'We Are Students for Equality'

October 12, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Thousands of students from hundreds of colleges converged here Saturday and Sunday for the National Equality March, the first national protest for gay rights in more than a decade.

Students from as far away as the University of Southern California and as close as George Washington University put down their books, rescheduled midterm exams and skipped team practices to bring student voices to the calls for same-sex marriage and an end to the military’s ban on openly gay service members.

Photo: Jennifer Epstein

On Sunday afternoon, tens of thousands of people marched from the White House to the Capitol to hear speeches from organizers and activists (and a few celebrities, including pop star Lady Gaga). Nicole-Murray Ramirez, a longtime activist and march co-chair, told the crowd that “a sleeping giant has woken among us – GLBT youth and students. Stop telling our youth that they are our future, for they are our here and now. Indeed, the torch of activism and, yes, leadership has been passed on to a new generation … you are charged with fulfilling the dream and fighting for equality.”

Richard Aviles, a freshman at St. Olaf College, spoke on behalf of student organizers, encouraging young people to be comfortable with who they are. “You have a brother at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota,” he said. Students from the State University of New York at Binghamton and Western Kentucky University also spoke.

Before the march, hundreds of students gathered Sunday morning at the Ellipse, just south of the White House, to walk over to McPherson Square, where the official procession began. “Be sure to wear your school shirts and colors!” one note to participants said, and many did. Students decked out in the University of Michigan’s blue and maize said that more than 60 had traveled together from Ann Arbor. More than 200 came from Georgetown University. A handful drove down from Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa.

Photo: Jennifer Epstein

“We’re part of a movement that’s been going on for a long time but that most students haven’t had a chance to be part of,” said David Valk, national student outreach coordinator for the march. “They’re experiencing that feeling of getting in the streets and protesting … all of these kids here are going to go back home, back to their colleges and take action.”

He added: “We are the new generation, the next generation.”

In the months leading up to the march, Valk, who graduated earlier this year from the University of California at Los Angeles, collected signatures and statements of support from student leaders at dozens of institutions ranging from Westminster College of Salt Lake City, Utah, to Yale University. In “Call to Action,” the leaders asked “students, no matter their sexual orientation, to organize buses, planes and trains, so we may express our unity and unwavering commitment to freedom and equality.”

Bellarmine University students Matt Livers, a junior, and Ari Ballaban, a senior, drove nine hours Sunday morning from Louisville, Ky., because, Livers said, they wanted to “support the cause.” He added that though their institution is “a small, private, Catholic university, the community is very inclusive of LGBT people, for whatever reason.”

Brandon Gaca, a sophomore at Indiana University at Bloomington, said his campus is a haven in the midst of “a state and a community that’s pretty conservative.” He said there are many student groups to serve LGBT students and their allies.

Gaca was at the protest Sunday with several students he met through the Tumblr blogging platform, including Andrew Wojtek, a senior at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md. Wojtek said he is “the only openly gay student” among the institution’s 1600 undergraduates; he networks with people at other colleges to meet other gay students.

Because he is the only openly gay student there, Wojtek said, there is no campus LGBT organization and the allies group is “pretty lame, only like five people; I’m not in it myself because it’s so small.” Even so, he added, “it’s not hard for me to be gay on campus.”

Rallying for the Troops

A text message went out to students just before 1 p.m. on Saturday: “ATTN!! FLASH PROTESTS IN DC!! MEET @ WASHINGTON MONUMENT … 3PM. END DONT ASK DONT TELL!”

By 4 p.m., a few hundred students from Ohio University, American University and Texas Women’s University, among other institutions, had gathered at the foot of the monument. After speeches and chants, organizers passed around rolls of gray duct tape and asked students to cover their mouths. “We are silent because they are silent,” Valk told the crowd, invoking the members of the U.S. armed forces who are discharged or choose not to reenlist because of the military’s ban on openly gay service members. "We are students for equality."

Photo: Jennifer Epstein

Silent or clapping, the group blocked traffic as it walked slowly down 15th Street and turned left on Pennsylvania Avenue. At the White House, the procession stopped, students removed the tape from their mouths and screamed. Valk and other leaders of the procession addressed their chants to President Obama, calling for him to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and take other actions in support of gay Americans.

The group then continued on to George Washington University’s Kogan Plaza, where a series of speakers addressed the students.

One was Todd Belok, a sophomore at GW, who was kicked out of Navy ROTC there last year after two fellow midshipmen told their commander “they saw me kissing someone – my boyfriend.”

Photo: Jennifer Epstein

Belok's story has encouraged his peers to be vocal in protesting "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" over the last few months. Michael Komo, a junior who is president of the university's LGBT group Allied in Pride, had planned to hold a protest for GW students this weekend before realizing "the great chance we had to get folks from out of town to be a part of what we're doing."

Many GW students, he added, were hosting students visiting for the march. "It's a way for us to contribute," he said, but he also urged students to go back to their own colleges to call for gay rights. “Thanks for making it strong at our school. Now go make it strong at your school.”

Organizing on Campus

Whether it’s easy or difficult to be gay on their own campuses, many students look to social or political LGBT groups for a sense of community.

A few dozen campus leaders – or students hoping to establish groups and become leaders – headed to a church in a residential area of Washington on Saturday afternoon for “How to Organize on Campus: Tips for Effective Organizing on College Campuses,” a workshop where successful leaders spoke about their efforts and a few students sought help in building their own organizations.

One panelist was Brendan Davis, who graduated from Emerson College last spring and now works for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Davis said he struggled to organize LGBT events on campus because the campus was so open. “You’d think it’d be really easy but it wasn’t. People thought there was no need for us, so we really had to work hard to come up with activities we could get people to go to.”

Indiana State University students Colin Hammar and Jordan Toy created Advocates for Equality, a group for gay students and allies, at their Terra Haute campus last year. They work without administration support or a budget and organize “events that cost no money,” Hammar said, sometimes taking cash from their own wallets to pay for food at meetings.

Sylvain Bruni, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, talked about his experience working with a bigger budget and administration support. “We go to as many offices and departments as we can, apply for grants, to be able to do our events,” he said. A few years ago, MIT’s annual drag ball cost $15,000. More recently, though, the campus’ LGBT groups spent $50,000 and brought in comedian Margaret Cho.

Ten students from Queens University in Charlotte, N.C., traveled to Washington for the march. They went to Saturday’s event in search of help building a campus group, even as one of their leaders is “still closeted to some people on campus,” he said, and “the university is really not supportive of us.”

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