At 6:30pm on W 65th St and Columbus, I joined thousands of fellow queers and their allies in a protest before the Mormon Temple in New York City. I didn't have extraordinarily high expectations for the night. I had a headache from work and wanted to sleep. But I felt compelled to participate in the growing national momentum in opposition of the recent passage of Prop 8.
Now, I consider myself an activist. I have worked at the local and national level for arts, queer, and gender advocacy. But all of my activist experience has been fairly white collar: writing grants, researching for reports, organizing service programs, etc. I had never been to an honest-to-god ol' fashion protest. I knew from the facebook event that had circulated like wildfire to expect around three thousand attendees. I was ready for that. I know what a crowd of three thousand people looks like.
What I was unprepared for was a much larger crowd (I've heard estimations topping at 10,000 with conservative estimates saying at least 6,000!) and the sheer scale of the demonstration. Pouring out over three to four blocks around the Mormon Temple, chants of "Shame on you!", "Tax this Church!", and "Gay, Straight, Black, White! Marriage is a Civil Right!" soared through the air. Even more amazing, this entire event was organized and constructed outside the formal endorsement or agenda of a large formalized organization. This is grassroots at its best.
The night was definitely an exciting one. I even caught a glimpse of a few celebrities in the mix. Whoopi Goldberg, being the most prominent... but I think I may have caught a few former Project Runway contestants and our good friend Andy Towle, over at Towleroad at the head of the march (video of Andy in Father Tony's post from today). As the protest swelled around the Mormon church, demonstration leaders led the raucous and lively crowd on a march down Columbus Avenue towards Columbus Circle. With police flanking the protesters with mobile fences and trying to herd the demonstrators into Central Park, members of the protest started chants like "Pens are for pigs!". Finally, all assembled together in the southwest corner of Central Park beneath an oddly homoerotic fountain statue, the protest reached a fever pitch as chants rippled through the crowd, spreading and multiplying as gay, straight, bi, queer, trans, and whathaveyous joined in the clarion call for equal rights.
However, being the perpetual devil's advocate and idealistic cynic, I was moved to question why this outpouring of outrage and civil action now? Why were we not mobilized like this nationally before we lost in California when it might have done some actual good. Showing solidarity in the light of an unfair loss isn't quite the same as mobilizing proactively to ensure victory. An activist friend of mine who accompanied me on the march and was a very strong, vocal leader in the crowd, taking the initiative to start the rallying chants, was impressed and encouraged by the turn out for this event, but wondered about where all these people were when activists try to mobilize for other important issues, like class, race, immigration, etc.
I thought my friend had a point. One of the more popular chants that rang out in the night was "Gay, Straight, Black, White! Same Struggle, Same Fight!" While I appreciate the sentiment of queer activists calling upon the history and energy of the civil rights movement, this has also been a very charged issue when dealing with communities of color, especially African Americans. Conflating these two movements (as many of these social justice movements tend to be rhetorically homogenized: from reproductive rights and suffrage, to Ghandi's anti-colonialism and King's civil rights movement) is problematic. Queer people do not face the same struggles and hurdles as the civil rights movement did. They may be similar, and are often times opposed with similar language used by the status quo powers-that-be, but we in the queer community should be careful not to try and co-opt the Civil Rights struggle as our own.
By doing so, I believe we ignore the very real problems with racism that the gay liberation movement - and the current gay rights movement - have been plagued with since their inception. Large swatches of the gay political electorate have been driven by "liberal" affluent gay white men who have historically directed the course of gay politics towards a distinctly generic "color-blind" philosophy which ignores the confluent problems with race and sexuality. The problem with being color-blind is that when you choose to ignore color everything tends to become white.
As a brief addendum to all those gay leaders out there: by working on diversity initiatives and with "communities of color," you have to work with more than just black people. There are many colors out their in the rainbow of our society that consistently get left out of the conversation.
But, all the rambling aside, I was really pleased and honored to have been able to participate in this call to action. For all my fellow New Yorkers out there, there will be another demonstration at City Hall on Saturday, November 15th at 1:30pm. Be there or be square.