Patricia Nell Warren

Marching Bands and Rushing Judgments

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | January 22, 2009 3:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Media, Politics
Tags: Inaugural Parade, Lesbian Gay Band Association, LGBT marching bands

While so many of us were angrily beating our drums over alleged sabotage of Bishop Robinson's LGBT prayer, an LGBT marching band was happily doing a brass fanfare of history as it came filing down Pennsylvania Avenue during the Inauguration Parade. The 177 marchers were blended perfectly into all the choreographed movements along the street -- rolling their feet like well-trained band musicians are supposed to do, moving at that majestic pace of a 8-5 step-size.

These musicians and cheer squad were the first LGBT band ever to march in a Presidential inauguration parade. The unit was put together from several bands belonging to the international Lesbian and Gay Band Association. They had to do some fierce fundraising to travel there -- probably around $50,000. There they were, side by side with the armed-forces bands, and high-school bands, and church bands, and bagpipe bands, and fife-and-drum corps in colonial uniform. There they were, with the Tuskegee Airmen, and the Crow Nation of Montana, and the U.S. Border Patrol.

I have to say that my heart skipped more than one beat. Since I grew up riding in rodeo parades, the strains of "Caissons Go Rolling Along" do something to me that no other music does.

Weeks ago, the Washington Blade and some Midwest publications had announced the band's upcoming appearance. But somehow, as the huge political battle exploded around whether a gay- or gay-friendly minister was going to get any prayer time at the Presidential podium, the news about a gay band's impending invasion of our nation's capital never quite made it to the highest, hottest, bloggiest media profile.

So, as I sat at my TV, my ears suddenly pricked up when the CNN commentators mentioned casually that "a gay and lesbian group" was coming down the avenue.

And there they were, complete with piccolos and pride, looking more military than civilian in their silver jackets and black berets. Their drum major was strutting his stuff. They had started their 1.6-mile march with some classical and pop airs. But as they passed the reviewing stand, they crashed into the John Philip Sousa march "Washington Post."
CNN cameras caught the President grinning as they went by.

Formed in 1983, the LGBA embraces 34 marching bands and concert bands across the U.S. and Canada and other countries. These bands are part of a major musical movement that is getting as big as gay men's choruses, if not as well known yet. The unit that marched in the Inauguration Parade included members of the colorful Blazing River Freedom Band from Ohio, a concert band that has performed all over the Midwest.

For the LGBT world, the powerful emergence of drumlines sends a very different social message than disco music. Disco speaks to Pride festivals and circuit parties. Drumlines speak to football games, county fairs, political rallies, Veterans Day. The message of band music is a more inclusive, more community-oriented message -- not just within our own community, but within the larger mainstream community and all its most cherished festivities of which we are steadily -- whether the religious right like it or not -- becoming an active part.

The Presidential Inaugural Parade is the mother, grandmother and godmother of all American parades. While it's not as spectacular as the Rose Parade, it's way more drenched in tradition and a sense of what's deeply sacred to Americans. Late last year, the Presidential Inaugural Committee chose the LGBA for their parade lineup from among 1400 hopeful applicants, including drill teams and concert groups. Obama himself said in a news release, "These organizations embody the best of our nation's history, diversity, and commitment to service. Vice President-elect Biden and I are proud to have them join us in the parade."

It's true that in 1993 and 1997, the LGBA got to play during the Clinton inaugurations as well -- but only on the sidelines, in a state of segregation. This time our people were actually marching. Hey, we haven't made it into the Rose Parade yet, or the St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York, or the Super Bowl half-time. So the Inauguration is not just a good beginning -- it's a helluva statement, a perfect symbol, that we were right in the thick of things on that historic day that hopefully will bring so much desperately needed change to America. More than one spectator and TV watcher may have gotten a clue that "Washington Post" sounds just as good when queers play it as when straights play it.

So the Obama Inauguration had its ups and downs for us, but it was definitely not -- as some LGBT commentators portrayed it -- a total defeat. Yet as I google around now, I'm amazed to notice that our marching band's historic Inauguration debut got scanty mention afterwards by the LGBT news media. One of the notable exceptions was Towleroad's interview of the band, later posted on YouTube.

Where's the moral in this musical story that got so mislaid amid the uproar over prayers? For me, it's about rushing to judgment. Sometimes we LGBT activists get so worked up over the opposition we encounter on one front, that we miss noticing some obvious progress in another area.

I'm as nervous as anybody else about what the Obama administration can and/or will do for our civil-rights cause. But over the four years ahead, I think we have to be very careful about getting over-anxious, or over-reacting to imagined slights. Some LGBT commentators have actually suggested that the Obama team was personally responsible for HBO's decision not to broadcast Robinson's prayer, not to mention the microphone glitch that even kept Robinson from being heard. This is a serious accusation, and I doubt very much that it's true. HBO may have to be held accountable on the broadcast front. But if the Obama team were that homophobic, they would never have invited an LGBT marching band to set foot on the sacred asphalt of Pennsylvania Avenue.

On Day One of the Hundred Days, the prevailing mood in Washington D.C. was clearly one of "Give the new President a little space." Even many Republicans are ready to grant Obama some elbow room to make change. None of the problems he's tackling are going to be solved in a few days. We'd all love to see Gitmo closed down tomorrow, but given the legal nightmare that accrued around the prison camp, the process will take closer to a year. We'd love to see conflict of interest go away overnight, but the President's ban on future lobbying, which he announced on the 21st, will not do away with all the pernicious old lobby networks already in place. Nor will our economic woes go away in a few weeks. It took a while to get the U.S.A. into all these various messes, and it will take some time to get us out.

Certainly the religious homophobia that has been bricked into place for several centuries of American history is not going to get demo'ed overnight, no matter how supportive the new President might be.

So let's chill a bit. This doesn't mean that we relax our vigilance. Nor does it mean that we stop our efforts to communicate with the new administration. But let's celebrate our moment that our First Band got to march past the First black President and his First Family. Let's recognize the 177 marchers whose talent and hard work and vision got them to Pennsylvania Avenue.

And let's not be rushing to judgment. Let's join everybody else in giving the new President some room to work. Let's even give Obama some room to experience some change of his own -- hopefully to grow into even more understanding and sympathy for LGBT issues and needs.


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Lou Strickland | January 23, 2009 7:24 AM

Thank you,I've been feeling the same... lets enjoy the progress and give the man some space. I think we need to all take a deep breath, look at the pictures of the black man in the oval office and savour what that symbol means. I see progress from my view here in Toronto.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | January 23, 2009 8:09 AM

Brilliant, cogent, cream amidst the dross, a solid reminder of tangible progress and a joy to read.

As Colin Powell used to say to Ronald Reagan:

"A Blessing upon your head."

No shrill tones, no self interest,conceit, smugness, self pity, angst, submission or equivocation.

These are the qualities that lead to success.

I thought they were great and I loved the "majorette". He looked so happy to be performing in front of a President and First Lady. The nightmare of sitting and waiting hours in that cold with the sea of crowds pushing and shoving. I watched the parade from the comfort of my overstuffed chair and appreciate all the effort it took to get there, check in a crowded airport, a crowded hotel, and probably being treated rudely by heterosexual "authority Gestapo figures" at the same time.

The gay band at the inauguration just didn't excite me. They were the only real queer-identified group to participate. Or, on the other hand, you could count Bishop Robinson as kinda-participating.

So our two queer attendees was a marching band and a minister. Yippee. While I see the value of simple exposure, I don't think the exposure was very worthwhile this time. We complained bitterly to get the minister there (where he was shuffled off as not ready for prime time) and all the major networks switched to commercial as they went past the reviewing stand. We got nothing in reality as far as the general public goes.

But it was interesting to see that the video came from a Hoosier member of the band. :)

Rick Elliott | January 23, 2009 10:00 AM

I enjoyed the marching band clip. It brought back days when I was part of a band with the most all-state members in the all-state band. And we didn't have the benefit of multiple assistant band directors who could individually teach band members.
One quibble 8 to 5 isn't the majestic cadence of a marching band. 6 to 5 is the majestic cadence for a band. Try to watch the Texas A&M band march. The fanfare they've used for untold generations will send shivers up our pine. And intricate, precise movements come from this cadence.