fuels many aspects of gay culture,” Peck writes.

Except, it doesn’t anymore, at least not for many, many of us. I don’t even know what a lucky Pierre is, and frankly I’m kind of nervous to google it on a work laptop. For a great many gay men, our rights of passage include our first kiss. Our first date. Our first marriage. It doesn’t include tricking our way from Chicago to New York and leafletting in Times Square before partying at Fire Island.

There’s nothing wrong with leafletting or Fire Island. But it isn’t the only way to be gay. As I said, I don’t know what Mayor Pete’s story is. Maybe Chasten is his first love. Maybe he really wasn’t out before 2015. So what? The times have changed. Gays have been domesticated.

In fact, domesticated gays have always existed, living quiet lives in little houses with cute gardens in places like Knoxville and Spokane and, yes, South Bend. They’ve never been to a circuit party. They’ve never snorted cocaine off the belly of a go-go dancer. They’ve never had sex in a port-o-potty at Pride. And that’s just fine!

Just because Mayor Pete came out and married in his 30s doesn’t mean he’s missed out on anything. Not all of us feel like we have. I know that I have 14 years as an out gay man on him, but I see nothing in Mayor Pete that tells me he’s about to have a “gay adolescence” or, what we’d be calling it he were a straight man, a midlife crisis. That stereotype is reductive, it is harmful, and it is wrong.

There is this notion among some in the gay community that if you are not a political gay, you are not a proper gay. By political gay I don’t mean a gay politician—which Mayor Pete is—but rather a gay rights activist who is pounding the pavement and making sure everyone knows being gay is still goddamn hard and a fireable offence in many states. These types of gays are vital to the community, and I count myself as one of them. I am gay before I am just about anything else.

But there is, and long has been, another type of gay man. This type of gay man lives in the heartland, or at least outside major urban centres, and goes to work every day. He’s a cornfed, all-American boy, who marries the boy next door and raises his little dogs and hopes to one day start a family. Maybe he served in the armed forces. Maybe he went to college to study accountancy. He might go to the gay bar, but only if it doesn’t conflict with a family barbecue. He is the majority of gay Americans.

It’s what we ought to want. We didn’t fight for 50 years so that gay men can’t live happy, settled lives. That was the point. You can argue about whether it’s too heteronormative, about whether we’re losing community as a result of assimilation into straight society, about whether this is really liberationist. But at the end of the day we fought for gay men to live their truths out loud, and for a great many of us, that truth is personified by Pete and Chasten Buttigieg. If they’re not a testament to our achievements, I don’t know what is.

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Stop calling me the liberal elite

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The author and friends leading a gay rights march through Chicago in 2013. Photo: Brittany Sowacke/Red Eye

In the days after the general election, I said that I am no longer American. This was prompted by the seeming consensus that to be American one must live in an exurb or rural area somewhere not on a coast. But I have changed my mind. While the media narrative surrounding the rise of fascism in America is, largely, that we on the left have ignored white working class people in favour of the metropolitan liberal elite. The Telegraph even has a fun little quiz where you can figure out if you’re part of the liberal elite.

Let me tell you why this is bullshit.

I am the white working class. I was raised in the Rust Belt by the descendants of Appalachian peasants (and make no mistake, that’s what they were) who migrated out of Kentucky and Tennessee to the factories of the Midwest. Aged 15, I moved back to the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky and then later went on to spend seven wonderful years in Bowling Green, a small city best known for manufacturing Corvettes and once appearing in a Martina McBride music video. Then I moved to Chicago.

Since then, I’ve been told I’m part of the metropolitan elite by people as disparate as the ballet dancer Jack Thorpe-Baker and my own sister. I’m out of touch, they say. I don’t know what “real” America or “real Britain” is feeling, what they need. I’m a gay urban journalist who exists on two continents, or more specifically in two global cities, who enjoys opera and musicals and has a diverse group of friends. I don’t get “real” America, like in Dayton, Ohio (where I was raised) or Sheffield, England (where I just came from). I don’t understand their anxieties, their concerns, or their way of life.

Except, you know, I do. Because I am them. I come from them. And despite having gotten a university education, I am still a part of them.

Your ignorance ignores this. I’ve been told by so many Americans this week to “mind my own business” because the geotag on my tweets says “Walthamstow, London.” Newsflash: Americans travel. They even move abroad. Just because I’m across the ocean doesn’t mean it isn’t my country too. But this illustrates the ignorance and narrow worldview of so many people who voted for that vile man. They can’t fathom an American would ever travel, let alone move, abroad.

I get it. Globalisation and free trade have left behind many, many people in Middle America and Middle England. They’re understandably angry. But this vote wasn’t about economic anxiety, as the media would have us believe. The voter demographics coming out show us that white working class Americans largely broke for Clinton. Rather, college educated white people put Trump just over the threshold in states like Wisconsin and Michigan to get him more electoral votes than Clinton. So stop saying poor white people did this. They didn’t.

Racist white people did this.

This election was about one thing: who gets to be American. Everyone who says this election was “a backlash against the establishment” really means it was a backlash against diverse, cosmopolitan values which are radiating from cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. It’s a reaction against the browning and queering of the country.

Every single person who says I am not a “real” American, that I am not capable of understanding what “real” Americans think or feel or need can kindly fuck off. I’m as real an American as any one of you. Even by the nativist sentiments of the alt-right, I’m as American as Toby Keith eating apple pie in the back of a Dodge pickup while wrapped in the stars and stripes. My ancestors have been in America since before the Revolution. One of them, at least, fought for the Union in the Civil War. We have been farmers, coal miners, factory workers and, yes, now a journalist. My grandparents grew up without running water or indoor plumbing, raised my father up enough to where he got a technical degree, and then I went to a four-year university. I am the definition of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and embracing the American dream. You don’t get to take that away from me just because I have a more open mind and bigger heart than you.

When people say that this election was about everyday Americans taking their country back, about draining the swamp, they don’t mean that it was about taking it back from Wall Street lobbyists and career politicians. If so, Trump’s rhetoric and transition team would look very, very different. No, this was about taking it back from queer people like me and my Black and undocumented friends. This wasn’t about taking the country back from special interests but from marginalised people making marginal gains in equality.

It also ignores who “everyday Americans” are. “Everyday Americans” include my friend Lily, a Latina single mom who risks losing head-of-household status because of that vile man. “Everyday Americans” include my friend Ajala, a Black woman in St Louis who could lose reproductive healthcare if Planned Parenthood funding is cut. “Everyday Americans” includes my friends Theresa and Sara, a married lesbian couple who just had twins but must now fear that marriage equality will be repealed. “Everyday Americans” include my Dominican nieces whom my sister insists on calling “Spanish” and ignoring their ethnicity and reality as Black-appearing Americans. “Everyday Americans” includes me, a university educated, internationally travelled gay man who does not have time for your bullshit definition of “everyday Americans.”

I’m sick of being told that because I live in a city I am somehow less American than others. I’m tired of hearing that because I like opera and read books and write for the internet and don’t think that people speaking Spanish is that big a deal I’m somehow less American than someone who never left my hometown. I am American and nothing you say will take that away from me. Chicagoans and New Yorkers are as American as Alabamans and Nebraskans.

The problem with the focus on the white working class is twofold. Firstly, it ignores people like me, who grew up solidly working class (or in many cases who are still working class) but aren’t raging bigots who think voting for a proto-fascist is a good idea. Secondly, it pretends we’re the only group in the country.

We. Are. Not.

Black Americans, Latino Americans, Queer Americans, Muslim Americans are just as American as we are. White working class – or to broaden that out, white straight people in general – don’t get to decide who is American or what constitutes an “authentic” American experience. Because there has never been only one American experience. Since our founding we have had a myriad of beliefs, experiences, and cultures. Ask the immigrant Alexander Hamilton, or the slaveholding Thomas Jefferson, or our eighth president, Martin Van Buren, whose first language was Dutch – NOT English.

America has never been homogenous. It’s long been white supremacist and heterosexist, but it has never been defined by just one experience.

So stop calling me the metropolitan liberal elite. I go to work every day. I pay my taxes (unlike our president-elect). I pulled myself up by my bootstraps. And just because I don’t think like a racist doesn’t mean I am not a real American.

I am not the liberal elite. I am an American. And it is my goddamn country too.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His work has appeared at the Advocate, Salon, the Daily Dot, the Gay UK Magazine, Pink News, and elsewhere. He is currently pursuing a visa to emigrate to the UK.

*Editorial note: This blog refers to President-Elect Trump as “that vile man” as we cannot bring ourselves to call him anything else.

An open letter to Trump voters, from a gay American

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A protester holds a sign outside Trump Tower and International Hotel in Chicago. Photo: CNN

Dear friends who voted for that vile man*,

I am angry, and I hate you. It would be disingenuous for me to say anything else. The other night I said I hope you die. I meant it. I’m not sure I do now, but at the time I did. I hate you for voting for a man who wants to ban my Muslim friends from entering the United States, deport my undocumented Latino friends, allow the police to shoot my Black friends with impunity, and ruin America’s standing on the world stage. People will lose food stamps, social security benefits, medical coverage, and more under that vile man. People will suffer, and people will die, and I hate you because you are complicit in it.

I also hate that I hate you. I’ve never hated people like this before. I’ve never looked at an entire group of people and found no redeeming quality, no humanity, no commonality. I’ve never looked at you – my family, my friends, my neighbours – and thought of you as the enemy. Political opponents, sure, but not enemies. You were always my fellow Americans, no matter what. Now I think the country would be much better off if you all kindly fucked off.

I’ve been working through these feelings for several days now. I’ve called someone very close to me a bigot and a racist, and she has called me the same. She doesn’t see my point of view, and I certainly can’t fathom hers. This is not a good place for us to be as a family, as a country. But alas, it’s where we are. I hate this person whose blood I share.

Because I’m consumed with a hatred that in 30 years on this earth I’ve never before experienced, I sought out spiritual guidance. Christ commands us to love one another, to turn the other cheek, and as a Christian the hate I feel troubles and saddens me. I needed to make sense of why I feel this way, and how I can move forward with it, even if I can’t move past it.

But before we talk about me, I want to talk about you. Chiefly, why I hate you. Because you seem to genuinely be baffled, and I think you need to understand a few things about where many of us who are so visibly upset about that vile man are coming from. You see, this isn’t politics; it’s personal. We feel personally assaulted, targeted, and threatened by him. This is a man who hasn’t really spoken about policy, but people. Ban Muslims. Deports Latinos. Overturn gay marriage. Discriminate against trans people. Many of you complain about “identity politics,” yet you’re the ones who voted for a man who attacked our identities, the very core of who we are. This isn’t about tax codes, or the economy, or regulations, or Obamacare. This is about who gets to be American and who doesn’t. This is about who is viewed as equal and who isn’t. This is about who gets to feel safe and who doesn’t.

To say that we simply have different opinions is wrong. I have different opinions with people on whether we should reinstate Glass-Steagall, or whether an assault weapons ban is the right way to curb American violence. We do not have different opinions on whether gay kids should be subjected to the torture of conversion therapy (something our new Vice President-elect thinks) or gay people should be discriminated against (something our New Vice President-elect enacted into law). We do not have different opinions on whether Muslims should be banned, or families separated by deportation, or Black people shot. That’s not a difference of opinion. It’s a difference of principles. It’s a difference of morality.

Maybe you didn’t vote for that vile man because of, but in spite of these things. It doesn’t matter. You’ve shown you’re willing to throw me and millions of fellow Americans under the bus to advance your narrow interests. You are willing to sacrifice my basic rights and safety in order to… what? Feel like you’re still in charge of America? That your position as a white person or a straight person or a man is still at the top of the totem pole? Equality isn’t oppression, but you’ve shown me you think it is. You might not hate me, but you have shown you don’t give a damn about me.

Many of you who voted for that vile man are straight, white, and Christian. Most of you, even. You’re not personally attacked by him because of who you are. You might have thought Hillary Clinton was going to take your guns, or was a lying crook, or was owned by Wall Street, but none of that constituted an attack on your personhood or humanity. And that is the difference here. That vile man is a direct threat not to my politics, but to my life. To my freedom. To my place in America.

America. The nation of my birth. A nation I no longer feel welcomed in. Or safe in. I’m in Britain right now, and I’m afraid to go home. I never want to go home (I love this place), but now I’m frightened to get on the plane. I don’t know what awaits me. You think I’m being hyperbolic? Look at the rash of hate crimes, of gay men being beaten and intimidated, and tell me I shouldn’t be afraid. If you do, you won’t be saying it with a straight face, but with straight privilege.

I knew things were bad when my grandmother told me to stay in Britain. In the 15 years I’ve talked of moving here she’s always laughed uncomfortably and said “no, that’s too far away.” Her words on Wednesday night were basically “get the fuck out while you still can.” When a grandmother has to say that to her grandson about the land of the free and the home of the brave, it should give us all pause. America isn’t what we thought it was or should be.

So my hate is justified. My anger is righteous. Thinking it wasn’t, I sought spiritual guidance from a Methodist minister, whom I met with earlier at Sheffield Cathedral. Being in a house of God, where the Holy Spirit dwells and peace is present, I was able to talk through my feelings of guilt and fear. I don’t like hating you. It makes me feel so alienated from God. It makes me scared that I am capable of such evil feelings myself. You’ve brought that out in me. But speaking with him, I realised that my feelings were a natural reaction to the oppression you’ve thrust upon me. They are something I am going to have to learn to live with, at least for the time being. Turning the other cheek does not mean being a doormat. I will learn to forgive you, even as I fight you, because Jesus did both – he turned the other cheek as he flipped the tables in the temple.

This minister reminded me of the story of Jesus in the wilderness. How He went there without a map or an idea of how to acclimate or what was coming next, and how He was tested but ultimately made in the wilderness. This is my wilderness. Jesus learned things about himself and the world that he didn’t like and didn’t know. I am now doing the same. But just as Jesus came out stronger, so shall I. The first lesson I’m learning is there are ways to express it that are less horrible than saying I hope you die, even if maybe on some level I do. That level is not God’s level, and I’m trying to rise to God’s level.

As chance may have it, today is Remembrance Day – or Veterans’ Day back in America. I met with this minister at 10:30, and at 11:00 the country paused for a two minutes’ silence to remember those who gave their lives fighting fascism in the First and Second World Wars. They laid down their lives for justice and for liberty. While reflecting and praying, I realised that if they could make the ultimate sacrifice, I could learn to move forward in Christ while also fighting for a righteous cause. I can be both a Christian and a soldier against this new brand of fascism you have bestowed upon us. I can love you by showing you basic human compassion and empathy while also thinking you’re a racist, sexist, bigot. I won’t wish anything bad upon you, but I won’t wish you success. Not when your success comes at the expense of so many marginalised people. Love isn’t unconditional acceptance, but basic decency. Something you have shown you lack.

I don’t know when I’m going to feel up to talking to someone who voted for that vile man again. It won’t be anytime soon. I’m very sorry, but you need to understand and respect it. Chances are you probably don’t want to speak to me either though. We’re divided, and you divided us. You attacked us. You endorsed racism, homophobia, and fascism. And until you own it, I don’t want very much to do with you unless you can show me tangible proof things are going to be okay. So far, none of you have. None of you can.

This is where we’re at. I hate you, and you at best don’t care about me. I’m sorry it’s come to this. I really am. Maybe we can all move forward together at some point, but today is not that day.

Sincerely,

Skylar

Skylar Baker-Jordan is an American writer based in Chicago whose work has appeared at Salon, The Daily Dot, The Advocate, and elsewhere. He is currently pursuing a visa to move to the United Kingdom.

 *Editor’s note: this blog, until further notice, has chosen to refer to Donald Trump simply as “that vile man” because we cannot bring ourselves to call him “president-elect”

#TBT: Millennials on the March

This is the first in a series of Throwback Thursday posts I’m going to be doing, highlighting my work at now-defunct publications I’ve written for in the past. This is a piece I wrote on the National Equality March in Washington, D.C. which took place several years ago. It first appeared in the October 2009 issue of Rise Over Run Magazine.

The sun was wicked, but the air cool and crisp. Standing in a crowd of thousands, swelling and expanding by the second like a balloon ready to pop, I tingled with anticipation. Students from Western Kentucky University, Northern Kentucky University, and Bellarmine University—an unofficial Kentucky contingent—were chatting merrily, albeit loudly, as the roar of the crowd, chanting and singing before they even began walking, drowned out most anything else.
A middle-aged woman I was talking to began staring at the group. “You’re all college students?” she asked. I nodded. “It’s hard to believe how many young people are here. I feel so old,” she laughed.

This was a common sentiment expressed by older people at National Equality March, a march of approximately 200,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, as well as their allies, in Washington, D.C. Though practically every age group in America was represented in the hundreds of thousands of marchers, it was the Millennials—loosely defined as those born between the late 70’s and early 90’s—who stood out. Chanting ferociously and demanding “equal protection in all matters of civil law in all 50 states,” according to the National Equality March’s Facebook page, a new generation of LGBT Americans came out to the nation this month.

Activist David Mixner first called for an LGBT march on Washington—the first since 2000’s Millennium March—last spring, and at the Meet in the Middle rally in Fresno, California following the California Supreme Court’s ruling upholding the constitutionality of Proposition 8, Cleve Jones, the veteran gay rights activist and disciple of Harvey Milk, made the first public call. Despite initial hesitation and a few prominent naysayers, including openly gay Congressman Barney Frank, (D-MA) who was quoted by the Associated Press as saying “the only thing they’re going to be putting pressure on is the grass,” it was quickly apparent: the gays were marching in.

And though Mixner and Jones, both elder statesmen of the LGBT community, were the ones who called for the march, it was young LGBT Americans they were interested in reaching. Mixner and Jones set out to inspire Millennials to step up to the plate. Looking around at those marching, and listening to the speakers on stage, you couldn’t help but to feel they had succeeded. What made this march different than any before it was that, for the first time, a new, liberated generation was stepping up to take over the reins of the LGBT community. The Millennials were on the march.

Millennials Get Mad:
The “Prop 8 Generation”

To understand why young LGBT people responded to Mixner’s and Jones’s calls requires delving into the psychology of a generation. This is a generation that grew up in the era of Will and Grace, Queer as Folk, and The L Word. As being gay became more socially acceptable over the last decade, to gay youth, so did inequality. Still, the social progress being made gave a false sense of hope for legal progress, and many LGBT youths simply felt progress was inevitable. This myth was jarringly shattered last November, when California’s Proposition 8 passed, banning gay marriage in that state.

This was a flashpoint for the LGBT community, according to Tobias Packer, the New Media Manager for Equality Florida, Florida’s statewide LGBT rights organization, and one of the speakers the march. “Prop 8 brought the issue to the national stage,” he said, “and whenever any issue is brought to a national stage it gets a lot more attention—and the people who are doing the work for a lot more attention. And more people join the work.”

Tanner Efinger agrees. “You don’t just come out of the womb being politically active and politically aware,” says Efinger, founder of Postcards to the President, a grassroots campaign to send postcards to President Obama urging him to support LGBT equality and one of the organizers of the march. “Something has to happen. For a lot of us that’s what Prop 8 was. It was a very public, very loud thing that happened in California and we all stepped up.”
Like many of his contemporaries, Efinger, 25, was not politically active before Proposition 8. However, following its passage, Efinger felt a call to action. After discovering you could send letters and postcards to the president, Efinger decided to enlist some of his friends to help, eventually taking his initiative to the bar he works at in West Hollywood, California. From there, events were held in New York and San Francisco, and to date over 15,000 postcards have been sent from nearly 30 states.

This is no surprise to Mario Nguyen, a sophomore at Western Kentucky University originally from Dallas, Texas. “Of course we’re waking up and we’re doing something. For us, grassroots and being active is what’s in, is what’s cool,” he says. “We’re the generation that cares where our coffee beans come from, that care about water and global warming—we’re that generation. It’s cool to be an activist.” Nguyen was the runner-up of “Equality Idol,” a competition held by march organizers to find a speaker for the event. (Though he was runner-up, Nguyen was asked to deliver his speech anyway.)

Sam Sussman, a freshman at Binghamton University in New York, was the winner of “Equality Idol.” He, too, felt that things changed for the movement last November. Sussman dubbed himself part of the “Prop 8 generation,” a generation of “young people who had strong convictions but didn’t have the urge to act” until after Proposition 8 passed. In the wake of Proposition 8, Sussman—a straight man—founded the Alliance for Realization of Legal Equality in his hometown of Orange County, New York. He wanted to “put [equality] in people’s faces and make them think about it when they got their morning papers.”

The Second Great March on Washington?

If Proposition 8 inspired a new wave of young LGBT rights activists, the National Equality March gave them an outlet to vent their anger. Tanner Efinger, for one, was growing impatient with the lack of progress and was ready to be proactive. It’s why he founded Postcards to the President, and why he jumped at the chance to help organize the march “I started e-mailing anybody I knew that was involved, even in a small way, and was like ‘I want to help.’”

Kat Michael echoed this sentiment. Michael, a junior originally from Louisville, is the president of the Student Identity Outreach (SIO) at Western Kentucky University. SIO took 18 students to Washington, driving nearly 1400 miles round-trip in less than 48 hours. But for Michael, the trip was worth it. It was great to see that number of people come from such long distances,she said. “The way the people managed—fly, train, car, boat it—they got there and that’s really encouraging to see with this movement.” Michael says that hailing from the south, people often think LGBT people aren’t organized. She wanted to dispel that myth.

For Tobias Packer, it was an opportunity to represent not only himself and Equality Florida, but also transgender Americans. “There are definitely moments where I have felt, as a transgender person, excluded or overlooked intentionally or unintentionally,” Packer said, pointing specifically to the 2007 passing of a non-transgender inclusive Employment Nondiscrimination Act in the House of Representatives. (The bill died in the Senate.) For Packer, the march was a way to take his—and Equality Florida’s—message to a national level.

Taking it to the national level was, in essence, the theme of the National Equality March. Seeking equality in all matters governed by civil law in all 50 states is a fairly sweeping statement, which is just fine in Tanner Efinger’s book. “I’ve always felt that a national strategy was the best way to go,” he said. “For me it’s not about marriage in California, while that would be great and open a lot of doors. For me it’s about the 16-year-old kid in Alabama who thinks his only option is suicide.”

It will be accomplished.”

While the march gave Millennials a chance to vent their anger at the establishment, it also served as an opportunity to rise to the challenges facing their movement. “In many ways it represents a passing of the torch,” Sam Sussman said. “The demographics are changing. I think now you see a new civil rights movement brewing among young people.” Sussman predicts the movement will now be carried by younger people.

Kat Michael also believes that this new generation has risen to the challenge and is beginning to take over the reins of the movement. “The youth is really what’s going to carry this movement forward,” she said. “Those individuals who have been fighting this fight their whole lives, who were part of the Stonewall Riots, are getting tired now. They have beaten down a path. It is our time to pave it now.” Michael believes the real point of the march was to inspire a new generation of LGBT leaders.

This sense of a generational shift was one of the most prominent themes for Mario Nguyen. Following his speech, Nguyen says he got an overwhelming response from his elders. “I got a lot of messages from people over 45 saying ‘I’m not concerned because you’re somebody I know will take care of this. What I couldn’t do in my generation I see it in your generation, already accomplished.’” Nguyen points to the fact that two Millennials were chosen to speak through the Equality Idol competition as evidence that a transition is occurring within the LGBT rights movement, and he is ready to embrace the challenge. “It will be done this generation,” Nguyen says. “My generation will fix it, and it will be accomplished. I will get married, without a doubt.”
Still, Nguyen isn’t without criticism of his generation, which he still views as apathetic. He was particularly hard on the gay community in Bowling Green, which he was “thoroughly disappointed by.” “With the exception of SIO… they stayed here for fun. They didn’t want to ask for work off. A lot of them had the money, a lot of them had the ability.” Nguyen, who traveled with a group of friends to DC (including Adam Swanson, a WKU student heavily involved with Tanner Efinger’s “Postcards to the President” but was unfortunately unavailable for comment as of press time), says a lot of LGBT locals decided to forgo Washington, instead opting for a trip to Miami.

Kat Michael expects that level of apathy to change, though. “I think a lot of people with this movement have just been sort of complacent in allowing the movement to happen, but I think that’s definitely gone now,” she said. “Everybody knows we’re here now, and now it’s time to actually start moving.”

Tanner Efinger agrees, saying he feels the ownership of the movement more so than ever before. But he wants people to remember that the work doesn’t end at the march. “The point was to get [the youth] there to mobilize, to galvanize, to excite them,” he said, “but let them understand that this doesn’t happen if you just march and go home.” Efinger, like Nguyen, wants to hold his contemporaries accountable for the future of their own movement. “Our hope is that everyone will see that they need to work now.”

Where Nguyen sees apathy, though, Tobias Packer sees diligence. “Young people have always been a part of this movement,” he said. “There are young leaders who have been unlocking a lot of the doors and pushing for a lot of the victories that we’re standing on the precipice of now.”

Where do we go from here?

The one sentiment echoed by Tanner Efinger, Kat Michael, Mario Nguyen, Tobias Packer and Sam Sussman was that the work does not end with the march. The words of Cleve Jones—“we are not organizing to march; we are marching to organize”—resonate with these five individuals, all of whom headed back to their respective states eager to continue working, feeling they have established their presence in the broader LGBT movement.

“I was in between Julian Bond and Cleve Jones,” Efinger said. “I can’t even imagine that before. I just felt so humbled and so honored—but also like I belonged there, as well, like I had a place beside them. I didn’t need to be somebody to stand next to them; in fact, we were the same.”
Efinger returned to West Hollywood, where he is still working as a cocktail waiter, but with a renewed sense of service. He plans on continuing with Postcards to the President and remaining active in Equality Across America, a new national organization born of the National Equality March. “From here we organize everyone in their congressional districts…what we’re really trying to do is plant the seeds of social change,” he said. And while he’d like to return to his original passion—writing—right now his activism has taken precedence. “I want to get this done now,” he said.

Postcards to the President is also a project Mario Nguyen is eager to work on. He’s also planning on using his talent for public speaking to further the cause. (In addition to speaking at the march, Mario is part of the WKU Forensics Team, currently ranked as the best forensics team in the world.) He is in talks to speak at Quinnipiac University next spring, and he would like to do more speaking engagements if possible. “My thing is speaking and will forever be speaking. Until I lose my voice I will speak.”

Sam Sussman, on the other hand, is going to continue his political advocacy with the Alliance for the Realization of Legal Equality. He’s also beginning to work with a new national organization, The Right Side of History, a campaign which, according to its website, is “a movement of young, inspired Americans who have committed to no longer be silent. “ Sussman hopes to begin a chapter at Binghamton University. Also in Sussman’s future is a statewide initiative to pressure four to five select New York state senators to vote for marriage equality. Sussman hopes to secure enough votes to pass a marriage equality bill through the New York state assembly next year.

For Tobias Packer, Florida is home, and Equality Florida where he belongs. He is preparing for the 2010 legislative session and hoping to push a statewide, LGBT inclusive civil rights bill through the legislature. Equality Florida also has plans to, for the sixth consecutive year, attempt to repeal Florida’s statutory ban on gay adoption. He hopes that those who went to the march will follow his lead and get involved in the movement. “The reality is there is work being done in almost every corner of this country,” he said. “My wish for this march is that all the people that came out really turn to see what work is being done where they live.”

Kat Michael returned to WKU ready to continue working with SIO. “The work hasn’t stopped for me, it hasn’t stopped for my members,” she said. “I don’t think any of them feel that things have stopped now… we’re all really willing and ready to go.” She says that the march was SIO’s way of showing they’re going to be a permanent presence on campus, and that they exist to serve more than just their friends. “We’re not just here to hide and take care of our own friends, we’re here to take care of everything,” she said.

Thinking back to the day of the march, I’m left wondering what effect the National Equality March will have. It is not the first, or the biggest, LGBT rights march on Washington. Yet somehow, this one feels different. This one feels like instead of capitalizing on momentum the movement had, the march itself created a sort of momentum, sending grassroots activists into the trenches, prepared to wage proverbial guerrilla warfare in the name of equality.
It also feels different because, for the first time, my generation—the Millennials—is beginning to take the reins. What’s unique about the burgeoning leaders is that they are, for the most part, amateur activists. For every professional lobbiest or community organizer are dozens of people like Kat Michael, Sam Sussman, and Tanner Efinger who started organizations aimed to make a difference—not because they were paid to, but because they saw a need not being met.
And while the LGBT movement gears up for fights over marriage in Maine and domestic partnerships in Washington state, these five young leaders expect things to continue trending toward equality, and expect their generation to take a more active role in these struggles.
“This is just the beginning,” Mario Nguyen said. “We may lose the battle, but the war’s what we’re after.”

And the Millennials are running in, guns-a-blazing.