Thursday, September 30, 2010

What if They Gave an International March and Nobody Came?

Today is the 26th anniversary of the International March on the United Nations for Lesbian and Gay Freedom! Wait, the what?

On September 30, 1984, a couple hundred people gathered in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza near the United Nations headquarters in New York City after a march uptown from the village. It was the underwhelming culmination of almost a year of organizing. I was one of the core group of four people who tried to pull off this event, and among the lessons I learned from it was that that movie, "Field of Dreams," you know the one, "If You Build It They Will Come"? That movie was full of shit. At the time we were sort of mortified by our failure to achieve a mega-event on the order of the first Lesbian and Gay March on Washington five years before. Living in a sort of haze of magical wishful thinking we couldn't reconcile our determined vision for doing something important with the poorly constructed house of cards that wound up being the fruit of our labors. In the aftermath of the event our personal friendships were tested and we all underwent a period of personal reevaluation which was to change drastically at least my own life trajectory. Now so many years later though, I find myself less embarrassed and ready to restore this forgotten event to the annals of gay liberation history. Perhaps this is because many of the details of that year of organizing have faded, but perhaps it's because with the benefit of historical hindsight, I can be at least a little proud of how we tried to beat the odds of the Reagan years.

1984 was a terrible year. AIDS was a relatively new phenomenon, and had not yet generated the wave of activism that was to revolutionize the way America--and the world--viewed and treated gay people. Papers like The New York Times still refused to use the word "gay," wielding the dismissive "homosexual" with an air of psychoanalytical superiority. The cold war was at its iciest with Reagan joking about how the bombing -- the nuclear obliteration of the Soviet Union -- would begin in five minutes. Furiously grabbing its metaphorical crotch over its succesful if miniature military adventure in Grenada, the revanchism of Reaganism was happily painting over the last remnants of 1960s/1970s liberationist consciousness.

In 1983 my friend David went to Europe to attend a conference of the Amsterdam and Stockholm-based International Gay Association. As I wrote in the booklet shown below, "In 1983 the International Gay Association of Lesbians/Gay Women and Gay men proclaimed 1984 to be the International Year of Lesbian and Gay Action. 1984 was to be a year for us as lesbians and gays to get together -- to learn, exchange ideas, to communicate, to unite, to fight, to play and to love: to increase our visibility and determination toward our goal of liberation." The IGA proposed that a march be held on the symbol of world solidarity, the United Nations.

David and I knew each other from the Lavender Left, an independent group of lesbian and gay socialists. I was a member of the Revolutionary Socialist League eager for united-front organizing opportunities, and David was well connected to New York's newer generation of lesbian and gay cultural activists. We had worked together in the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee, trying to push its agenda leftward. (I think it was in 1983 that CSLDC adopted my proposal for that year's pride activities slogan: "Diversity Is Our Strength, Liberation Is Our Fight," which they then proceeded to do their best to keep off official Pride materials.) So after David got excited about the IGA's proposals in the fall of 1983 we established the Lesbian and Gay Organizing Committee for 1984. Doing our best to combat what we saw as a rightward drift of the mainstream gay community, we hoped to show that the progressive wing of the community could build up as well as criticize. Doing the best to get the word out, we organized a planning conference in March of 1984.

The planning conference felt like a great success. We got many of the leading voices in the left-wing of New York's gay community together to brainstorm about the march, and to lay a political basis for our organizing. It felt like we were building a significant basis of unity around ideas far to the left of where previous gay events had gone. It wasn't as large or dramatic a conference as the meetings that lead up to the 1979 march on Washington (MOW), but it wasn't as divisive either. We strove for gender and racial balance: we were excited that these felt like points of unity rather than points of division. We felt like we had made a solid foundation for a march in the fall. And we were gonna ask for the world! Here's the statement we adopted:

Stand Together -- We Are Everywhere

Lesbians and gay males live in every country, within every culture, and under all economic and political systems. We fight for our freedom knowing that none of us can live openly as lesbians and gay males under any system which supports racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, ageism, economic and religious oppression or other forms of domination. As a diverse community of women and men of every race, age, class, and physical ability, having every life philosophy and religious belief, we demand:
* The freedom to live openly as lesbians and gay males from our youth to our old age
* An end to violence by governments and institutions against lesbians and gay males, including torture or incarceration in prisons or mental institutions.
* An end to anti-gay violence on the streets and in our homes.
* An end to all sexual violence...
* The declassification of homosexuality as a disease by WHO
* Equal rights and equal housing and employment...
* Our right to have and keep our children
* Quality health care...
* An end to discrimination in any form against people with AIDS, and increased funding for research and treatment...
* An end to anti-gay immigration laws...
* The right to speak openly about our lives and the right to meet and organize freely with other lesbians and gay males
(slightly edited. --ish)

We made an organizing plan. We began to cast a wide net, sending out a mailing to every national and international lesbian and gay organization and publication we could find. We sought the help and endorsement of numerous left organizations. While eventually the endorsements rolled in -- hundreds of gay groups from the United States and a dozen foreign countries signed up, as did left groups like my own Revolutionary Socialist League, the Freedom Socialist Party, the International Socialists, the International Socialist Organization, the Socialist Party USA, the War Resisters League and others. But shortly after the enthusiasm of the planning conference had died down, we realized that after an initial flurry of interest, all those leading lights of New York's lesbian and gay community were nowhere to be found. People who had dominated the discussion and exercised leadership in crafting what we stood for (Jim Fouratt I'm talking to you) were soon nowhere to be found.

We managed to rent an office space to organize out of: an unrenovated loft between tenants. We sought donations, and got printing help from progressive printers, and free guerrilla typesetting from my job. We bought an answering machine (not as common as you might think back in 1984), although it was a terrible piece of crap that had a precorded message. What we didn't really get was people to help organize or real commitments to participate.

The office turned out to be a sort of travesty. One afternoon after licking some envelopes and making some plans there I found myself napping--on our ragged hand-me-down sofa or single desk and chair I don't recall. I woke up to find our precious new answering machine and small cashbox stolen out from under me. It was far from the vibrant nerve center of an active coalition, it was a temple of wishful thinking and frankly, denial.

As the endorsements rolled in we arranged for speakers at our UN rally. They were an interesting bunch. Sylvia Borren from the IGA. The wonderful Marco Antonio Osorio R., RIP, a dear man from Mexico who became a good friend. Daniel Tsang and Cherrie Moraga. New Alliance Party (in retrospect a creepy cult) political candidate Dennis Serrette. And Sonia Johnson, the radical feminist who burst out of Mormonism to fight for women's equality and run for President that year. We even met with the New York City police department to get our permits and discuss our plans. They asked us how many buses we thought would be arriving. We assured them the answer was many. Looking back I'm sure we revealed our inattention to detail. I remember at the actual march every time a tourist bus drove by I would beckon hopefully to a cop. Of course there were no actual buses to our event. We managed to borrow a flatbed truck with a sound system on it, I think from the NAP if I recall. We made some signs and some banners. David and I, our friend Dean Weeks, and another friend I have somehow blotted out of my mind, sometimes with an occasional other volunteer or two did what we could. I remember us all getting very tense with each other, but we failed to look each other in the eyes and question whether we were actually checking in with reality as we organized.

Shortly before the event another comrade from the Revolutionary Socialist League was delegated to drop in on our organizing activities. Of course our house of cards was plain as day to him. He tried to get the League to back out to avoid the embarrassment he saw coming. I was so integral to the event -- and honestly as deeply responsible for failing to really understand what organizing something like this would take -- I had to fight to stay involved. I told them the RSL just couldn't back out. It was too late.

Honestly I am not sure I have ever seen a photo of this event. Some must exist somewhere. I googled the march, and came up only with our resource booklet preserved carefully in boxes of memorabilia willed to gay archives by dying activists. But the event actually happened. Perhaps that it did was enough for those few people who attended. I wonder if the two guys who actually flew in from Argentina for the event -- Alejandro Kantemiroff I'm so sorry!! -- felt fulfilled or disappointed. It was a truly international event. It was a march and rally. At the UN. But it was very very small. And it slipped out of collective memory and record.

We were very young, in our mid-twenties, optimists with no doubts that we could will our march for freedom into being. I'm not sure how exactly we missed the fact that the MOW we hoped to emulate was built by hundreds and thousands of people across the country working furiously to manifest the brave idea of a national lesbian and gay march. We weren't able to motivate a huge number of people to get excited and attend. But we also didn't spend a lot of money. We didn't get paid, we weren't left with massive debts. If we felt when it was over like we were walking away from a trainwreck, in the end the statement we wanted to make got made. We had sent letters to all the world's UN delegations bearing our demands which ended: "The United Nations Organization was formed toward the purpose of ending war and injustice by uniting the nations of the world in cooperation and communication. Now is the time for your country to renew its commitment to justice and human rights by taking action in support of lesbian and gay civil and human rights. We respectfully urge you to do what you can toward this urgent and necessary end."

In 1984 who dared to tell the nations of the world to do those things? Who was brave enough back at the height of the cold war, the era of global repression and dictators, to stand like little Davids against mighty Goliaths and speak for the rights of those who, in many countries, had never had anyone speak for them before? We did. You, 21st-century gay citizens of the world, you're welcome!

Top graphic is the button design produced by the LGOC for the march; it was designed by Joseph Cavalieri. The second graphic is the cover of the resource book distributed at the march to attendees. It listed all the worldwide endorsing organizations, our documents of unity, our message to the UN, and statements of solidarity.

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