Even before the march and the rally started, there were signs that all was not well.
Perhaps most significantly, Barney Frank, the most famous gay lawmaker in the House of Representatives, had called this weekend's unfortunately named National Equality March "a waste of time at best" and an "an emotional release" that does little to compel Congress to take action.
"The only thing they're going to be putting pressure on is the grass," the Massachusetts congressman told the Associated Press Friday.
And Frank wasn’t alone. For months, established players on the gay-rights scene had expressed reservations about the march, advising that activists instead mobilize at a state level and avoid wasting resources on the federal government.
The National Lesbian and Gay Task Force did not even endorse this weekend’s effort until September, several months after plans for it had been announced. Support from the Human Rights Campaign was tepid at best.
One guy I saw, photographed below, white and in his late 20s or early 30s, was carting a sign that said “Jim Crow called. He wants DOMA back.” The speeches weren’t much better.
But Equality Across America, the organization behind the march (they were founded just this year), would not be deterred.
At a press conference Sunday morning, organizer Cleve Jones called the state-by-state approach a “failed strategy.” He accused the Democratic leadership and President Barack Obama of “stepping back from the promises they’d made.”
• Jacob Bernstein: Obama Breaks the Ice at HRC ”We’ve seen that happen so many times before,” he said. “I didn’t want that to happen again.”
“Equal protection under the law in all matters governed by civil laws in all 50 states.”
"Barney was wrong," added David Mixner, another organizer. “Barney's been wrong before.”
Mixner is known as the former Bill Clinton fundraiser that later ran afoul of the former president by refusing to kowtow to him about the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy.
The veteran activist has also been dissatisfied with Frank for years and wasn’t about to take cues from him, he told The Daily Beast. “Barney supported Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Barney supported [the Defense of Marriage Act]. He said President Clinton had no choice. Barney supported excluding transgender people from [the Employee Non-Discrimination Act]. Then he changed his mind a year later. His track record isn't brilliant. He's the insider's insider."
Nevertheless, it became increasingly clear over the course of the day that the controversy had a deleterious effect on the rally. For one, it appeared to be under-attended, at least compared to the big gay march of 2000. Back then, attendee estimates hovered around 1 million. This weekend, the most generous numbers placed the crowd at 200,000.
Those who did attend were a fairly homogenous bunch, giving the whole thing a sort pre-recession feel. It was as if the entire gay contingent of the Equinox Fitness chain had stormed Washington with the hipsters of Williamsburg on the most perfect day ever to inform the world that they were not going to take it lying down.
Trim white men walked around in designer sunglasses and polo shirts with $800 cameras strung from their necks, holding placards that said "Equality Now."
One guy I saw, white and in his late 20s or early 30s, was carting a sign that said "Jim Crow called. He wants DOMA back."
The speeches weren't much better. It wasn’t so much the aspirations of the activists, which were perfectly valid, but rather the delivery of the message: lots of people talking about gay marriage as an ethical issue with little mention or voice given to the actual people who've suffered most from not being able to tie the knot.
This spring, The New York Times wrote of a man in Oregon who was told to leave the room when his registered domestic partner lay there, unconscious and near death. A few weeks later, the ACLU began waging a public-relations campaign against a Fresno hospital when a lesbian epileptic in the Bay Area was given Ativan, despite warnings from her domestic partner that it was unnecessary and had led to unwanted side effects in the past.
It would have been nice to hear from some of these people.
Further, I found myself sympathizing with Obama, who’d gently rebuked his gay critics the night before, arguing at a Human Rights Campaign dinner that LGBT people share in many of the same struggles as straight people and ought to be a little more patient given the larger state of the country right now. "We all have a stake in the economy," Obama had said. "We all have a stake in putting people back to work. We all have a stake in Iraq and Afghanistan."
It was a good point, and the fact that it went largely unaddressed at the rally created the impression we were out of touch and a little spoiled. Had we had forgotten that the United States is on the brink of catastrophe, with two wars and an economy that is worse than we've seen in over 50 years? Had we not spent the last year—just like straight people—worried about our jobs and our futures?
One person I know described the proceedings on the train back from D.C. as a “high-school pep rally.” I think he was saying that many of the speakers seemed sophomoric. But it also captured to me the way in which they seemed cut off from the harsh realities plaguing ordinary Americans.
Universal health care, which should be galvanizing for gays—who have borne the brunt of the HIV/AIDS epidemic for nearly 30 years—went almost unmentioned at the rally, where people proselytizing from the stage included an actress from Queer as Folk, Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City, and the pop princess Lady Gaga.
In case you were wondering what the young diva had to offer as a public speaker, the answer was lots of Madonna-like over-enunciating and then a nice little pop at the killjoy from Massachusetts.
"To Barney Frank," she said in her black shades and perfectly pressed, most-serious white shirt, "We are putting more than pressure on this grass. And today this grass is ours. We will come away today and continue to do the work in our own backyards with our local politicians."
Well, at least she knows who Barney Frank is.
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Prior to joining the Beast, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine, where he worked for the past four and a half years. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.