The Prop. 8 Generation Marches on Washington
Young people came from all over the country to march in Washington, D.C., to protest same-sex marriage bans and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Students from Texas A&M University held signs that said “TX Aggies for Equality” at the National Equality March this weekend in Washington, D.C. (Flickr/M.V. Jantzen)
On Saturday afternoon, David Valk, 22, stood in front of a few hundred people in the shadow of the Washington monument. “We need your friends down here, it’s a flash protest!” Valk, dressed in ripped jeans and Vans, yelled into a microphone.
The “flash protest,” had to wait for a police escort to cross the street, past a van with signs that said “DOMA Protects America” and “Obama Healthcare Pays for Sodomy” on their way to the White House. The crowd had put duct tape over their mouths in symbolic opposition to “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” a policy that expels gays from the military if they make their sexual orientation known. When the crowd reached the White House, a lesbian from Dallas named Elizabeth Pax commandeered the microphone. “President Obama!” she cried. “Please be our hero! Fight for us so we can legally fight for you!” The protesters ripped off the duct tape and yelled.
Valk, who graduated from UCLA this May had organized a similar “flash mob” protest in Los Angeles following the passage of Prop. 8, the amendment that overturned legal same-sex marriage in California. When he heard that 63-year-old activist David Mixner was organizing the National Equality March on Washington this fall, Valk jumped on board as the national student outreach coordinator, bouncing from Los Angeles to Seattle to Washington, D.C., to Boston and Miami talking to hundreds of colleges, raising money—and reaching thousands of students online.
“This whole thing was organized on Facebook. I think that’s what scares the crap out of people,” Valk said. “How would they have done this 30 years ago?”
The next day, young people came from colleges all over the country—some call them the Prop. 8 generation or Stonewall 2.0. Three students had left at midnight to drive from Capital University, a small Lutheran liberal arts school outside Columbus, Ohio. Melody White, a sophomore at Capital, noted that she had never taken part in a protest action like this before. “I don’t think any of us have,” she said.
When asked for his name, Shane Lanning hesitated. “My parents know [that I’m gay],” he explained, trailing off.
“They just can’t accept it,” White said.
While young people chanted at the protest, many from the older generation watched from the sidewalks, swapping stories of how long they’d been together and where they got married. Robin and Patricia Halprin-Hawkins, 57 and 69 respectively, got married on a whale boat off Provincetown, Mass. Robin, who called out the contingent marching from her alma mater, Smith College, had been at Stonewall when she was 16. “We are thrilled that there [are] so many young people out,” she said. “At the last major march, lots of these people weren’t even old enough to think about marching.”
“It’s like a cork popped,” agreed Mark Fischer, 60. “There was no need to have a march before, because nobody was listening to us.”
The protest that brought tens of thousands to the Capitol this weekend, however, had a contentious back story. Months earlier, gay activists disagreed over whether the National Equality March was even worth the effort and expense for a march that took place while Congress wasn’t in session. Criticism of march organizer Cleve Jones’ leadership raged across gay blogs. “It is not the time for a march,” Pam Spaulding, LGBT blogger for Pam’s House Blend, summed up. “People who would scrape up the time, energy and enthusiasm to get to [Washington, D.C.] to march should at the very least be able have the opportunity to learn how to lobby elected senators and reps, since we all know people love to turn out to demonstrate en masse, but rarely show up to speak with lawmakers with the same enthusiasm.”
Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), one of three openly gay congress members, seemed to agree. “The only thing they’re going to be putting pressure on is the grass,” he said.
Established lobbying groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force were also slow to endorse the march, cautioning that energy was better spent fighting state same-sex marriage battles in Maine and Washington. Eventually, both groups did eventually endorse the march, and both HRC’s Joe Solmonese and NGLTF’s Rea Carey attended, but the resentment occasionally surfaced.
“They said nobody would come. I see a few of y’all!” crowed Derek Washington, the National Equality March’s diversity outreach director. “We aren’t a bunch of lobbyists, we aren’t a big organization; we don’t have fancy dinners!”
“Hey, don’t hate on HRC!” shouted Minita Sanghvi, an HRC board member. “Just because they get a lot of money—and the [fundraising] dinner is how they get a lot of money—you shouldn’t look down on them as an elitist organization, because it’s not,” Sanghvi explained. She had come with another board member, transsexual Madeline Goss. “HRC started out that way, but it sure as hell ain’t that way anymore,” Gross said.
Later that evening, Dave Valk relaxed at a café in Dupont with his boyfriend Nicholas Pineiro, 26—they had met three and a half weeks ago when Valk came through Miami, and Pinero, a photographer, did the student marketing campaign for the march. They were exhausted and hoarse and didn’t know what they would be doing the next day, except for sending thank you notes and follow-up emails to those that had come out on Saturday.
Valk had worked for Equality California during his time at UCLA and been completely turned off—he felt the group botched the “No on Prop. 8” campaign, but what really bothered Valk was the group’s rigid hierarchy. “They treated young people like interns,” he said. When Valk and his some fellow protesters tried to shut down marriage license offices in protesters, the older activists told them to back off.
Even though youth had made up the bulk of the National Equality March crowd, Valk didn’t feel that they had been given much more respect than they had in California. “I was frustrated with the National Equality March because there was an incredibly lack of support for young people,” he said. “You just need to shut the fuck up and realize that there are kids on the streets, they are homeless, and they need support. We need to do everything.”
“I just don’t see it as a gay rights movement,” he added. “I think it’s truly a generational movement.”
Meanwhile, Valk is looking for a paying job and prepping to take the LSAT. “I don’t want to be this traveling bum forever,” he says.
Still, Valk despite the fact that Valk had problems with the way the march was run, he still felt it was worth it. “I had this picture in my head that we were going to turn up 14th and there would be the [Washington] monument behind us and there were going to be photographers and they’d put it in a god damn magazine, and this kid in the middle of nowhere is gonna see it,” Valk said. “That’s what gets me off.”
“So to speak,” Piniero finished.
Lydia DePillis is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. She graduated from Columbia University this May. Follow her on Twitter.