Published on Saturday, April 29, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Gay Rally Bares Deep Divisions
Critics say it's just an excuse for a big party
by Marc Sandalow
It is hardly surprising that there is opposition
to tomorrow's rally by gays and lesbians, which is expected to draw hundreds
of thousands to the nation's capital.
What is astonishing is that the most vocal critics of ``The Millennium March'' come from within the gay community itself.
The huge march -- sponsored by corporate giants like United Airlines and Showtime and featuring big- name entertainers and prominent politicians -- has bared huge schisms in the gay community.
Two decades after the first gay march on Washington, the movement has become so big, so mainstream and so fragmented that some of its own members are openly rebelling.
The criticism has ranged from complaints about the involvement of corporate sponsors to concerns that AIDS is being given too low a priority, that the national organizers ignored grassroots input and that gays of color are not properly represented.
``This march appears to be nothing more than a convenient time to party,'' wrote Tom Ammiano, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, in a recent opinion piece in the Bay Area Reporter.
Four gay elected officials from New York, in a statement urging people to boycott the event, wrote: ``Our past marches on Washington unified the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender communities. The Millennium March on Washington is having the opposite effect.''
The dissent has obliged promoters to lower their original estimate that more than a million marchers would show up, though they still believe they will attract enough people to claim the largest gay march in history.
No matter how many turn out, the size of the crowd is certain to be a topic of dispute. The biggest gay march to date was held in 1993, when the National Park Service estimated that 300,000 people attended a rally; organizers said the number was between 750,000 and a million.
The park service stopped estimating crowd sizes after promoters of the 1995 ``Million Man March'' filed suits over what it believed was a lowball estimate.
In 1979, less than a year after the assassination of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and just 10 years after the Stonewall riots in New York City, about 100,000 marchers came to Washington in what Ammiano described as a ``rag-tag'' collection of civil rights advocates.
Opponents hollered obscenities and warned tourists to stay off the streets, while Jerry Falwell led prayers in the Rayburn House Office building, saying ``God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.''
A 1987 march, which coincided with the unveiling of the AIDS quilt, attracted about a quarter of a million people.
In contrast to previous marches, many participants arriving in Washington yesterday said they had little intention of making a grand political statement.
``Sure it's good to let people know that we are doctors and lawyers, and ordinary people,'' said Andrew Cross, a real estate agent from San Diego. ``But I'm here to see people. I'm here for the parties.''
Organizers have drawn up an eight-point agenda for the rally, including an end to job discrimination, a call for racial justice, support for hate-crimes legislation and attention to AIDS and other gay-related health issues.
``The purpose is to energize and galvanize the gay, lesbian, bisexual transgender community,'' said the event's co-chairman, Duane Cramer, rattling off the four groups that comprise what activists call GLBTs.
Rallying on the mall in front of the U.S. Capitol, organizers hope to remind politicians of the potency of their electoral power, which they say is about the size of the Latino or Jewish vote.
``It's the first time there has ever been a queer march in an election year,'' Cramer said. ``We expect the largest GLBT vote in history this November.''
The festivities begin this morning with a mass ``wedding'' for same-sex couples at the Lincoln Memorial conducted by Rev. Elder Troy Perry, founder at the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches.
Tonight, a concert at RFK Stadium featuring Melissa Etheridge, Garth Brooks, Queen Latifah, Michael Feinstein, k.d. lang and the Pet Shop Boys will raise money for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay lobbying group.
The main event tomorrow features six hours of speeches from community leaders and politicians, though the most recognized names are entertainers, including Ellen Degeneres, Anne Heche and Margaret Cho.
President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore each declined invitations to speak but will be represented in video presentations.
The commercial potential of hundreds of thousands of visitors has not been lost on Washington's businesses. Nightclubs passed out leaflets for parties to visitors arriving at Ronald Reagan National Airport, while other establishments offered discounts to march-goers.
The site's official Web site offers merchandise emblazoned with the march's logo -- prompting harsh words from critics.
``It's a marketing event in search of a political purpose,'' lamented New York attorney Bill Dobbs, who was so frustrated with the organizers that he helped create an organization and Web page opposing it.
Even the Millennium March title -- which has no mention of gays, lesbians, bisexuals or transgenders -- is an affront to some activists.
``It's a way to hide the identities,'' Dobbs said. ``They are trying to water it down.''
Some dissenters acknowledge that their frustrations are the result of the movement's success.
``Twenty years ago there was a broader oppression that everyone identified with,'' said Ammiano, who attended each of the previous gay rallies in Washington in 1979, 1987 and 1993. ``Back then, we didn't publicly fragment ourselves.'' Like Ammiano, state Assemblywoman Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, attended previous Washington marches, and will miss this one. However, she does not share his skepticism.
``I'm baffled by the resistance to the march,'' said Migden, dismissing the power struggle within the gay community as ``inside baseball.''
``I don't think your average lesbian or gay cares a bit about it.
``If you say to a kid in Iowa, `Are you going to the march or not?' the answer has to do with whether he can afford it, whether he can get off work, and whether his buddies are going.''
``I happen to think that any march serves the community's interest,'' she said.
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle