Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Why We March

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

There are only a couple reasons to march, and plenty not to. Prior to the Sunday March for Equality in Washington, D.C., the compromised politicos of the Human Rights Campaign ilk expressed their preference that we queers sit in the closet with some gags on our mouths until 2017, so as not to embarrass the Promiser-In-Chief Barack Obama.

Some lefty queers were also refusing to go implying the march was morally bankrupt because it didn't emerge spontaneously from the grassroots movements, like children from the head of Zeus. Instead of piggybacking on the situation to get out their own messages by fielding raucous contingents, or marching on different routes, they encouraged people to put up their feet and settle in for self-righteous naps.

Meanwhile, journalist Gabriel Arana dismissed the march as irrelevant, explaining that visibility for equality just wasn't necessary. Most of America knew we were here and queer, and already supported civil unions or gay marriage in large numbers. What we needed was a protest against a dithering Obama refusing to set timelines for change.

There was also the host of more usual impediments: transportation, hotel rooms, time off, and ingrown toenails and stubbed toes that we really shouldn't put pressure on. I myself had the runs and a desire to stay near a toilet. Still, on Sunday morning I dragged myself out of the house. Not to D.C., but in a celebration of activism itself, to watch a small but earnest march in Paris sponsored by the "Comité de la jupe" (Skirt Committee). The group describes themselves as citizen Catholics, which I thought would be worth seeing because they could only have emerged in Republican France.

They met at the Arènes de Lutèce, a first century Gallo-Roman amphitheater where gladiators and slaves used to combat wild animals, and now kids play soccer, and old guys and dykes play boules in the dirty sand. It took me a minute to get the symbolism of ordinary Christians up against the lions of Rome, maybe because they reversed the order of things, meeting for lunch and inspiration inside the arena, before marching to the Roman lions outside in the Paris streets.

It's hard to imagine easier prey than this Skirt Committee organized on the internet by two women after a French Cardinal sneered at female participation in the Church declaring that his opposition "wasn't that they wore skirts, but a matter of having something inside their heads." This group headed by female Catholics is not only up against the outright hate multiplying in Rome but a virulent misogyny combined with the secularism of France.

Nevertheless, they're doing okay. They have about five hundred members united around the ambitious goal of making the Catholic Church more egalitarian and democratic, plus the peculiar idea that Christians should focus more on the values of Christ, including love, compassion, and courage.

While I'd like to sneer, I actually found the speech and manifesto really moving. What's not to like about equality and kindness, and commitment neither to leave your home territory nor shut up? The religious stuff aside, HRC and gay Democrats could learn a lot from these citizen Catholics who believe speaking out and criticizing from within is a serious moral imperative.

The crowd bubbled with a kind of anarchic joy when they filed down onto the sands to arrange themselves in groups. I could tell from their faces some had never marched before. Or for that matter, been to the big city of Paris. They were nervous and excited. They were inspired. Even if in practical terms you could say the march part was a flop.

What's the point of taking to the streets, when all you have are a few signs identifying far off places like Alsace and Bordeaux? Besides that, nothing. No placards, no five word message. They didn't even have a leading banner. I imagined passersby wondering who the heck were these people with the red bags and umbrellas? Tourists, probably. You had to get really close to read the fine print.

And yet, and yet. Marches always mean something. Even if the New York Times buries the story, as they did with the Equality March, or you only have a couple hundred feet on the pavement. You see each other. For an hour or two you own a chunk of public space. You exist in a way you don't at home alone. Your voice and your life are amplified in unimaginable ways.

And that's my point. We don't just march for them -- for media outlets, and passersby, and to pressure the powers that be on specific issues. We march for ourselves. It's a declaration of independence, of power, of democracy. Maybe even hope.

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