On October 11 in a sunny Washington DC park I waited with fellow early arrivals to see if the call for a national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender march would be answered. An hour later, with protesters filling the avenue as far as the eye could see with banners, chants and rainbows the answer was clear.
Two hundred thousand people marched through the US capital to rally on Capitol Hill and send Obama and the US government a determined message—equality now!
The National Equality March was called earlier in 2009 as impatience and anger grew over anti-LGBT discrimination and violence, and by the inaction of politicians claiming to be allies—Obama and the US Democrats.
Marriage equality was a major focus, fuelled by the outrage over the passage of Proposition 8 in California in 2008, which stripped same-sex couples of their right to marry.
Obama and the US Congress have also thwarted equal marriage laws by failing to repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, the act that limits US Federal recognition of marriage to couples of the opposite sex.
Protesters also called for an end to the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy that entrenches discrimination in military employment, as well as immigration reform to recognise same-sex partners under immigration law.
Demonstrators were motivated not merely by the idea of equality, but because these discriminatory laws have direct personal and financial impacts. Marriage grants financial benefits which are unavailable to de facto or same-sex couples.
Some army personnel have returned home from doing the US government’s dirty work in Iraq or Afghanistan and subsequently been discharged because of their sexuality, losing the health, education and pension benefits they were entitled to.
As the financial crisis continues and unemployment rises, these discriminatory policies, along with lack of anti-discrimination laws in employment and housing will hit the LGBT community hard.
The march was a major challenge to these policies, and the thousands of protesters were inspiring in their numbers, diversity, and unity of purpose.
Some large LGBT organisations and leaders had tried to undermine the march, wanting activists to instead focus on fundraising and waiting for a more pragmatic future moment.
Sadly, this strategy of big money over grassroots campaigning is one key factor in the Prop 8 loss.
Barney Frank, the most senior openly gay Democrat official derided the march as “useless…Obama does not need pressure”.
But grassroots organisers around the country know ordinary people want to fight now for queer rights—and were vindicated by the massive turn out of students, workers, grassroots LGBT groups, immigration activists, HIV/AIDS activists, interfaith organisations, anti-war veterans and many individuals who came along with home-made signs.
Marchers made it clear that their patience with the Obama administration was over —“I voted for change! Not more of the same!” was a common theme.
We need to take to the streets in Australia too. Despite claiming a break from Howard’s conservative, divisive politics, Rudd and the ALP have made it clear at a national level and at a party level that they will not legalise same-sex marriage or fight homophobia unless pushed.
At the recent Labor national conference Rudd reaffirmed his opposition to revoking Howard’s changes to the Marriage Act which rule out same-sex marriage.
This is a fight we can win if we get as many people involved as possible—after all, the fight against homophobia is everyone’s business!
By Kim Bacon