By Bill Py
Angry, yet energized, my partner Mario and I just got back from San Diego where we attended the huge LGBT protest rally organized by VOICES '96. Voters Organized In Coalition for the Elections, a/k/a VOICES '96, hosted a terrific week-long series of events at the site of the GOP National Convention. Despite the anti-civil rights agenda of the Republican Party, it was most empowering to GO to San Diego and BE SEEN AND HEARD!!!
Over 2,000 of us queers marched through the heart of Downtown to voice our objection to the GOP's platform of hatred and bigotry. Shouting pro-gay slogans to the persistent beat set by lesbian drummers at the front of the march until we were tired and hoarse, we advanced with pride and purpose to the Dole - Kemp - Robertson - Reed - Buchanan fortress.
A Queer Who's Who of stellar keynote speakers marched for several blocks with us to the protest staging area. Donna Red Wing from GLAAD, Candace Gingrich of the Human Rights Campaign, and Melinda Paras of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, comprised just a few of the heavy-hitters who helped bring about VOICES '96.
Arriving early in the day, and coming from hot, oppressively smoggy Los Angeles, we decided to eat lunch in a Republican-filled restaurant, Anthony's Sea Grotto just for fun. We were adorned with Clinton/Gore '96 campaign buttons and rainbow pride paraphernalia. We drew plenty of stares, but no one openly scoffed. Perhaps it was appropriate that we were seated smack in the middle of the restaurant, directly adjacent to a lesbian couple with infant children. We exchanged a few good-natured barbs about our surroundings with the women, and suddenly felt very comfortable knowing we were dining with "family." At another table near ours, a family of tourists smiled and complimented our campaign trinkets. The message was undeniably clear: Not everyone in town was a Republican.
We also paid homage in a brief visit to Old Town. Although merchants were clearly rolling out the welcome mat to the Conventioneers, we had two different shop owners admire our campaign pins so enthusiastically that we made a point to proudly give each of them one along with a few Clinton/Gore '96 campaign signs we just happened to be carrying around with us. They were placing them in their store windows as we left. It was an especially proud moment for this committed Democrat -- knowing that one of the merchants ran a shop right next door to where Dole & Company ate lunch only a few hours before that same day -- to find so many openly Clinton supporters unabashed in the heart of the Dole-drums.
How many vehicles does it take for a presidential candidate to go to lunch? According to someone who was there to witness it all, Dole's entourage included 8 press vans, five sedans, 12 police cruisers, four secret service suburbans, 15 police motorcycles and one helicopter, which occupied San Diego Avenue where Bob et al chowed down at the Old Town Mexican Cafe.
Enough about Dole...Soon after, we were on our way to Pantojas Park where the queer throngs were assembling for the protest march to the court-designated protest site at 4th and "K." No one was happy we were separated from the RNC by trolley tracks and a makeshift chain-link fence, but it was a lot closer than where the Republicans wanted to place us...(Tijuana, perhaps?) We compensated for our distance from the Convention Center by being L-O-U-D and fabulously visible using a wide array of posters and props. Virtually everyone carried signs, including yours truly. This wheelchair-bound activist anchored the NGLTF's "Stop the Scapegoating, Justice for All" poster in his lap for the entire event. Another fellow protester carried a sign that read, "Queers are fabulous -- Dole is decomposing!!" I particularly liked that one.
As protesters, we were admonished before we even began, to remain peaceful by organizers of VOICES '96 via loudspeaker. I don't believe anyone expected it to be anything else. Queer vendors capitalized on the huge assembly by promoting their wares, which included everything from tee-shirts to stovepipe rainbow hats at ten bucks a pop -- (I confess we surrendered to the latter -- I know, we sold out to shameless commercialism. But after all, we are from Los Angeles!)
Hands down, the highlight of the entire day for me was my meeting with Candace Gingrich. On a personal level, she is quite charming, and inspiring as a speaker before the crowds. Candace also expressed her joy that Prodigy has such a growing queer presence in cyberspace by saying, "What you and Prodigy are doing is great. We [the gay and lesbian community] need more Moderators." Candace also conceded this was her first lesbian and gay rights protest. I personally conveyed our appreciation to her for being there.
Speakers at the protest site included San Diego's own Brenda Schumacher of VOICES '96, who said earlier, "Republicans are here to scapegoat our community along with people of color, immigrants and the poor as the cause of the country's problems." Schumacher also said, "We are here to challenge their scapegoating and expose them for what they are -- a threat to democracy, a threat to pluralism and the real threat to family values in this country."
Co-organizer of VOICES '96, Tony Valenzuela, said the goal is to point out that in a country that values fairness, gays and lesbians are being treated unfairly.
"In many parts of the country," Valenzuela said, "gays and lesbians can be fired from their jobs simply for being gays and lesbians." He also said America needs to fight harder against the AIDS epidemic.
"We are not just a group of angry people who are merely frustrated," he said. "This is about our lives."
Urvashi Vaid, recently voted most favored representative of the queer community, former Executive Director of the NGLTF and author of "Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay & Lesbian Liberation," gave a rousing and eloquent speech. Current NGLTF Executive Director Melinda Paras spoke in an engagingly high-pitched, excited tone.
Paras said our presence in San Diego "provides a historic battleground against the Pat Buchanan view of America," which earlier she said embraces jingoism, the beating of illegal immigrants and the outlook that people with HIV are enemies and dangers to society.
San Diego City Councilwoman Christine Kehoe really revved-up the crowd with her inspiring words. The crowd frequently cheered her on and chanted "Ke-Hoe, Ke-Hoe!" Could Kehoe be the next Mayor of 'the most livable city in the U.S.'?
My only criticism of the event -- if I had to come up with one -- is that I couldn't see the speakers while they were speaking. This wasn't only due to the fact that, seated in my powered chair, I only see at about a 4-foot high level. Many other protest participants who were standing couldn't see, either. At least the outdoor sound system was nominal. Besides, I was still ecstatic from my productive visit and interview with Candace Gingrich to make further issue of my situation and protest the protest, if you know what I mean...
We also heard from GLAAD's Donna Red Wing (whom the Radical Right calls "the most dangerous woman in America"), and of course, Candace Gingrich, the lesbian half-sister of the House speaker. Oddly enough, with the exception of Newt, the other family members pronounce their surname as "Gingrick." Mom says she doesn't know where she went wrong raising her son. She never taught him that hate was a family value.
Candace said her mother asked her on the morning of the protest by telephone to "be nice to your brother." (Mom really needs to have a talk with her baby Newt.) "I'll be 'nice' to my brother," Candace relayed, "and the GOP when they start being nice to immigrants ... the poor ... people with HIV and AIDS ... people of color ... and women. I refuse to be nice to them until they start being nice to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people," Gingrich said. In her rallying speech she also spoke out about the GOP's stance against same-gender marriages.
Two remarkable incidents occurred on our way back from the protest site at 4th and "K." First, during our long walk back to our minivan, we literally bumped into Ralph Reed of The Christian Coalition! Mario wildly waved a huge sign in front of him from the Human Rights Campaign which Candace Gingrich gave us and shouted, "GAY RIGHTS NOW, RALPH REED!!!" Long, sleek, baby-faced Reed, never looked Mario in the eye, but was clearly shaken. Instead, he picked up the pace of his already good clip and continued to slither southward toward the sanctity of the Convention Center. It was electrifying.
As if that wasn't enough, soon after the Ralph Reed incident, we witnessed an elderly man in a wheelchair (who was also a Republican Delegate, according to his badge), attempt to cross a busy downtown street. Suddenly, the front wheels on his wheelchair hit a rut in the curb cutout causing him to be thrust forward out of his wheelchair. He experienced a spectacular fall where his buttocks met the pavement of the street. The man was not injured.
Along with the help of two other protesters, Mario instinctively rushed to the Delegate's aid, lifting him back into his wheelchair. Clearly, the Delegate was embarrassed yet grateful that a bunch of queers came so quickly to his rescue. A do-nothing crowd of other able-bodied Republicans in $500 suits looked on but extended no physical assistance. Need I say more? The man never said 'thank you,' but commented, "I've been doing this for nineteen years and that has never happened to me before!"
In retrospect I wondered exactly what he meant: Did he mean that in the past 19 years, he never fell out of his wheelchair during a Republican Convention? Or, perhaps he meant that in 19 years, he never had to rely on the assistance of queers? It seemed so typical for Republicans simply to stand around and gawk and talk while liberal gay Democrats moved into action to do a job and fill a need -- no questions asked; no fear of litigious Good Samaritan reprisals -- .Sorry to transgress in a string of political rhetoric and cynical metaphors, but really now -- what can one say?
Event organizers said that the LGBT VOICES '96 March and Rally was the largest single protest of its kind ever assembled at a political convention. San Diego Police said they did a headcount and arrived at a figure of around 2,000 activists, while the ultra-conservative San Diego Union Tribune pegged the number at around 400 to 1,000 participants. Despite whose count you believe, it doesn't include the hundreds of spectators and supporters who lined the streets for blocks all along the march route cheering us on, many of whom were waving their own signs supporting immigrants' rights and pro-choice issues. I was surprised only a handful "fundies" carried signs saying that we were all going to burn in hell and the like. There was one disturbing billboard in town that was against the GOP's platform against same-gender marriage which was vandalized with red paint, replacing the word 'gay' with 'faggots.'
All in all, it was a remarkably successful event, although I would have liked to have seen more press coverage. Apparently the mainstream media didn't want to do anything to upstage the Republicans -- or cause them to awaken from their comas.