Even in Failed 'Worldwide LGBT Equality March,' a Grassroots Effort Finds Seeds of Success

The LGBT community would be nothing were it not for the many and varied grassroots efforts that have sprung up throughout our history, spurring us forward in the name of equality. While our national organizations may serve a purpose in terms of presence and lobbying, in my view, most of the monumental changes have occurred as the result of groups outside the mainstream. Whether it be Lt. Dan Choi and GetEqual helping to bring about an end to DADT, or ACT-UP in demanding resources and awareness during the AIDS epidemic, or the small but laser-like focus of the American Foundation for Equal Rights in working to bring marriage equality to California, these smaller groups have often been able to effect change where our national organizations can't -- or won't.

I came of age during the days of Queer Nation and ACT-UP, and every rally, march, or benefit I've attended or organized has helped instill in me the belief that power, indeed, lies with the people. Last year's Occupy movement further reinforced that conviction: on a local level, a band of committed individuals can move mountains.

In February I wrote about a planned "2012 Worldwide LGBT Civil Rights March," slated for April 21. The idea for the march had sprung from a Facebook group called Let's Reach 1 Million People Campaign, and the group's founder and lead organizer, Joseph C. Knudson, asked if I would write a piece about their efforts. I agreed, but as I began to look more closely at the event, I realized that I had some concerns around the planning associated with the effort. The piece, "What If They Threw a Worldwide LGBT Equality March, and No One Came?," noted my concerns and questioned whether the event was truly designed for success.

The article prompted a firestorm of protest in the comment sections on both The Huffington Post and The Bilerico Project, primarily from those organizing the event, and included accusations of inaccuracies, questions about my motives, and personal attacks, even resulting in a rant about me on Knudson's blog. Nevertheless, despite each of their energetic volleys, the questions I raised were never fully answered by the event organizers.

Instead, I and others with questions were simply urged to read the group's disclosure document, as if the answers to each of our varied questions could be found in that single document. While some have speculated that this event was simply a promotional effort, designed to draw attention to a book Knudson had written, it was assured time and again that the Worldwide LGBT Equality March had no connection to his personal endeavors. But where, you might ask, is the group's disclosure document located? Not on their website, as one would expect. Instead, a link redirects you to Knudson's own site, where the document is posted beneath links to his book trailer, author page, and book press release. A minor point, perhaps, but hardly the kind of thing that eases concerns about either his motivation or the separation between the two endeavors.

Since my initial article, I've been contacted by several other people who have questioned elements around the march, only to find themselves involved in battles with Knudson and his allies. One willing to speak out publicly, Scott J. Hamilton, executive director of Oklahoma's LGBT advocacy and education organization, Cimarron Alliance, relates that Knudson had tried to engage his organization in the march, but when Hamilton attempted to question Knudson about concerns he had, Knudson repeatedly refused to meet and instead engaged in a chain of angry emails and Facebook exchanges. Despite his unwillingness to meet in person to resolve differences and answer questions, according to Hamilton, Knudson publicly complained that Cimarron Alliance wouldn't support them. Further, Sunny Clark, a former organizer with the march, posted her thoughts on the march organizers, which she felt was male-dominated, and experienced an online tit-for-tat exchange with Knudson.

One commenter on a Washington Blade article, Suzie, wrote, "I'm an actual LGBT organizer, and I don't understand why we would put scarce resources into duplicating the June Pride Marches. Was there real outreach to other LGBT groups? How involved are people of color? Trans/GNC folks? Other activists? What is the focus, other than this vague idea of 'general equality'? Why this date? So many questions, so few well-thought-out answers." All of these are good and valid questions, to which Jonathan Wolfman responded, "As a committee member for this event and Oversight Director, it is quite obvious that this individual using the name of Suzie is using this forum strictly to boost her own ego."

Is that really how we treat our community, by countering questions with attacks? Unfortunately, while these are but a few examples, others have written to me about similar experiences of having raised questions only to find themselves branded as "traitors to the cause of equality" and harassed in both online forums and email exchanges.

Just as Suzie did, some have questioned the choice of date for the event, April 21, given that many LGBT Pride events occur just a few weeks later, in June. Wouldn't another time or date have been more effective, allowing ground troops breathing time between events, not to mention having similar events so close together? When questioned, Knudson noted that he'd specifically selected the day, sandwiched between the Day of Silence (April 20) and Earth Day (April 22), seeing it as "the perfect trifecta." While he may have thought three events in a row would be a good thing, all I envision are exhausted volunteers. Perhaps he believed that, just like celebrity deaths, activism is somehow enhanced by the power of three, but the numbers suggest otherwise.

Attendance at the "Worldwide LGBT Equality March," with some exceptions, appears to have been very low. Wolfman, quoted on the group's Facebook page, noted that there was "[n]ot a terrific turnout at the Washington, D.C., Rally, but lots of enthusiasm." The Washington Blade counted less than 20 people in attendance at that event, with three guest speakers, including Wolfman. In comparison, the last large-scale LGBT equality event in Washington, D.C., 2009's National Equality March, drew "hundreds of thousands" of attendees, with a full roster of well-known activists and celebrity speakers.

In other big cities, the story seems to be much the same. Chicago had 55 in attendance, 15 of whom were there in a journalistic capacity. In Portland, Ore. local organizer Kelly Caldwell wrote me that they actually gathered the following day, on Sunday, April 22, with Occupy Portland, for a combined group total of 30 people. One of the bigger U.S. events took place in Atlanta, Ga., where organizer Dusty Wenk noted to me in an email, "We had over 100 marching and many more at the actual rally at the capitol, with 7 speakers from politicians and activists. It went very well." In comparison, the annual Atlanta Pride event draws an average of 200,000.

Elsewhere, at an event in Harlingen, Tex., KGBT news' Sergio Chapa told me he saw "maybe three dozen" gathered when he drove past. Local news in Athens, Ga. reported that "nearly 75" marched on behalf of equality. Jackson, Miss., according to a note left on the Facebook page by Shelly Ward, had 25 attendees. (I attempted to confirm attendance with each local organizer, but as of writing this, I had only received information from those listed above.)

On a positive note, in the Philippines there were three events slated, including the first LGBT pride march ever in Isabela. Although attendance numbers have not yet been determined, online photos from the march in Manila show what appears to have been a healthy turnout. One element that might have helped the Philippine events is that local organizers networked with multiple established organizations to help achieve higher turnout rates.

Back in the U.S., such local outreach also helped create a successful event in Millington, Tenn., where Jami Bevers helped organize a 2.5-mile equality march and celebration. To achieve this, she networked with other organizations, including such groups as Mid-South Peace & Justice, Shelby County Democratic Party, and Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center, among others. In addition to the 76 attendees, they faced one onsite protestor and received both support and flak from those driving past. Beaver reports, "There was certainly an air of unity and pride!"

Clearly, grassroots efforts work best when local. Attempting an event of this magnitude, without starting out locally and building from there, could be considered folly. Before proclaiming a worldwide anything, a group should have the necessary resources, infrastructure, and organizational skills for success; simply designating a date and having a Facebook group is not enough.

Let's Reach 1 Million People, from which the event sprung, is the usual mix of LGBT posts, a grab-bag of everything from news items to humorous or inspirational videos to nightclub promotions. In the weeks and days leading up to the march, however, I was struck by just how few posts entailed actual event details, inspirational calls to duty, or instructions on how to get involved. Those in areas lacking a march were encouraged to create flash mobs, as if that were a perfectly quick and easy thing to do.

Inadvertently, the size of the Facebook group itself may have led some to have higher expectations than warranted, given online chatter of the "historic" nature of the event and a potential documentary charting its success. While, as of this writing, the group has 19,408 members, many did not join the group on their own accord. Instead, the organizers repeatedly encouraged "Membership Drives," where individuals were instructed to add anyone from their Facebook list who they thought might be open to being a member. While such "Membership Drives" may have helped inflate the group's numbers, how many of those added actually turned into the foot soldiers and organizers necessary for success?

At least one (if not more) of the touted 32 events around the world did not occur. In Orlando, Fla. organizer Mikael Audebert stated that, due to inability to finalize plans with the national group, the event slated for that city was canceled. A skilled organizer, Audebert oversees the annual Orlando Pride, which has attendance numbers of 100,000, growing in size year after year. He notes that he signed up online to organize a march for Orlando, but following a welcome email, he received no further communication from the national group. "There was no follow-up, no confirmation, no updates -- nothing," he said. "When you create something with the goal of having an impact across the globe, you can't just create a website and hope for the best. You have to coordinate with all the cities, motivate people, and -- most importantly -- create a social event movement behind it." Still, Audebert applauds the idea behind the event. "The goal was a terrific one. The problems were in the execution."

Following the low turnout, Knudson wrote in a Facebook group message to Wolfman and others, "Many times people are too fixated on numbers to see the overall picture. It best not to concentrate and fixate on the numbers only, but the message that was conveyed worldwide today as the result of all of the efforts. The pictures and stories will speak LOUD enough..."

While Knudson is right that numbers themselves don't always tell the whole story, the disappointing march numbers should send a signal to the organizers that there are several areas of concern should the group attempt something similar in the future. As one commenter on Queerty noted, "If NOM held a rally that 48 people showed up to, we would all be laughing at them... But since it's our side, this is just sad and embarrassing."

I agree with Knudson, too, that it is not only the numbers that will affect people but our stories and pictures. In fact, one picture -- or, more specifically, one video -- spoke to me more loudly than any other. It was taken by Meri Justus, a member of the Let's Reach 1 Million People Campaign's Facebook group. She lives in Lynchburg, Va., a city that many feel is not necessarily gay-friendly. Still, Meri believes in the cause of equality so strongly that on the morning of April 21, 2012, she put on her Worldwide LGBT Equality March T-shirt, went downtown, and created her very own one-woman parade throughout Lynchburg.

True, it may not have been our movement's Rosa Parks moment, but if this woman's involvement in the Let's Reach 1 Million People Campaign has made her feel empowered enough to walk the streets of her town by herself, T-shirt loudly proclaiming her pride, then perhaps that "Worldwide LGBT Equality March" was a success after all.

Tell your stories. Live authentically. Change the world.