I waded into a cool sea of 200 souls downtown, a caffeinated collection gathered to chat about the movement on Saturday morning – some in town for the White House Correspondents Dinner. Okay, most were white men with privilege to check, but other than that, the room was right on the progressive edge. The energized sound of speakers voices as one after another engaged with the throng in short staccato sessions was striking and I'll tell you why: The gay rights movement is about the only winning social movement in town and country these days. Just ask Randi Weingarten, the head of the teachers union, she's over there.
Cynthia Nixon, the "Sex in the City" actress, and Bishop Gene Robinson (the first openly gay Episcopal Bishop) provided some of the star power, but this event was more free-for-all than tightly scripted. Welcome to The Atlantic and National Journal's LGBT@WHCD editorial briefing – or was it a debriefing? "It's a grassroots D.C. confab," said Steve Clemons, who pulled the thing together in five days. Clemons is the Washington editor-at-large for both magazines. Standing over six feet, he sported an apron as if the ideas up in the air were still being cooked. "Everyone's surprised at the power of this."
Gay rights, especially the drive for same-sex marriages, have made remarkable concrete gains in a short time in the letter of state laws. By that I mean in the five or six years of Barack Obama's presidency, during which he lifted the ban on gays in the military. Meanwhile, Obama, who gave same-sex marriage a lukewarm endorsement, has neither helped nor hurt the cause, but a true flowering across the land has happened on his watch. I believe journalism played its part, namely The New York Times wedding pages were a bit ahead of the times, so to speak.
Indeed, the hum of "my husband" and "my wife" in introductions and conversation are testament to a vast sea change that came without an elected political leader at the helm; without a clerical or spiritual leader parting the waters; without one singular figure identified with the gay marriage movement over time. Not David Geffen, Larry Kramer nor Andrew Sullivan, and certainly not Ted Olson. (Like Lady Macbeth, not even great Neptune's ocean will help Olson wash his hand clean of Bush v. Gore.) In Congress, the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was one of the earliest champions for legislating gay rights and warmly welcomed gay supporters.
The fact that this frontier of human rights is advancing so quickly in communities, cities and states without the traditional model of central leadership makes it all the more powerful and insurmountable. To borrow a phrase from the civil rights movement, we are face-to-face with "an idea whose time has come." (Sen. Everett Dirksen, 1964). Broad-based nonviolent social change – politics that gets personal – is a force that wins the day in the end.
And I, who used to cover neighborhood activists and meetings for the Baltimore Sun , I know a good upbeat community meeting when I see one. "The optimism and excitement clearly smells of victory on the horizon," Aisha Moodie-Mills said as the morning dialogue wrapped up. A senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who hosts "Politini," a radio talk show, she added, "Solving marriage equality is not a silver bullet."
Criminal justice reform, homeless youth, poverty and income inequality are among other difficult issues to confront, Moodie-Mills said.
Allyson Dylan Robinson, founder of Warrior Poet Strategies, said ending employment discrimination is the major challenge she sees ahead, and not just changing laws, but changing culture. That was when I sobered up from the caffeine vibe. Expanding military and marriage laws is great progress, but not the end of the day. Not everybody wants to get married and not everybody wants to join the army. The workplace is the most comprehensive area of our common lot and lives as Americans.
"What I take away is that this creative conversation (on the future) is more important," Robinson said, "while we're on the verge of achieving marriage equality within a decade."
Clemons, impresario of ideas and speakers, shared in the mixed emotions of the event. "There are real struggles, so this is not a celebration," he said afterward. "The structure allowed us all to step away from talking points, and there's a lot more to be discussed outside D.C."
But say, compared to causes like the Senate Democrats' failed effort to raise the minimum wage or to pass a gun control bill, this human rights movement is actually moving. Much like relationships, movements can't stay in one place. Forward, forward – it's the state motto in Wisconsin, the state that sent the first openly gay senator to Washington. And she's a woman, too. Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin is not a face of the future, she is a face for right now.