Militant Marketing March

Corporate America is herding thousands of gays, lesbians, and other gender outlaws into DC on April 30 for the latest March on Washington. Is the event really about social change, or mass-marketing?


“We’re a movement, not a market!” a street full of women-lovin’ women chanted at last summer’s San Francisco Dyke March.

Don’t be so sure, ladies.

Judging by the advance materials for the upcoming April 30 Millennium March on Washington, gays and lesbians are high on corporate America’s ass-kissing list. Companies such as United Airlines, America Online, and DuPont Pharmaceuticals are showering hundreds of thousands of dollars on the event to ingratiate themselves to queers.

Meanwhile, unlike both previous gay marches on Washington, this one is pushing no political agenda at all in this city of influence. So what’s the point?

Perhaps the march’s website (hosted by “Presenting Sponsor” PlanetOut.com) puts it best: “Corporate sponsorship of the Millennium March on Washington offers extraordinary visibility, promotional and brand-building opportunities to companies looking to reach the affluent and loyal gay/lesbian market through the largest community event in history.”

“It’s an outrage!” foams Steve Ault, a national coordinator of both the 1979 and 1987 marches on Washington. “This is what we’ve turned into 30 years after Stonewall? We’re described as this commodity? We’re being sold?”

Apparently, yes. If you’re a marchgoer, United Airlines, “Official Airline of the March,” is ready to offer you “super service and a great fare” when you mention the march on a toll-free number. That’s the same United that was, until recently, being bitterly boycotted for denying employees domestic partner benefits. A month in advance, the “great fare” from San Francisco to DC was $543.42 per person.

The MMOW organizers who arranged this sponsorship extravaganza, will receive “hotel commissions” from its hospitality partners: local DC hotels like the Wyndham City Center, the Omni Shoreham, and the Crown Plaza.

“Does it all come down to dollars? Will the next event be brought to us by whoever’s out of favor with the LBGT community to rehabilitate their image?” asks Nadine Smith, director of Equality Florida and co-chair of the 1993 march.

What’s a grassroots queer to do? These days, capitalism is in, and being oppressed is o-v-e-r.

Martín Ornelas-Quintero of the Latino/a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Organization (LLEGÓ), a staunch supporter of the Millenium March, insists corporate sponsorship isn’t necessarily bad. “We’ve never been in a position before to enter into corporate support,” he says. “That’s no reason not to do it. We just know that times change.”

“It’s hard to be a purist given the fiscal realities of being an organizer,” says queer activist and author Urvashi Vaid. “Everything we do depends on money. I’m not so disdainful of underwriting because the right wing has had it for years.” The annual AIDS Rides — fundraising bicycle marathons from New York-to-Boston, San Francisco-to-Los Angeles and elsewhere — raise millions of dollars annually for GLBT health centers, Vaid notes, and they’re sponsored by gin maker Tanqueray. (There has, however, been considerable controversy over how much of the money actually raised for the AIDS rides winds up in the pockets of organizers.)

Vaid remains cynical about corporate motives. “I don’t read sponsorships automatically as a sign of anything more than people recognizing there’s money to be made out of our niche.”

Why, exactly, gender outlaws are supposed to be marching right now anyway is unclear. This will be the first GLBT March on Washington with exactly zero political demands, eerily reminiscent of its new-media sponsors’ business MO: ever higher buzz-to-substance ratios.

“A march on Washington is a very special tool. It can have enormous impact, but you don’t do it readily,” says Ault. “The Millennium March is artificial. There is no compelling reason to march on Washington at this time.”

The march has also been bedevilled by controversy over how it was organized, with grassroots groups accusing the DC-based leadership of leaving them out of the planning. Some prominent groups are unmistakably snubbing the march. ACT-UP New York, for example, sent a busload of activists to the upcoming World Bank/IMF protests in mid-April — but will boycott the MMOW.

Still, plenty of queers will show up on April 30. Estimates from both sides of the debate put attendance at several hundred thousand. That would make it about the same size people-wise as previous marches — but political success is another matter.

“I think people are going for the parties and the rock concert but not for the politics,” Vaid says. Even so, attorney Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights points out, “If you can mobilize half a million people to converge in one place, that can’t help but create a momentum for social change.”

Whatever the outcome, scoring corporate support on the scale of the Millenium March is a coup of some sort for queers. But it raises a troubling question that won’t go away as the GLBT movement forays further into realpolitik: Are queers subverting capitalism? Or is it the other way around?