Politicking in D.C.
Village Voice, May 11, 1993

"Queer Eyes/Queer-ize"--the Arts Contingent for the March on Washington's slogan--resonated with me and my chums. (Queer-ize as an revolutionize, terrorize, or--remember this one?--Martinize.) Queer eyes in D.C. were simultaneously trained outward on lawmakers and media, and inward on our own communities. Events that ran the gamut from a group wedding at the IRS and the all-day dragfest, to ACT UP's hands-around-the-Capitol demo and reunion of African American vets made the weekend a joyful celebration of homo life and a ringing call for equality. The arts, not incidentally, were at its center.

The Arts Contingent for the March on Washington (ACMOW)--like so many other groups--lobbied furiously during the days preceding the April 25 March. On April 22, a small ACMOW-organized delegation met with National Endowment for the Arts's acting chair, Anna Steele, deputy director of programs A. B. Spellman, and support staffers. Participants characterized the meeting in positive terms ranging from Roberto Bedoya's "Okay" (he's president of the National Association of Artists Organizations) to ACMOW co-coordinator (and veteran lesbian lobbyist) Shannon Thomas Kennedy's "It was the best Washington meeting I've had in the last two years." What matters, of course, is the NEA's follow-through. Steele heeded a suggestion to send a letter to the upcoming ACMOW town-hall meeting on the day of the march (it was a far warmer missive than Bill Clinton's arms-length message to marchers.) More important, Spellman said he had "no problem" recommending that a policy panel consider revamping the Expansion Arts Program's definition of multiculturalism to include not just ethnicity but sexual orientation.

On April 23, ACMOW held an unprecedented briefing session (that I sat in on) with Rocco Claps, the gay/lesbian liaison to the Democratic National Committee. Claps cheered the group when he noted that DNC staffers report to the White House and astonished us with the news that the DNC had never before met with an arts delegation. "It's an important sign that the DNC is paying me to be here," he commented. Claps, in turn, heard about the centrality of queer-art concerns to any progressive agenda. (The Clinton justice department's incomprehensible pursuit of the NEA 4 appeal, for instance, threatens every American's First Amendment rights.) The fundamental lesson of the week's politicking began to emerge: Despite an infrastructure of well-funded, national (mainstream) arts organizations, arts priorities are as marginalized as gay and lesbian concerns in Washington.

This lesson was played out at the ACMOW town-hall meeting of about 100 enthusiastic artist-citizens at the Corcoran Gallery of Art on the morning of the march. No consensus emerged for organizing a new (and expensive) national queer-arts organization--nor was one sought. Instead, participants opted for bringing our concerns to existing gay and nongay networks and organizations. As Kennedy noted, "art can no longer be the gap in gay lobbying." NEA 4 pro bono attorney Mary Dorman--part of the legal team facing a June deadline in the government's appeal--proclaimed to tumultuous applause that "we're the cutting edge of advocacy and the struggle for the freedom of expression...Clinton is doing nothing for the arts."


The key role that the arts play in gay culture was reflected in the organization of the march-day rally--a nonhierarchical showcase of intertwined high, popular, and political cultures. British actor Ian McKellen followed tennis great Martina Navratilova and Teddy Kennedy; the late poet Audre Lorde (on film) preceded singer Holly Near and Jesse Jackson.

The arts and political components of many of the weekend's exhibitions and events were just as tightly knit. The Gay & Lesbian Histories Exhibit at the Stables Art Center featured artifacts form 11 organizations including the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum and the Lesbian Herstory Archives. If the show's homo zeal is sometimes excessive, the One in Ten group that organized it certainly deserves encouragement for its new and daunting enterprise: the creation of a national, queer history museum. (One in Ten can be reached at 202-319-7208.)

Every regular newspaper reader knows that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened to the press and glitterati during the week before the march (and to the public the day after). This state-of-the-art history museum exhaustively tells its tale not through artifacts, but primarily through video, film, and photo blowup. Coupled with the brilliantly expressive, industrial-looking architecture, this sense of technological reproduction--and endlessly reproducible death--is overwhelming.

But there are problems, among them the scant attention paid to homosexuals exterminated by the Nazis. (Others include the sometimes banal exterior architecture, the ponderously decorative, commissioned artworks by Ellsworth Kelly, Sol LeWitt, et al., and the unacknowledged rip-offs of installation artists like Christian Boltanski and architect Maya Lin for the museum's most visually striking exhibits.) During my three-hour visit, I counted a mere 13 lines of text--out of thousands--devoted to homosexuals. This issue was addressed at a candlelit "Holocaust Remembrance Ritual" across the street from the museum at sunset on April 23. Museum staffer Rabbi Michael Berenbaum acknowledge the "inadequacy" of the museum's portrayal of gays and lesbians, but attributed it to ongoing homosexual persecution and to the related lack of documents and artifacts. (So why not post this explanation on the wall?) Klaus Muller--a German research consultant at the museum--presented six, sometimes very sketchy portraits of gay and lesbian Holocaust victims that also belied Berenbaum's assertion. The sketchiest of them was Elsa S. "We know nothing about her," Muller told the hushed crowd. "Except that she was a waitress, a lesbian, and that she was sent to the camps when she was 26."

Contemporary causes of death, too, were present throughout the weekend. Recently completed panels from the NAMES Project Quilt were displayed on the mall, along with a new format for preserving handwritten messages about the deceased on cloth panels. Washington Project for the Arts hosted a festive April 23 benefit for the Whitman-Walker Clinic inside its wide-ranging, 26-artist show, Beyond Loss: Art in the Era of AIDS, and for me, the march weekend's most moving event was one staged in a cemetery.

Congressional Cemetery, the first national burial ground, was the site of the Never Forget foundation's April 24 tribute to illustrious homos past and present. It's where out servicemen and AIDS spokesman Leonard Matlovich is buried (his tombstones reads: "They Gave Me a Medal for Killing Two Men/And a Discharge for Loving One") and it's where a memorial to Harvey Milk will stand. Architect Joseph Mancuso's competition-winning design for the memorial was unveiled at the end of the program. Subtly evoking a closet, it will bear--after the necessary $100,000 is raised--the slain San Francisco supervisor's words: "If a bullet should enter my brain, let it destroy every closet door."

Foundation cofounder Ken McPherson also announced that an Audre Lorde memorial is next on Never Forget's agenda. (McPherson vividly described the organization's mandate as "in your face in stone.") Past and future were coupled again in a moving tribute to San Francisco Supervisor Roberta Achtenberg--the designate for deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who will be the nation's highest uncloseted official. But, oddly enough, that drizzly afternoon lingers in the memory like a scene painted by Norman Rockwell. As a color guard of gay American Legionnaires and vets marched briskly beneath the flowering dogwood, time seemed to stop.

© 2002