National Equality March: Pressuring More than the Grass

October 14th, 2009, by AMITA PARASHAR

It was an unseasonably hot day in Washington D.C. when tens of thousands of activists marched to the capitol Sunday demanding federal rights for gay and lesbian Americans. Supporters walked two miles past the White House, decked out in rainbow flags, rainbow tights, rainbow scarves. There was even a giant rainbow flag stretched on the Capitol lawn. If there ever was a day to march, this was it.

Not everybody was seeing rainbows, though. Openly gay Congressman Barney Frank called the march “useless” and said “the only thing they’re going to be putting pressure on is the grass.” Instead, he urged people to use their time to press their congress members to support pending legislation.

The timing of the march was deliberate. Forty years ago, the Stonewall rebellion sparked the American gay rights movement. And now, a sympathetic president and Democratic congress could be the key to passing some long-awaited legislation on a federal level.

The Matthew Shepard Act, a hate crimes prevention bill, just passed in the House and President Obama said he would sign it.

Congressman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) just introduced a bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars same-sex married couples from federal benefits.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit employers from firing a worker because he or she is gay or transgender, has also been introduced in the House.

However, many in the LGBT community feel Congress and President Obama have been too slow to act.

Obama spoke the night before the rally and vowed to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy that bans gays from the military. He repeated his support to the gay community: “It’s not for me to tell you to be patient anymore than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans petitioning for equal rights half a century ago.”

I noticed one supporter holding a sign that read “First Class Taxpayer, Second Class Citizen.” This march, fundamentally, was about elevating that status.

A recent analysis by The New York Times estimated that gay couples spend anywhere from $41,000 to nearly $470,000 more during their lifetimes than their heterosexual counterparts in health benefits, legal fees, social security and more. Nearly all of these costs would be eliminated if federal benefits were extended to same-sex couples.

Will the march spark a new movement like Dr. King’s historic speech did 46 years ago? Probably not. But it served as an important reminder to Congress, to President Obama, and, most importantly, to ourselves that there is a lot of work to be done and that we all need to be on the same page to do it.

Congressman Frank didn’t approve of the equality march, but that’s only a piece of a heavily fractured movement.

Gay bloggers are angry (see here, here and here) with the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT lobbying group in the country, for allowing President Obama to speak at their dinner.

State marriage activists are angry at march organizers for detracting attention from pending marriage fights in Maine and Washington D.C.

But if we’re going to get anything passed, we have to stop shooting ourselves in the foot and get some national leadership and a cooperative agenda. Really, we all want the same thing.

The shirt I saw at the march that summed it up had one simple message: “Legalize Gay.”

Amita Parashar has covered LGBT, health and international news for The Advocate, Channel One News and NBC News.

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Last modified: May 4, 2011 at 9:59 pm