Sunday morning, I woke up at 5:15 am, got dressed in the dark, and slogged my way through the chilly October air to the bottom of campus. There were already at least thirty of my classmates, loudly clad in our school colors of orange and black, huddled in small groups and talking surprisingly cheerfully for the early hour. A few people were snapping pictures. Donuts were going around. Over the course of the next twenty minutes, forty more bleary-eyed college students arrived. A bus pulled up, and people began to pile on.
Normally, I can’t imagine a scenario that would tempt ten Princeton students to wakefulness at 6 am on a Sunday, much less seventy. But yesterday was different. It was, as you may know, the day of the National March for Equality in Washington, D.C., an event that was, according to the New York Times, “primarily the undertaking of a new generation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocates who have grown disillusioned with the movement’s leadership.”
The day, for me, was transformative. I am a junior at Princeton University, a school that has been a complex source of joy, frustration and anger over the past two years. My time at Princeton has changed me from a passive liberal to a passionate radical progressive, obsessed with feminism, women’s rights, and gender issues. I never thought, before I came to college, that I would consider activism to be my primary passion. But attending a privileged and conservative Ivy League school, still steeped in the apathy and exclusivity of the past, will do miraculous things – and so I don’t mind for the most part that I’m one of the few activists on campus. But it’s a lonely experience too. My experiences with activism energized but also jaded me – I couldn’t see what would force Princeton students, or anyone my age, to care.
Yesterday changed the way I see my classmates and my generation. I stood in a crowd of tens of thousands of people in their 20′s and 30′s, all holding signs and screaming. We lost our voices. We got blisters. I talked to people who had traveled over 20 hours from Wisconsin, and others who had come from California. The exhilaration in the Princeton group was palpable – sporting signs that said, “Even Princeton” and “Princeton Pride”, we marched behind a Princeton banner, in a sea of bright orange t-shirts and umbrellas. This is from a campus that never sees protests, where a walk-out would be unthinkable. And suddenly, it became evident that we all did care – that we were all in this together, with the thousands upon thousands of others who were also tired of waiting for equality. It was the most incredible high. We – the generation who didn’t care, the privileged, apathetic students from the ivory tower – were there, in the streets, fighting for what was right.
When I got home, I read the NYT coverage of the march. Last week, Representative Barney Frank called the event “emotional satisfaction” for the organizers, and said derisively that we were going to put more pressure “on the grass” than on Obama. Others in gay political circles argued that it was hastily planned and executed, a diversion of energy from state political campaigns. In a speech the night before the march, President Obama once again promised to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” but gave no sense of a timeline; he made no mention of marriage equality.
And certainly, disillusionment with Obama is one reason that I was in the streets – although I personally have mixed feelings about marriage as a rallying point, it has become too symbolically important to be ignored, and Obama has continued to distance himself from the LGBT communities who helped to elect him. There was a loud cheer at the rally yesterday when Billie Myers, a musician, speaking to a crowd a crowd on the West Lawn of the Capitol, said, “I’m sorry, [Obama], but I didn’t like your speech.”
But I also have something to say to Representative Frank, and all the other activists and organizers who said that this march would do nothing. In my few years of activism, I have experienced ageism and significant intolerance of the voices of youth. We are called frivolous and apathetic – and I think those indictments are sometimes self-fulfilling prophecies. But the voices of tens of thousands of youth, marching with people of all ages, genders, sexualities, races, and religions, spoke loudly, saying that the time for change is now.
The legislative battles will continue, the lobbyists will continue to pressure politicians, and there will always be activists working to gently steer the system in the direction of justice. But sometimes the activist movements of the United States need to open their arms. They need to have opportunities like this, where thousands and thousands of people can publicly condemn inequality. There is more than one way to care about an issue – and more than one way to support a cause. Yesterday was powerful beyond anything I could have expected. Civil rights can be a rallying point for a generation that is sometimes cynical and uncertain – I know that we care, but many times we don’t know how to show it. Yesterday, we did. And we can – and will – do it again.
Photo courtesy of Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux.