City Paper is not for tourists
A gay group says organizers aborted their participation in March for Life 2000.
These aren’t easy times to be a pro-life marcher. Show up in late-Clinton-era D.C. to carry Roe vs. Wade anniversary placards and you’ll find unsympathetic people in the White House, ineffective allies on Capitol Hill, and apathetic faces on the people who walk by. Even the hecklers—who, after all, are a testament to your political clout—seem to have disappeared from the March for Life’s route to the Capitol. A peaceful, unencumbered march up Pennsylvania Avenue isn’t necessarily a sign of progress.
Unless, that is, you’re Cecilia Brown.
As the incoming president of the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians (PLAGAL), Brown had an inkling that her group’s participation in March for Life 2000 on Jan. 24 might net her more hostility from fellow marchers than from pro-choice activists. After all, Brown says, tensions between PLAGAL and march organizer Nellie Gray had been brewing all year. Gray, who represents the more socially conservative wing of the anti-abortion movement, didn’t want openly gay marchers to participate.
“The march leadership was becoming more interested in purity than a broad coalition,” says PLAGAL Secretary-Treasurer Joseph Beard, an attorney with D.C.’s right-wing Center for Equal Opportunity. “Only those who completely agree with [Gray] feel welcome in the march.”
Beard & Co. went forward despite the absent welcome wagon. Meeting up with other nontraditional pro-life groups—like the Feminists for Life contingent—at the corner of 15th Street and Constitution Avenue, about 20 PLAGAL members unfurled a banner bearing their name and slogan: “Human Rights Start When Human Life Begins.”
Brown says the banner’s message didn’t exactly resonate with fellow marchers. An organizer in an orange hat came up to the group and demanded that they produce a permit to march or relinquish their banner. Brown refused to do so, asking the groups in front and in back of her whether they had permits. “Don’t answer her,” the man told the other groups, according to Brown.
“The next thing I knew, a police officer came and told us we couldn’t march,” says Brown. “We said we wanted to see in writing if there was an injunction against us. I’m kind of a hothead. I believe in fairness. If you tell me no when I see everybody else doing it, I get kind of bent out of shape. I thought it was unfair.”
“We were surrounded by police in riot gear,” says Brown. “We tried to go left. They blocked us. We tried to go right. They blocked us. We tried to go forward. They pushed us back.” People began shouting, “Let them march!” and “What about free speech?”
Finally, a police officer suggested that they simply move to a different block and insinuate themselves among other, less organized contingents. PLAGAL, which had by this point covered the words “gay” and “lesbian” with masking tape and a hand-drawn cardboard sign reading “Censored,” took this advice and quietly blended back into the march.
PLAGAL members like Brown, of course, are used to acrimony. To many in the gay community, gays joining the March for Life makes about as much sense as Kosovars showing up for a Milosevic-for-president rally. And that’s not just because so many pro-lifers are conservative Christians: Most gay groups have long argued that the same right to privacy the U.S. Supreme Court cites to protect abortion—Roe vs. Wade, 1973—and contraception—Griswold vs. Connecticut, 1965— should be extended to cover and protect consensual homosexual sex.
But Beard—a Dupont Circle resident who says he became a pro-life activist (in 1967) 11 years earlier than he came out of the closet (in 1978)—says that groups like PLAGAL show a gay-rights movement that has matured and diversified—enough, he says, for him to argue that gay rights have nothing to do with the right to privacy that conservatives so despise.
“The Supreme Court specifically rejected the right to privacy in gay and lesbian relationships in Bowers vs. Hardwick and in an earlier case,” Beard says. “In the past 20 years the states that have decriminalized sodomy have done so not by court decree but by legislative action based on concepts of liberty rather than privacy.”
In Bowers, a 1986 case that upheld the constitutionality of Georgia’s anti-sodomy law, the Supreme Court declared that homosexual activity is not “a private and intimate association that is beyond the reach of state regulation.” A conservative through and through, Beard says he prefers legislation to court action as a means of transforming social policy.
Most pro-life leaders, of course, would oppose such legislation. Groups like the Christian Coalition or American Life League have agendas far broader than just abortion. For them, arguments about liberty and consent are just that—arguments—and the only law they follow is an immutable standard given by God. The National Right to Life Committee, a more moderate pro-life group, has a less hostile relationship with PLAGAL, but it describes itself as a single-issue group that welcomes anyone who opposes abortion.
“Traditionally, groups that have organized pro-life marches are groups that are avidly anti-choice and rabidly anti-gay,” says David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay lobbying group that is strongly pro-choice. “That they are unwilling to have a march with [PLAGAL] says to me they are more anti-gay than they are pro-life.”
And at the march, organizers trying to oust PLAGAL suddenly had a much fonder view of Supreme Court precedent. Brown says foes pointed to Hurley vs. Irish American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston, in which the Supreme Court upheld the right of the Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade organizers to exclude gay groups. Brown argued right back that PLAGAL had participated in the March for Life in nine previous years, and that the march was not a permit-requiring parade.
March organizer Gray declined to comment for this story. But Steve Sanborn, press secretary for the American Life League and an ally of Gray’s, was so incensed by PLAGAL’s presence at the march that he went to the police and asked them to remove the gay group. “If they’re going to be pushing an agenda that’s false, incorrect, sinful, and wrong, they shouldn’t march,” he says. “This is about being pro-life. This is about babies. This is not about another agenda. This is not about being gay. They were told they could not show up with their banners.”
The District may protect gay rights, and mainstream America may be more gay-friendly than ever, but 10-year-old PLAGAL—which claims 900 members nationwide—finds itself increasingly faced with the hardening extremes of the anti-abortion movement. PLAGAL does not take a position on birth control or euthanasia or the death penalty. “Abortion involves another party who is not consenting,” Brown says. “Whom you love and what you do in the bedroom—that involves two consenting people.”
But as far as integrating the march up Pennsylvania Avenue goes, PLAGAL leaders say they plan to keep their disagreements with march leaders out of the courts. And they plan to take it back to the streets a year from now. “We know what we will be doing next year,” says Beard, “which is marching or getting arrested.” CP