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.