On a rainy April morning, 11 years ago, dozens of gay and lesbian families descended on the nation’s capital. But they weren’t there to protest. They were dressed in their Sunday best, ready to participate in a longstanding American family tradition: the White House Easter Egg Roll.
LGBTQ advocacy might be better remembered when it involves late night dance parties outside the homes of politicians, or when our political opponents are “glitter bombed” during speaking engagements. These actions speak to some of the best parts of our community; if we have to fight for our rights, we might as well have fun while doing it.
But back in 2006, the gay and lesbian parents assembled on the grounds of the White House on Easter Monday were testing a simple truth about our community: just living our lives—out and proud—has always been our most radical act.
The largest and most famous Egg Roll has taken place in Washington D.C. since at least the mid 1800s. But originally, the festivities took place on the Capital grounds. After a particularly rowdy Egg Roll in 1876 left the lawns of the Capitol decimated, however, lawmakers decided to pass one of the more insignificant pieces of legislation in American history: the Turf Protection Act.
The purpose of the law, aimed squarely at the Easter Egg Roll, was “to prevent any portion of the Capitol grounds and terraces from being used as play-grounds.” When President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill into law, he devastated the area’s children and became the closest the Easter holiday has to a Grinch-like figure.
Two years later, when President Rutherford B. Hayes came to office, the Egg Roll found a savior in First Lady Lucy Hayes who decided to revive the tradition. Instead of rolling eggs on Capital grounds, however, she invited children to the lawns of the White House, where it has taken place every year since.
Over the years, the White House Easter Egg Roll has grown in size and importance. Each new administration, it seems, seeks to outdo the last. The Carters added a circus; the Reagans one-upped them with Broadway performers. The Obamas, who invited Beyoncé and Jay Z to make a surprise appearance last year, will be the toughest act to follow yet.
Today, the White House Easter Egg Roll is one of the hottest tickets in town, so much so that last year, 37,000 available tickets were handed out via public lottery. Back in 2006, however, tickets were still distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis, prompting many thousands of families to camp out overnight on the streets of D.C. to secure their spot.
And it was this peculiarity of the event—thousands of parents sleeping in tents overnight like tweens at a Justin Bieber concert—that inspired the idea for the “gay invasion.”
In 2005, Colleen Gillespie, a professor at New York University, camped out with her partner to obtain tickets to that year’s Egg Roll. She was struck by the easy camaraderie that formed among the other parents in line, which gave her a crazy idea: what if she could get hundreds of LGBTQ families to join her next year? What a perfect opportunity, she figured, for people to get to know gay and lesbian families.
She proposed her idea to Family Equality Council, a resource organizations for LGBTQ parents (then known as the Family Pride Coalition) who in turn put the request out to its members. The following year, dozens of families answered the call.
Kyle Turner was among the gay parents who camped out for the evening in 2006. After sending his partner, James, home to tuck in their 6-year-old daughter, Emma, he stayed up amiably chatting with the other parents. While it was certainly impactful to have so many gay and lesbian parents in line, he said, no gay parent seemed to think of his or her own presence as part of a “protest.”
“It was just a really nice opportunity to come together with other parents,” Kyle said, noting he often had more in common with straight people with kids than gays without them. “That’s what was really cool about it.”
But in the media, and in the culture wars—which were still raging strong in the mid 2000s—the presence of gay and lesbian parents at one of the country’s longest running American family traditions would prove more controversial.
“They thought we were trying to infiltrate or something,” Kyle said, reflecting back. “Well, if that’s what you think, I guess let’s infiltrate and we’ll show you what we’re all about.”
The next day, early on Easter Monday morning, Dominic Russoli walked with his partner, Rolf, and 6-year-old son, Cyrus, towards the security checkpoint on the White House grounds. Dozens of other LGBTQ families walked alongside him.
“Here they come!” one of the guards said loudly, to no one in particular, as they approached.
“I remember laughing at that,” Dominic said. “Here come the gays! I mean, what did he think we were going to do? Steal the drapes?”
Family Equality Council had alerted White House organizers of their plans to attend the Egg Roll, and made clear they had no intentions of being disruptive. The only thing that would differentiate them from any other family, they assured, would be rainbow leis draped around their necks.
“I had lived in Washington D.C. for 15 or 20 years by that point but had never been on the grounds of the White House,” Dominic recalled. “It really wasn’t meant to be a protest. Honestly, we just wanted to enjoy the attractions.”
Still, dozens of news cameras greeted Dominic and the other LGBTQ families, asking their reasons behind staging the “protest.” Their participation in the event had caused a “controversy,” according to the New York Times, and was likened to an “invasion” in the Guardian.
All this when the LGBTQ families in attendance merely participated like any other. “We just helped our kids pick up their Easter eggs, like everyone else, and helped them go through the attractions on the grounds,” Kyle recalled. “The normalcy of it all was probably what made an impact.”
In today’s world, it can be hard to remember why a group of LGBTQ families peacefully attending an event at the White House would be cause for such spectacle. But while the 2006 Easter Egg Roll was only 11 years ago, it might as well have been the Paleozoic Era as far as LGBTQ rights are concerned.
We can now marry, adopt, and serve as foster parents in every state in the country. In 2006, during the waning days of the Bush Administration, only Massachusetts allowed same-sex couples to marry. Seven states were considering legislation to ban LGBTQ adoption. Six others codified discrimination into their state constitutions by limiting marriage to a union between a man and a woman.
The visibility of LGBTQ families, in particular, was practically nonexistent; this was still years before Modern Family began beaming a lovable gay family into living rooms across America.
“I don’t know if there was ever a point prior to Easter Egg Roll where lesbian and gay families made such an effort to be so visible in such a large group,” Dominic said. “At that time, 11 years ago, it really did seem momentous.”
And while the show of visibility may have not have budged the Bush White House, it certainly made an impression on his successor: in 2009, even as he was still “evolving” on the question of gay marriage, President Obama announced he would be reserving over 100 tickets to the Easter Egg Roll for LGBTQ families.
No invasion necessary.
If a large group of gay and lesbian families made such a public display of visibility at the White House tomorrow, it might well be met with a shrug. We owe this to the breakneck speed at which we achieved progress under the Obama administration.
Still, we have so much left to do. Parents can be legally denied housing or fired from their jobs on account of their sexuality or gender identity in many states. We are often unfairly discriminated against at adoption and foster care agencies. But thanks to eight years of near constant progress, we could be forgiven for thinking it was just a matter of time before these issues, too, would be resolved.
But here we find ourselves in 2017 facing a situation practically no one could have envisioned: Melania Trump, not Bill Clinton, will be hosting the White House Easter Egg Roll this year. (That is, if the Trumps can scramble in time to pull it off.) Of course, it’s too soon to tell what a Trump presidency will mean for LGBTQ families. But it seems safe to assume progress will be stalled, at best, over the next four years.
So maybe a mass gathering of LGBTQ families in 2017 isn’t such a quaint idea after all. Time to break out the rainbow leis again?