Equality March on Capitol Demands Action on Promises

By L. K. Regan

Thousands of LGBT people and their friends, families and supporters marched from the White House to the Capitol in Washington, DC this Sunday in the National Equality March. The event was organized to coincide with National Coming Out Day, and was intended to put pressure on the Obama administration to fulfill campaign promises of action on a variety of gay civil rights issues, prominently including Don't Ask, Don't Tell. While organizers proclaim the event a huge success, the lingering question remains: will things now change?

Estimates of the crowd's size are not yet accurate, but organizers were expecting lighter attendance than for the more celebrity-centered marches of 1979, 1987, 1993 and 2000, which drew crowds in the hundreds of thousands. This was more of a grassroots event, reflecting a younger generation impatient with slow governmental progress on issues of civil rights, and giving this march a sense of energy and political empowerment (for photos of the day, see Equality Across America's photostream, or this spread at the Huffington Post).Of course, there were some celebrity speakers at Sunday's event—actress Cynthia Nixon, for example, who told the crowd, "We are gathered here today from all over the U.S., and back home many of us are deeply embroiled in the particular local battles that we are fighting, but today is a national rally and when we walk away from here tonight, we need to walk away with a common national resolve."

Here is Cynthia Nixon's rousing speech, described by many as some of the most inspiring words of the day:

Other figures well-known to the gay community for their personal courage spoke at the march as well. Lt. Dan Choi, a West Point graduate and Iraq war veteran who is fighting his DADT discharge, spoke to the crowd, saying, "We have fought in battles to protect our country, and now we are fighting at home for equal and full protection under the law." Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard, who was beaten to death in a hate crime in 1998, spoke to the crowd of the rights her son should have enjoyed: "No one has the right to tell my son whether or not he can work anywhere. Whether or not he can live wherever he wants to live and whether or not he can be with the one person he loves—no one has that right," she told the crowd. "We are all Americans. We are all equal Americans, gay, straight or whatever." Her words were given particular poignancy by the passage last week in the House of Representatives of hate crime legislation bearing her son's name.

Here's video of Judy Shepard's moving speech:

The theme of equality was a constant of the day— equal rights in marriage, in national service, in all aspects of social existence. For famous gay blogger Andrew Sullivan, this emphasis was itself an auspicious sign of progress, as he described, "the message that was louder and clearer than any march I've been to since 1987. Just equality. Not tolerance. Not protection. Nothing special. Just equality as human beings and citizens—in all things large and small. More to the point, this was not a plea for it; it was a statement of it. We are equal. We always have been."

It is against that backdrop of the gay community's higher expectations—expectations of the president, of the nation, of ourselves—that frustration with President Obama's lack of progress on major issues, such as DADT and the Defense of Marriage Act, was expressed on Sunday. To address the growing unrest, President Obama spoke at the Human Rights Campaign's annual dinner on Saturday night, and he again promised an end to DADT. On Sunday, however, much of the talk at the march was about the need for an end to promises, and some direct action in the near term. As march organizer Cleve Jones, an influential gay activist, told the press, ending the promises was his motivation for creating the march in the first place: "Since we've seen that"—politicians backing away from campaign promises on gay rights—"so many times before, I didn't want it to happen again. We're not settling. There's no such thing as a fraction of equality."