The march on Washington that gays staged Sunday on the National Mall drew something like 200,000 people that's a good guess based on conversations with many of the organizers and local authorities, although estimates of Mall crowds are notoriously unreliable. But one number you can take to the bank: the average age of those backstage who wore walkie-talkie headsets and staff badges, the men (and a few women) who were behind much of the organizing effort, wasn't over 30. And that, by far, was the oddest thing about the march: Why would a generation wired to their mobile phones and Facebook accounts nearly from birth want to resurrect a form of political expression as old and musty as a mass gathering?
The answer became more clear after I spent much of the day with Wayne Ting, born Dec. 1, 1983, and when he's not helping organize marches on Washington works as an associate at a private-equity firm that he isn't quite convinced he wants to name. Like many of the others who helped organize the march, Ting was shocked deeply, if rather naively by the passage last year in California of Proposition 8, which ended the court-appointed practice of equal marriage rights for gay couples in that state.
"What Prop 8 did for my generation," Ting told me the night before the march, at Restaurant Nora, "is that unlike past generations before, we had never been through something like where progress didn't seem inevitable. Suddenly, some right that was given was taken back. I think that had a huge effect on my generation to say, wait a minute, you mean, if I voted for and maybe wrote a check to the Democratic Party, that's not enough?"
This in and of itself is raw evidence of how far this country has moved on gay issues: Ting has such a strong sense of entitlement that a routine historical occurrence in democracies the snatching back of rights that have been reluctantly given to despised minorities came as a surprise to him. It is that sense of entitlement that led to today's march, which Ting and so many of his cohort put together.
They didn't do it alone, of course. The macher behind the march was Cleve Jones, 55, a man who, in his younger days, was a compatriot of Harvey Milk's and, later, the conceiver of the most powerful work of American folk art, the AIDS quilt. Last year, Jones found himself in the spotlight again after the film Milk reminded the nation of what his close friend Harvey had died for. With relentless encouragement from David Mixner a longtime gay activist and occasional friend of Bill Clinton's Jones decided to pay attention to all the e-mails he was receiving from 20-something gays who were both angry about Prop 8 and inspired by Milk.
That wasn't Jones' only motivation. He had himself made a dumb calculation about Prop 8; he was so confident it wouldn't pass, that instead of knocking on doors on Election Day in California, he had traveled to Nevada to canvass in Reno and Sparks on behalf of Barack Obama. Obama won; gays lost.
And Jones felt dejected. His friend Dustin Lance Black, a screenwriter who worked on Milk and had traveled with him to Nevada, told him they could make things right by getting gay people to demand Harvey Milkstyle precisely what they wanted, without compromise: equal rights in all matters covered by every public law, state or federal. That sentiment, born of regret and anger, eventually became the motto of Sunday's march, one featured on almost every mailing sent by its organizers: "Equal protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in all matters governed by civil law in all 50 states. Now."
Meanwhile, mid-career gay activists who run the day-to-day gay movement from the East Coast men and women in their late 30s to early 50s who slogged away at gay causes during the Bush interregnum were rather dumbstruck at the idea that young gays wanted to march on Washington. "Pointless," one seasoned gay activist told me. "If Cleve and David Mixner have really inspired so many kids to work on our behalf finally, by the way, because I think these kids spent the early part of this decade playing Nintendo or something why don't they tell them to go to Maine or Washington this weekend?" This activist was referring to the momentous votes coming up in Maine and Washington state that will determine how gay couples in those states can define their relationships.
Jones, not surprisingly, considers this a highly cynical view. He was present when Milk brought together thousands of young gays in pre-AIDS San Francisco to change that city's politics. Milk was famous for convening human billboards long stretches of young gay guys holding signs along busy streets. Coming together in Washington, Jones thought, might spark the same kind of fellowship. Young friends convinced him that Facebook could shorten the organizing time for a national march dramatically. The site played another role: young gays who had connected on Facebook even as uncertain high school students now wanted to meet face-to-face. The march would provide a way to do that and see Lady Gaga at the same time.
The march itself was predictable. It was a farrago of left-wing rhetoric (anticorporate, proimmigrant, etc.) and respectfully anti-Obama rhetoric. "Easter egg rolls on the White House lawn are nice, but enactment of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act are more important," thundered New York City union official Stuart Appelbaum, who was referring to Obama's invitation earlier this year to at least one lesbian couple to bring their kids to the White House's Easter event.
Will the march have a lasting effect? The previous gay march on Washington, in 2000, ended in fiasco when money was stolen from march organizers and little follow-up occurred after the attendees left Washington. The organizers this year were determined to avoid those problems. The march was staged for just over $200,000 about a quarter of the cost of the 2000 event and Jones and other principals repeatedly gave out a number that they wanted marchers to text, which would automatically sign them up on a mailing list the organizers hope will be useful in all congressional districts.
And yet as the march ended, I wasn't sure if it had just been another party. The Broadway producers of the musical Hair took a great financial loss this weekend by shuttering their production so that the entire cast could sing at the march. As the gloaming approached, it was a moving experience to hear tens of thousand of people sing the words "Let the sunshine in" along with the cast.
Right then I thought of a conversation I had had with Ting, the young private-equity associate and march organizer. He had told me that he didn't know that in 1993, Mixner the gay activist and friend of Bill Clinton's who helped agitate for this year's march had been arrested outside the White House for opposing Clinton's infamous "Don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays in the military, the same policy that gays are now impatiently waiting on Obama to overturn. "A lot of us were 9 or 10 years old in 1993," Ting had said to me. I wondered if today's 9- and 10-year-old gays and lesbians would remember this march. Ting and his friends have a lot of work ahead of them to make sure they do.