As co-director of the National March for Equality, Kip Williams invited the nation to march on Washington, D.C., on Oct. 11, demanding equal rights under federal law for our country’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender citizens.
And they came. Defying antagonists’ predictions—some of them made by old-school gay activists—and the planners’ wildest dreams, an estimated 200,000 people showed up, filling the West Capitol lawn, and spilling onto D.C. streets.
“I was up there getting ready to do part of the greeting, and we didn’t know if we had 5,000 or 100,000—I was praying for 25,000 people,” says Williams, a slight, fit young man with close-cropped dark hair and warm, flashing brown eyes. “I was watching backstage with my mother and sister, and saw the crowd pouring onto the Mall. We wanted to wait for the West Capitol lawn to be full before we started speaking. That happened, and we could still see people as far as the eye could see. Blocks and blocks and blocks of people. I got to ask, ‘Tell us, does this march matter?’ Hearing everyone explode with noise was just like, ‘We did it!’”
The cry came from citizens of Peoria and Poughkeepsie, San Francisco and Big Sur, New York, and New Haven. A few dozen were from Knoxville—like Williams himself. Yes, this charismatic, driven activist—a key force in pulling together the protest in six short months and on around a $200,000 budget—attended Karns High School and earned a degree in gender, sexuality, and creativity studies from the University of Tennessee in 2004 before moving to San Francisco in 2006. He came out in college, at age 19, a sour experience on some levels. “I was stereotyped as a pedophile at my church; people who had known me since I was 12, they basically told me, I wasn’t allowed to be alone with the church youth, and couldn’t be present at the meetings unless they knew a week ahead of time I was coming,” he says. “It was a big part of why I left the church.”
His Knoxville background both influenced and motivated Williams to seek to change LGBT rights on a federal—not state-by-state—level, a fact he referenced in a letter co-written with co-director Robin McGehee in response to a blog post from Toni Broaddus, Executive Director of the Equality Federation. “We have poured resources into certain battleground states, but we have ignored and under-resourced many of the states that most need help—states like Mississippi and Tennessee, who will not see real equality in the next three decades at this rate,” it stated. “As Southerners, born and raised in Mississippi and Tennessee, we are children of inequality states. We know the pain and demoralization of hard work at the local level in the conservative South.”
Williams also galvanized Knoxvillians to attend the march, some through phone calls and Facebook posts, but also with the help of his mother, Cheryl Williams, and sister, Lori Lesslie. The two women attended Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays meetings and took fliers to LGBT-friendly churches and UT student organizations. “We even fliered a gay bar—you’ve got to have a sense of humor!” says Cheryl.
She used to live in Karns but moved to West Knoxville 10 years ago, and says high-profile activism is just what she’s come to expect from her son over the years. “Since his teen years, I’ve really gotten used to his being the front-page story—handcuffed and paddy-wagoned for civil disobedience,” says Cheryl in a gentle, Southern drawl. “The first time was an ORNL protest, “Stop the Bombs!” He also did a peace walk from Oak Ridge to New York City. That was an awesome thing to do. More recently, his Facebook profile picture was of him being handcuffed in San Francisco, arrested in a protest over the recall of Proposition 8. I just commented, ‘This is the profile picture every mother wants to see.’”
For Lesslie, supporting Williams at the march was a departure from the norm. While Williams says she has always loved and supported him personally, his sister only embraced equal rights after “a transformative moment” three months ago. While it’s “ruffled a few feathers” at the church where she’s on staff, she’s now an emerging activist; attending the march was one of her first public affirmations.
At the event, Cheryl and Lesslie were minor celebrities in their own right, with a YouTube video of them entering the West lawn posted on the march website, being introduced to the crowd along with other grassroots organizers, and over-the-top LGBT activist Nicole Murray-Ramirez, aka Nicole the Great of the Imperial Court System in drag persona, naming Cheryl “Mother of the March.”
Not everyone in Knoxville is so accepting. The night before Cheryl left to go to D.C., for example, she posted a letter she’d written on the Equality Across America website as her Facebook status. Part of her letter reads, “Life was often difficult for my son, knowing at a young age that he was gay, and growing up where bigotry/Bible bigotry is prevalent and tolerated. He suffered the cruel and ignorant words and actions of many who deliberately intended to bruise his heart and dehumanize his soul.”
“When I posted it, I told my daughter, ‘Just watch, there will be people who drop me as a friend.’ Within two minutes, two people had unfriended me. There was a time that would have hurt, but now I just feel sorrow for them.”
Never Give Up
Williams’ Knoxville upbringing may also be the source of an Appalachian-variety hardheadedness, the will to push on when everyone, even long-time gay activists and presumed allies, discredit your mission and call for you to quit. “From the very beginning, the establishment organizations did not support the march,” says Williams in his plain-spoken way. He notes that none of the big, long-standing LGBT activist groups, like Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Task Force, provided financial support for the march. HRC did not endorse until Aug. 12, almost four months into planning, and the Task Force endorsed Sept. 3. “That was almost too late for people to make flight arrangements,” he says.
The social media that was such an apt tool to promote the march also publicized contrary viewpoints. “Long-time gay activists [like widely-read gay blogger Bil Browning] were saying on LGBT blogs that it was a stupid idea, that it was the wrong time, that no one would show up, that we should concentrate on the battles in Maine and Washington state, where they’re aiming to reverse laws like marriage rights for same-sex couples,” says Williams.
Some state leaders were also less than enthusiastic, with Lynne Bowman, executive director of Equality Ohio—which did not endorse the march—being quoted in The New York Times Oct. 10 saying, “I hope we don’t wake up the day after Election Day and realize we could have won Maine if only so many resources weren’t put toward the march.”
The first openly gay member of Congress, Barney Frank, also piled on, saying in an interview with Associated Press that he considered such demonstrations to be just “an emotional release” that would only put “pressure on the grass,” not Congress.
Williams was not deterred. “This march was called because we believe we need a new strategy and new message, not about individual state rights, but about uncompromising, full federal equality,” Williams says. “We’re not going to accept fractions of equality anymore.”
Williams is at the same time an unlikely leader for this march and an emblem of it. Only 27, he’s been out of school just five years, and while he’s a longtime activist, he’s held only a few paid positions, each lasting about six months or a year: online campaign strategist for Radical Designs; outreach and support manager for Democracy in Action; and online and technology coordinator for the League of Young Voters.
He respects the state initiatives and early pioneers that have inspired a handful of LGBT rights victories, but is not paralyzed by reverence, instead paraphrasing his mentor and march originator Cleve Jones: “Until we have intervention from the federal government we will be second-class citizens. Anything we gain at state level is imperfect and impermanent. Because any of that can be taken away by a ballot. Prop 8 really showed me that.”
His high-level involvement in the Equality March seems natural to Williams, who is careful not to overstate his role. “Back in March, David Mixner, a longtime antiwar protestor, wrote an open letter that called for a march on Washington in November, for marriage rights,” he says. “Cleve endorsed the call for the march, but said it shouldn’t be about marriage but full federal equality, and in October.
“I sent a one sentence e-mail to David: ‘Put me to work.’ He wrote back: ‘I’m not going to be organizing, Cleve and some others are.’”
Jones brought together what Williams calls “a group of young folks; grassroots organizers from California.” When they constructed a national steering committee, it elected Williams and McGehee as co-directors. “I don’t know, the two of us just kind of stepped up and made it happen,” says Williams with a modesty that is not false. At the start, with his company’s support, Williams worked the march and his job as an online designer. In August, the march was able to offer him a stipend of $2,000 a month, so Williams left his full-time job. As the division of labor fell, he did mostly online communication, coalition building that involved some travel to New York and D.C., and media relations. “It was really a position of service, supporting the executive committee, establishing fiscal sponsors, making sure the paperwork got to the proper people,” Williams is careful to explain.
To him, this shoestring-grassroots approach is part of the message. “This is the first national march to my knowledge that has been organized without an office; no phone bank that people could pick up and call. We did it through cell phones, e-mail, and conference calls, along with Cleve spending months just traveling around the whole country talking to groups. It really took people all over the country to make the march happen; just talking. It was really important to them, enough to show up.”
He’s still a little bitter about the established groups that didn’t come to the table or arrived late. “If some of those organizations had taken an active role, we could have had a million marchers,” he says. “It’s not that we’re adversaries, we just have very different opinions about strategy and grassroots activism. The director of the Task Force, in particular, reached out, and now we’re friends. But I don’t think they did what they could have done to promote the march.”
Looking forward, Williams says he feels like work needs to be done everywhere in the country—not just in places like his hometown. “Homophobia is in your face in Knoxville,” he acknowledges. “I was home over Christmas Eve wearing my ‘No on Prop. 8’ sweatshirt at the Urban Bar. A guy saw it and asked me, ‘What is Prop. 8?” I explained that it would take away marriage rights for gays in California, and he called me a faggot. But you know what? A week later, I got back to San Francisco, and it’s New Year’s. I walked out of a gay bar in my neighborhood, and someone threw a beer bottle at me and called me a faggot.
“Really, everywhere is behind until everyone is equal.”
After the march, Williams took on a new paying position, this time running the online campaign for Jewish Voice for Peace. As for the national equality movement, no more events are planned—not yet. “But I think one of the things this march did is state definitively that we are no longer a political movement for a handful, but we are a civil-rights movement. With the transition, our movement needs to grow up and start acting like a civil-rights movement. Having very targeted and strategic actions that will move us forward to full federal equality—I’m thinking like that at the moment.”
The idea that he’d ever burn out and retreat from activism makes Williams chuckle. “At times I do need to rest or take a break. But no. I’m not going anywhere until God tells me I’ve done enough.”