National Equality March lead organizer Cleve Jones estimated the turnout at 200,000 to 250,000. Towleroad.com’s Andy Towle said police gave him the same figure. Mainstream media reports pegged the turnout at “tens of thousands.” But, as Towle noted, “There were 10 times as many people still on Pennsylvania Avenue when the area in front of the stage had filled,” an assertion that is backed up by video Towle posted on his site.
The 2.3-mile march ended at the Capitol with hours of speeches, including one by pop-music sensation Lady Gaga.
“I have seen and witnessed so many things over the past two years and I can say with such certainty that this is the single most important moment of my career,” Gaga said.
“The younger generation, my generation, we are the ones coming up in the world, and we must continue to push this movement forward and close the gap. We must demand full equality for all. They say that this country is free and they say that this country is equal, but it is not equal if it’s (only) sometimes (equal).”
“Obama, I know that you’re listening. ARE YOU LISTENING?! We will continue to push you and your administration to bring your words of promise to a reality. We need change now. We demand action now.”
The night before the march, President Barack Obama addressed 3,000 people at the Human Rights Campaign’s national dinner. He promised to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but gave no timeline for doing so.
“I’m working with the Pentagon, its leadership and the members of the House and the Senate on ending this policy,” he said. “I will end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. That’s my commitment to you.”
The gay blogosphere reacted very negatively, complaining that the speech added little or nothing to what Obama had said on gay issues during the presidential campaign.
But the speech was nonetheless remarkable for its comprehensive embrace of the gay activist agenda and its sometimes moving rhetoric, the likes of which has never been uttered by a U.S. president.
“While progress may be taking longer than you’d like as a result of all that we face — and that’s the truth — do not doubt the direction we are headed and the destination we will reach,” the president said. “My expectation is that when you look back on these years, you will see a time in which we put a stop to discrimination against gays and lesbians, whether in the office or on the battlefield. You will see a time in which we as a nation finally recognize relationships between two men or two women as just as real and admirable as relationships between a man and a woman.”
But many activists wanted more. They wanted Obama to speak against the Nov. 3 referendum in Maine that would repeal the state’s law legalizing same-sex marriage, and against a similar initiative in Washington state that would repeal the “all but marriage” domestic-partnership law. They wanted to know when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will be repealed, when the Defense of Marriage Act will be repealed, and when the Employment Non-Discrimination Act will be passed.
Obama offered no “whens.”
“I could not discern anything new,” Cleve Jones said in an interview. “It felt like a reiteration of the pledges he made during the campaign, it felt like a campaign speech. It was well-written, it was beautifully delivered — the man has the gift — but, you know, I hope this is not true, but, we need to keep reminding ourselves and the young people who were not present during the Clinton administration that this is very similar. This is déjà vu all over again. The beautiful speeches, the flowery proclamations, the willingness to attend our parties and the list of well-connected people who get great jobs. I’m sorry, but appointing a gay man ambassador to New Zealand is not a very bold step. … We’ve got to keep doing the work to push him to do the right thing.”
March Co-Director Robin McGehee was even less impressed.
“I was totally disappointed,” McGehee said in an interview. “Our community let him off and we did not force him by coming to that dinner to (announce) substantial change. All we got was another ‘Please wait.’ He got an A-plus on the Cliff Notes version of our rights that we’re denied, but a C-minus on what he’s actually doing to take care of it.”
Inside the HRC dinner, however, Obama was treated to repeated outbursts of raucous cheering, and Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese called it “a historic night when we felt the full embrace and commitment of the president of the United States.”
“It’s simply unprecedented,” Solmonese said. “President Obama told LGBT Americans that his commitment to ending discrimination in the military, in the workplace and for loving couples and their families is ‘unwavering.’
He made it crystal clear that he is our strongest ally in this fight, that he understands and, in fact, encourages our activism and our voice even when we’re impatient with the pace of change. But these remarks weren’t just for us, they were directed to all Americans who share his dream and ours of a country where ‘no one is denied their basic rights, in which all of us are free to live and love as we see fit.’”
The praise for Obama inside HRC’s fancy dinner and the denunciations of Obama in the streets of D.C. seemed to unequivocally confirm the split that’s emerged in the gay community in the aftermath of the passage of Proposition 8 in California.
On one side, the grassroots, the netroots, many younger LGBT people and the Stonewall 2.0 folks, are pissed off, mad as hell and aren’t gonna take it anymore.
On the other side, the gay activist establishment, which seems to believe that business-as-usual “slow and steady” is still the way to go.
About halfway through the National Equality March, when it became clear that the turnout was big enough for the march to be deemed a huge success, a reporter said to Cleve Jones, “You realize you just split the gay movement in two.”
Jones nodded and grinned.