It was October 1988, the height of the AIDS crisis, and Michelangelo Signorile was organizing a protest. For six months, he and fellow ACT UP members had met weekly, strategizing and planning. The idea: storm the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, accused of dragging its feet on approving treatments for HIV. To prepare, they'd formed outreach teams to recruit people, an actions committee to coordinate exactly how the protest would go down, and a legal team to deal with possible arrests. They'd signed on graphic designers to create picket signs, and trained members in civil disobedience. As media director, Signorile was in charge of getting the word out—through phone trees, mass mailings and faxes to every reporter whose number he could find. "For months, my apartment was filled with people every single night," he recalls.
In the end, the effort paid off: nearly 1,000 people showed up at the FDA's headquarters in Rockville, Md. Demonstrators blocked entrances to the 17-story building, climbed atop doorways, heckled police and smashed windows. Some wore white lab coats splattered with red paint, with signs reading, "The government has blood on its hands." Others put on yellow rubber gloves—to remind of the protective hand-wear often worn by officers handling AIDS demonstrators. By late afternoon, more than 175 had been arrested. The event received international media coverage and is remembered as a milestone in the movement for gay rights.
A lot has changed since 1988, both in the fight for equality and the way in which that fight is being waged. Signorile is still an activist, but AIDS is no longer the silent killer it once was. There are two openly gay members of Congress, powerful gay lobbying groups and a president who, in his election night victory speech, acknowledged that the gay community as part of his winning coalition. Still some, like ACT UP founder and writer Larry Kramer, say grassroots leadership is what's missing today. "That's always been our fatal flaw," the 73-year-old says of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered population. He wonders: when faced with opposition, can today's activists muster the kind of grassroots movement that ACT UP did 20 years ago?
California's Proposition 8 could provide the answer. Since voters approved the initiative on Nov. 4, taking away same-sex marriage rights granted by the courts only a few months earlier, the gay community nationwide has mobilized in a way not seen since those harrowing days of the '80s. Protests have erupted outside Mormon temples across the country, which spent some $20 million lobbying for the ban. Residents have flocked to local protests. And as the reality sunk in that four anti-gay state measures had passed on election day, more than a million people rallied at their local City Halls in a coordinated day of demonstrations. "Prop. 8 really pushed a button in the way that many gay movements have before," says Signorile, the host of a daily talk show on Sirius.
What's different this time around is who's leading the movement—and how they're doing it. On Nov. 7, two young activists, 26-year-old Amy Balliett, a Seattle Web promoter, and Ohio educator Willow Witte, 32, were chatting over e-mail about where they could find protests in their areas. Dismayed by the lack of organizational response, they decided to launch a Web site of their own—JointheImpact.com—to urge a national day of action.
What happened next is what gay journalist Rex Wockner has dubbed Stonewall 2.0: the modern-day embodiment of the 1969 Greenwich Village riots that marked the birth of the modern gay-rights movement. Balliett and Witte sent out mass e-mails, text messages and blog posts to direct people to the site. Twenty-four hours later, close to 1,000 people had signed on to their group via Twitter. The following day, the site's Web server crashed because of the flood of traffic. Within a week, they'd received 10 million hits, and had a wiki and half a dozen Facebook groups started in their name. By Saturday, Nov. 15, more than 300 cities had signed on. "It just went completely viral," Witte says. "It was unbelievable to wake up every day and see more and more people involved."
The battle over gay marriage didn't start with Proposition 8, but longtime activists say this particular initiative's passage woke people up in a way that other states' battles simply haven't. Many gay advocates, reveling in the prospects of an Obama win, never really thought the proposition had a chance of passing in liberal California—and so they did nothing to support the effort against it. When it did pass, it struck a particular chord amid a presidential election that most gay advocates were cheering as a huge step forward. It was also more intrusive than gay marriage failures in other states, in that it revoked a right that had already been granted—and enjoyed—by some 18,000 California couples. "It was really like a splash of cold water in the face," Signorile says.
There's no going back now, but even proponents of Prop. 8 say the mass mobilization—had it happened beforehand—might have meant a different kind of battle. "I don't know if it would have brought about a victory for them, but it certainly might have changed the outcome," says the California Family Council's Ron Prentice, the chair of the "Yes on 8" campaign. As organizers look ahead, many wonder if the netroots effort going on now could change gay activism in the way it's reshaped mainstream political organizing. Still others hope it will revitalize the grassroots' role in a movement they say has been dominated over the last two decades by big bureaucratic groups in Washington.
The failure of the $40 million "No on 8" campaign has also fueled the post-Prop. 8 backlash. Many young activists have berated organizers for being sheepish about including actual same-sex couples in their ads, and for responding slowly to attacks by the pro-Prop. 8 side, who themselves dedicated a good chunk of resources to Google ads, blogging and maintaining groups on social networking sites. Others, including many older gay activists, say they're disappointed that groups like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest gay and lesbian advocacy group, made little effort to capitalize on the post-Prop. 8 momentum.
Many were particularly offended by an e-mail a local HRC steering committee sent to San Francisco constituents on Nov. 10, as Join the Impact groups were coordinating in cities around the nation. It was to remind members about "Spa Night": an evening of wine, mingling, "pampering and relaxation" that would help raise money for the $40 million group. HRC says the Spa Night offering was donated by a local business, and while they recognize the e-mail may not have been the best PR strategy, "it was certainly not something we were expending resources or energy on," says Brad Luna, the group's communications director.
HRC President Joe Solmonese, meanwhile, says that directing the movement on the ground is not where his organization fits in. "The role for large institutional organizations like us is to be mindful of our place," he tells NEWSWEEK. "We want to provide resources and our membership to the grassroots activism that's going on, but not try to steer them in any particular direction."
As longtime advocate Jennifer Chrisler points out, progress comes through a variety of places: courts, legislatures, lobbying groups and grassroots organizing. Perhaps the local ground-up energy will be a rallying cry for other battles: overturning the Arkansas ban on gay adoption, passing a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), or bringing an end to the U.S. military's gay ban. "Movements aren't movements unless there are people involved in them," says Chrisler, who heads the Boston-based Family Equality Council. "But it also takes strategy. It also takes ripe moments when you have a chance to articulate a message."
And, of course, it takes politicians willing to be that voice from within the establishment. "People want instant political gratification," says Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the openly gay chair of the House Financial Services Committee. "Unfortunately, there's a kind of a rule here: if you're in a tough political fight against entrenched opposition, the better a tactic makes you feel, the less likely it is to have done you any good. Getting out and cheering, holding each other's hands, talking about how wonderful we are and how terrible they are--that's therapy, it's not politics."
In reality, a little of both might be needed. The protests organized by Join the Impact certainly inspired a turnout. But to succeed, veterans say they need a clear agenda. "To be an activist requires constant vigilance, you can't just send e-mails," says Kramer, who was also a co-founder of the Gay Men's Health Crisis.
At the New York rally, coordinated by a group of twentysomethings who had never organized before, an estimated 10,000 people showed up. But energy was low, the sound system was shoddy and the speakers seemed uninspired. There looked to be as many camera phones documenting the event as there were picket signs. As Greg Varnum, the 25-year-old head of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition puts it, "I worry that if organizations don't offer up some kind of direction, this energy will be fleeting."
The young women of Join the Impact, meanwhile, are doing everything they can to keep the momentum. They've dubbed Wednesday "A Day Without Gays," calling for an economic boycott to emphasize the $700 billion that gays and lesbians are estimated to contribute to the U.S. economy each year. And they've had conversations with the HRC, about how the two entities can work together. "If you look at the history of our movement, what you see is that there's a role for everybody," says the HRC's Solmonese. Frank's advice is to continue pushing for marriage on the state level while working simultaneously on federal efforts for a hate crimes bill, ENDA (which Obama has said he would support), and ultimately, an end to Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
As for Signorile, only time will convince him whether the current energy can be mustered into something with lasting impact. "It's really going to take sustained meetings and an agenda and goals," he says. In the meantime, the 48-year-old veteran activist will be updating the progress on his Facebook page.