Whose Faith?

A million people pack onto the Capitol mall to display their dedication to faith and family. Through the loudspeakers come the insistent words of an evangelical minister, one of the chief organizers of the event: "This is our flag! This is our military! This is our nation's promise! This is our life!" Another prayerfest of the Promise Keepers? How about the next national gay rights march? You read right.

A few months ago, the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, the nation's largest gay Christian denomination—with 225,000 members—and the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights lobby, announced joint plans to produce the "Millennium March for Equality" in April 2000. This will likely be a very different event from the three previous gay marches on Washington (in 1979, '87, and '93), if only because it is meant to showcase gay expressions of "faith and family." Those loudspeaker words quoted above come from a public statement defending the concept by MCC's founder, the Reverend Troy Perry.

"At this march," Perry explains, "we want to show Middle America that we're mature people who work, just like them. This is our country and we pay our taxes. So we can't have men pulling their penises out at our demonstrations or our sisters removing their breasts from their blouses. Our fight is about much more than that."

There's no question that queer culture has saturated Middle America. Is there a fifth-grade boy who isn't pierced? A granny who doesn't love drag shows? A sitcom without a wisecracking fag? But the seepage leaks both ways. The gay movement is changing as it meets the mainstream, and the Millennium March is a powerful sign that at least one faction wants to swim along with the compelling and comforting tide of "family values."

That's why, ever since MCC and HRC issued a press release in March announcing the event—without having seriously consulted any other gay groups—they have been accused of hijacking the movement. For months, recriminations have blazed over e-mail and in the gay press. An ad hoc committee made up of many veteran activists has condemned the march's "exclusionary tactics" and demanded an open process, relying more on the democratic and diverse structures that planned the other queer convergences. "This might seem like it's just a few people squabbling," says Mandy Carter of the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum, "but it's much bigger than that. This is a defining moment for our movement."

In fact, there hasn't been as deep an ideological rift in the gay movement since 1969, when the Gay Activist Alliance was founded to promote an exclusive gay rights agenda, in contrast to the Gay Liberation Front, which opposed the Vietnam War and supported the Black Panthers as integral parts of its own struggle. Ever since then, the conflict between liberation and assimilation has remained front and center in gay politics. As the country tilts rightward, the assimilationist agenda has become dominant, some would say hegemonic. With the Millennium March, this wing of the movement is ready to make the essential assimilationist gesture: stigmatizing queer sexuality. Just as gay sensibility goes mainstream, the march's organizers assert, it's time for gay liberation to go to church.

Not that an mcc/hrc press release acknowledges the many churches—or mosques, synagogues, ashrams, Radical Faerie Circles—gay people go to, or even that many go nowhere at all. Instead, the organizers justify the march's theme by explaining that "many of us are returning to the churches of our youth." But as Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz points out in a recent issue of Gay Community News devoted to the march controversy, the very concept of millennium (the 2000th anno Domini) isn't exactly ecumenical—or benign. Leaping aboard that bandwagon, she writes, the gay movement risks joining the American presumption that "faith, morality, and goodness are christian."

Besides, queer folks aren't just returning to their faiths—they're remaking them, and inventing new ones. Ditto for the ways we've reconfigured family and created a range of affectional networks. Reaching people through the communities and values they hold dear is just plain good organizing. But to build a movement on the basis of baby raising or belief is another kind of politics altogether: It's called fundamentalism.

March organizers defend their sectarian approach by invoking the role of the black church in the civil rights movement. But they've got it backwards. African Americans didn't march on Selma to prove that they loved Jesus as much as white folks; that wasn't the moral basis of their claim to equality. Rather, their community institutions gave them the cohesion, courage, and even the imagery to confront secular issues on secular terms. The text to which they appealed for voting rights or desegregation was, appropriately, the U.S. Constitution.

The Christian movements of the '90s, on the other hand, turn political rallies into revival meetings, making demands not on the state, but on the demonstrators themselves. When Perry insists that those tits and weenies be kept out of sight, he's not only trying to control the iconography of an essentially symbolic politics. He's asserting that there are rules of conduct for members of the fold—sins to atone for, promises to keep. Hide those metonyms for wild creativity, boundary bashing, and joy in our bodies—queer liberation's gifts to the world. Instead, Perry exults, "We're going to put our children onstage!"

What can the rest of us do? Offer the Farrakhan defense and go along for the ride by noting that the folks who show up at the Millennium March will come to be queer in the capital and not to hear the rhetoric from the podium? Organize counterdemos? Stay home and work on state and city legislatures, where the laws affecting us are actually being made? (One such project is being planned for 1999.) It remains to be seen how the gay movement's broad-based left will respond.

Some activists are determined to fight their way onto the organizing committee and make the march more inclusive, its messages more nuanced. But no matter how good their skills and how noble their intentions, if the march plays as being about queers congregating to do penance for wayward penises while seeking blessings for our burgeoning broods, the gay movement will be doing the work of this country's right.

Just the other day, there was a piece favoring gay marriage on The Wall Street Journal's op-ed page, not a venue known for its love of queers. Its reasoning? As long as gays can't marry but can receive domestic partnership benefits at work, unmarried straight couples will be able to sue for the same perks. Let queers marry, the Journal insists, so the rest of America will stop shacking up.

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