Low numbers hinder Chicago delegation of simultaneous worldwide LGBT marches

Photo: Cody Davis

Low turnout beset the Chicago contingent of the simultaneous 2012 Worldwide Civil Rights March.

Participants met Saturday at Pritzker Park on the corner of Van Buren and State streets at noon with reporters and journalism students nearly outnumbering activists and marchers for the first half hour. During the kickoff speeches there were about 55 people, with at least 15 there in a journalistic capacity, photographing, videotaping or furiously taking notes.

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March organizer Noa Shayden told the Chicago Phoenix that ze (preferred pronoun) had expected between 200 and 300 people to attend given the response via Facebook and other attention the march had received in local media. Immediately before the event, 160 people had responded as “going” to the Facebook event and 93 had said “maybe.”

One of the marchers, Tyler Walden, a junior studying environmental studies at DePaul University, said a friend he knows through an anti-capitalist coalition invited him via Facebook. Walden said he wished more young people understood the importance of turning out to marches and other public displays of protest.

“They think saying that they’re going on Facebook is the same thing as actually going but it’s not,” Walden said. “They need to realize going out and doing something is more important than clicking ‘like’ or ‘maybe.’”

Shayden said ze felt apathy through Facebook played into the low numbers. Facebook also recently changed its events, removing the feature that allowed event hosts to send reminder messages in advance.

Andy Thayer, who helped organize, said before the rally that Facebook had helped reach more people but that you can only take Facebook RSVPs “with a grain of salt.”

“When I started organizing, we were typing mailers with typewriters onto 3-by-5 cards,” said Thayer, one of the founders of the Chicago-based Gay Liberation Network. “The internet has made it easier and lessened the expense of reaching people.”

New York, Washington D.C., Portland and Atlanta were among the 21 other U.S. cities holding marches and community events Saturday as a part of the “Let’s Reach 1 Million People Campaign.” Marches were also planned in Europe, Africa and Asia. The purpose of the marches was to unify the LGBT community in a demand for equality. Individual marches intended to address specific concerns of the local community.

The campaign and its marches were initiated by Oklahoma City gay activist Joe Knudson and mobilized, at first, primarily through Facebook. The Washington Blade reported in January that all but one of the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy organizations were unaware of the marches.

Comments in the main movement’s Facebook group noted poor turnout in Washington D.C. as well.

James Vivian, the national movement’s chief operating officer, posted Saturday afternoon on Facebook that a small turnout  “doesn’t necessarily inhibit progress and advancements that are made by the grass roots action taken.”

Vivian’s post continued to criticize large LGBT organizations that “are taking care of their big fat paychecks and dragging out progress so their big fat paychecks will keep coming.”

“We will continue to advocate here and grow our grassroots movement and our marches will grow year after year,” Vivian said.

The Chicago march kicked off with disparate remarks by Thayer who called for justice in many international arenas including the plight of Army Pvt. First Class Bradley Manning who is accused of illegally obtaining and leaking classified military and government documents to Wikileaks. Manning’s lawyers have identified him as gay and possibly transgender, preferring the name “Breanna.” Thayer also spoke to the State Department’s support of countries that are violent towards LGBT people and the need for full legal equality in the United States and LGBT-affirming education in public schools.

Thayer then introduced the self-proclaimed shyer Shayden, who spoke about the need to create safe spaces using the shooting of transwoman Paige Clay last Monday and the police’s investigation as an example.

The march then moved north along State Street to Washington, where marchers headed east to Michigan Avenue and then north to Oak Street. Organizers decided not to apply for a permit with the city after the ordinance changes Mayor Rahm Emanuel endorsed in advance of the NATO summit in May to more forcefully control protests. Organizers kept the march on the sidewalk and obeyed traffic signals.

As marchers reached the Magnificent Mile they began to chant “Out of the stores and into the streets,” bewildering some Saturday shoppers weighed down with Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus shopping bags. Others were clearly supportive. One young woman yelled, “Wooh, I support you!” And an elderly woman crossing the street with a walker raised her hand in support as marchers moved past.

The march ended next to the entrance to Oak Street Beach with an opportunity for community members to speak with the bullhorn. Marchers spoke of state budget cuts to HIV-prevention program and Emanuel’s plans to close mental health centers across the city.

This was Shayden’s first experience organizing a march. Ze currently organizes with Genderqueer Chicago.

“Marches are hard to organize,” Shayden said. “Planning it from the ground up, planting that seed and fostering it is really difficult.

Shayden said there was power in organizing simultaneous events.

“The fact that people from all over organized on the same day, that image is really powerful,” ze said.

The Chicago Police Department also expected a larger turnout. Five police vehicles, a mix of sedans and SUVs lined the middle lane of State Street, just north of Van Buren. Ten officers were in Pritzker Park as marchers and organizers gathered at noon. As the march moved north through the Loop and along the Magnificent Mile, an officer walked in front of protesters and another followed up in the rear. A police SUV drove in the right lane of Michigan Avenue along the side of marchers for the duration.

Facebook invitees continued to post on the Chicago event page Saturday. At 4:38 p.m., a Mathew Stephen posted, “Shit, so I totally missed my alarm for this today. More power to those of you who went, and thanks!”