Marches on Washington

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Marches on Washington have played significant roles in social justice movements, increasing visibility, reducing isolation, highlighting agendas, pressuring elites, and invigorating grassroots organizing. These mass gatherings in the nation's capital are rites of passage, signals of movements whose time has come. By taking grievances to the center of government, a broad range of movements have sought to expose the contradiction between the ideals of the U.S. Constitution and the realities of discrimination, inequality, injustice, and oppression.

The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech but organized by Bayard Rustin (an African American gay man), ignited the imagination of other social justice movements including the LGBT movement. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender activists who cut their activist teeth in the anti-war, civil rights, and women's movements began to imagine the power of incorporating mass demonstration into the burgeoning movement for gay liberation. Just days after the 1963 march, Confidential magazine reported on a homophile conference in Philadelphia, where one Washington, D.C., gay activist declared, "There are 15 million of us in the United States. This makes us the second largest minority in the country, second only to the Negroes." According to Confidential, "The boys and girls aren't quite ready to stage a Gay March on Washington yet, but from the looks of things at their convention, they may work up to it in a couple of years." The article concluded, "If we ever do see the day when 200,000 homos march down Constitution Avenue, though, the capital had better watch out. Those handsome Washington cops will be facing a new form of hazardous duty" (Stein, 224).

The first LGBT public protest in Washington D.C. was not a mass gathering but a small demonstration in April 1965. After press reports indicated that the Cuban government was imprisoning homosexuals in labor camps, homophile activists organized protests against U.S. and Cuban policies at the United Nations headquarters in New York and the White House in Washington. In May seven men dressed in suits and three women in conservative dresses picketed in front of the White House. The Mattachine Society of Washington organized the picket to protest the government's discriminatory employment practices. Later that year, similar demonstrations were held at the Civil Service building, the Pentagon, the State Department, and again at the White House. In this last protest, the number of demonstrators grew to 45.

Over the next decade, the Stonewall Riots in New York City, the growing visibility of the LGBT movement across the country, and the declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association were significant milestones in LGBT history. Then came Anita Bryant's anti-LGBT campaign, the anti-LGBT Briggs initiative in California, and the assassination of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978. Milk had been the most prominent voice in support of a LGBT march on the nation's capital, believing that LGBT visibility would help put an end to discrimination. After Milk's death, organizers took up his call.

A national organizing structure was quickly created with a national office and two regional offices. A march was to be organized by a committee of 128 delegates selected from across the country to ensure that rural as well as urban centers had a voice in the process. The organizers also made a commitment to ensure at least 50% women and 25% people of color held leadership positions in the effort. Advisory committees of other traditionally underrepresented groups (including seniors, people with disabilities, youth, etc.) were formed. The organizers also created a list of demands that included a broad range of civil rights issues including opposition to racism, sexism and classism.

On 14 October 1979, less than a year after the assassination of Harvey Milk and just 10 years after the Stonewall riots, about 100,000 marchers participated in the first March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The impact was profound for those who had traveled from urban centers and small towns across the country. On the day before the march, hundreds attended the first National Third World Gay and Lesbian Conference, which stimulated political organizing by African Americans, Latinos/as, Native Americans, and Asian Americans (and the establishment of such groups as the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays). The day after the march was designated Constituent Lobbying Day and all participants were asked to visit their Senators and Representatives. Opponents of the march lined parts of the route, cursed the marchers, and warned tourists to stay off the streets. Evangelical Jerry Falwell led prayers in the Rayburn House Office building, saying "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." When the march concluded, many of the organizing structures transformed into local groups pushing for social change in communities across the country.

The second march on Washington was held on 11 October 1987. Fueled in large part by fury at the lack of government response to AIDS and the homophobic Bowers vs. Hardwick 1986 Supreme Court decision upholding sodomy laws, the march drew what organizers said were more than 500,000 to 600,000 participants. In a widely criticized action, the U.S. Park Police estimated the crowd size first at 50,000 and then 200,000. The larger estimate suggests that this was the country's largest civil rights demonstration to date. One of the highlights of the

march was the first display of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, featuring, 1,920 panels remembering those who had died from AIDS. Two days after the march 600 to 800 people were arrested at a civil disobedience action at the Supreme Court. One measure of the march's success was the number of organizations that were founded as a result—including BiNet U.S.A., the National Latino/a Gay & Lesbian Organization (LLEGÓ), AT&T's LGBT employee group LEAGUE, and various AIDS activist groups . Following the grassroots organizing structure of its predecessor, the march also dramatically expanded the network of local organizations working for change in rural areas and gave birth to National Coming Out Day that is marked each year on the march's anniversary.

The third march, officially "The 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation," was held on 25 April 1993 and drew approximately one million participants. The march took place in the midst of the national debate about "gays in the military," which was precipitated by U.S. President Bill Clinton's promises to lift the ban on LGBT military service. The AIDS Quilt was displayed on the Mall as part of a weeklong series of conferences, workshops, protests, lobbying activities, dances, readings, and religious ceremonies. An autonomous Dyke March organized by the Lesbian Avengers featured approximately 20,000 female participants. Unlike the 1979 and 1987 marches, organizers focused on gaining massive media attention to the gathering. This time the national media provided extensive coverage of the march.

LGBT groups were driven to organize the 1993 march because the demands of the 1987 march had not been fulfilled, the presidency of George Bush had triggered no meaningful change in the country's AIDS policy, and because presidential candidate Bill Clinton's inclusive discourse about the gay community fueled an optimism that helped draw the hopeful as well as the angry to Washington, D.C.

The hope generated by President Clinton's election also began a debate about whether the nation's capital was the best place to focus the LGBT communities' collective energies. State capitals and local municipalities were increasingly where anti-LGBT groups were focusing their resources and strategies. More conservative LGBT groups began to challenge the platform of the march calling for a single focus rather than a broad vision of social justice.

Division among LGBT groups had widened by the time organizing for the Millennium March on Washington began. Many national organizations objected to the manner in which the march had been called, without a debate and a broad coalition in place such as those that had preceded previous marches. Under-funded state organizations saw the timing of the event as a drain at a time when resources were desperately needed to fight anti-LGBT initiatives flooding states. March organizers attempted to ease the controversy by "pausing" the organization process to hear from the community and endorsed a plan to march on state capitals in 1999. The march on state capitals, called Equality Begins at Home, was sponsored by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Federation of Statewide LGBT Advocacy organizations made up of dozens of state groups.

However, many saw these steps as too little too late. The organizing structure had not changed and whether or not to march was not up for discussion. National groups that initially supported the event withdrew their endorsement, opponents demanded a debate on the wisdom of another national march, and a vocal list of critics challenged the process, timing, and message of the event calling it undemocratic. The power wielded by the small group of organizations that had launched the effort for the Millennium March and deep concerns that the social justice principles that undergirded the preceding marches had been abandoned in favor of a neatly packaged media image were also primary concerns of the march's opponents.

Supporters of the Millennium March saw the event as a necessary means to rally the community in a vital election year. The changes in organizing tactics they argued for were an acknowledgment of a changing society and a maturing movement. Corporate sponsors were not evidence of selling out a community but rather a testament to the movement's arrival in the mainstream. Finally they argued the controversy, while visible in the media, was a tempest in a teapot to the larger community. The masses ultimately would vote with their feet and ignore the controversy.

On 30 April 2000 more than 200,000 attendees gathered for the Millennium March. The weekend included a two-day street festival, a variety of conferences, a star-studded rock concert, and many affiliated events. Both President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore addressed the crowd on the National Mall via video. The event and the controversy that surrounded it drew strong media coverage and lengthy analysis in the mainstream press. Those who attended experienced the thrill of suddenly being in the majority in the nation's capital, the power of being visible in large numbers, and the joy of gathering in safety.

Activists who supported the Millennium March and many who opposed it agreed on the importance of returning to Washington, D.C., for mass gatherings so that new generations of LGBT people could experience first hand the transformative power of marching on the nation's capital.


D'Emilio, John. Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin. New York: Free Press, 2003.

D'Emilio, John. William B. Turner, and Urvashi Vaid, eds. Creating Change: Sexuality, Public Policy, and Civil Rights. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Stein, Marc. City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2000.

Thompson, Mark, ed. Long Road to Freedom: The Advocate History of the Gay and Lesbian Movement. With a forward by Randy Shilts. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

Nadine Smith

see alsoaids memorial quilt—names project; dÍazcotto, juanita; homophile movement demonstrations; marriage ceremonies and weddings; rodwell, craig.

the 1987 march on washington demands and statements

  • 1. The legal recognition of lesbian and gay relationships.

Changes must be made in the courts and in the legislatures to provide homosexual couples the same privileges and benefits as heterosexuals who commit themselves to similar relationships. Changes must also be made in public opinion so that society recognizes and celebrates the diversity in family relationships.

The changes sought included rights of inheritance, visitation and custody rights, insurance rights, and parenting and adoption rights. Also listed under this demand were calls for lesbian and gay youth to be provided "social services"; government-funded alternative housing, foster care, counseling, and legal aid; "sex information and health care services"; and "sexuality and anti-homophobic curriculum in the schools, access to lesbian and gay publications in public and school libraries, and freedom to participate in related school activities.

  • 2. The repeal of all laws that make sodomy between consenting adults a crime.

Like Jim Crow laws of the American South which sanctioned and promoted racism, sodomy laws give the government's stamp of approval to individual people's hatred of lesbian and gay people. To single out lesbian and gay people for special prosecutorial attention stigmatizes all who are gay and lesbian whether or not they are ever arrested or charged with sodomy.

  • 3. A Presidential order banning anti-gay discrimination by the Federal Government. This referred to an Executive Order banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in federal employment, the military, federally contracted private employment, and all federally funded programs.

Eliminating employment discrimination based solely on sexual orientation in the government sector would send a signal to the rest of the country that this discrimination is immoral and should be illegal.

  • 4. Passage of the Congressional lesbian and gay civil rights bill.

The government should provide protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, public accommodations and education just as protection is provided on race, creed, color, sex, or national origin.

The government should ensure all public education programs include programs designed to combat lesbian/gay prejudice…. Institutions thatdiscriminate against lesbian and gay people should be denied tax exempt status and federal funding.

  • 5. An end to discrimination against people with AIDS, ARC, HIV positive status, or those perceived to have AIDS. The statement called for massive increases in funding for AIDS education, research, and patient care as well as federal funding for:

… a massive AIDS education and prevention program that is explicit, culturally sensitive, lesbian and gay affirming and sex positive…. Thegovernment must provide safe sex education to all youth.

Compassionate, comprehensive health care services must be available for patients without regard to ability to pay…. There must be a complete federal funding of all health and social services for all people with AIDS/ARC…. Thefederal government must underwrite and insure all research for a cure and a vaccine. Funding for these programs must come from the military budget, not already existing appropriations in the social services budget.

  • 6. Reproductive freedom, the right to control one's own body, and an end to sexist oppression.

All people must have access to birth control…. Those who wish must have the right to artificial insemination by donor. Public and private institutions should support parenting by lesbian or gay couples…. All people must have access to freeabortions and contraceptives on demand regardless of age.

The march also called for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

  • 7. An end to racism in this country and apartheid in South Africa.

As members of the lesbian and gay movement, we too are affected by rising racism and sexism which oppresses People of Color and women; thereby the liberation of lesbians and gay is intricately linked to the struggle against racism, sexism and anti-Semitism. We realize that none of us are free until we are all free. We, therefore, call upon all of our sisters and brothers to actively confront racism and sexism on all levels both within our movement, and in the larger society. We demand an end to racist and sexist oppression. We demand an end to all social, economic, judicial, and legal oppression of lesbians and gays, and people of every race.

platform of the 1993 march on washington for lesbian, gay, and bi equal rights and liberation

Action Statement Preamble to the Platform

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender movement recognizes that our quest for social justice fundamentally links us to the struggles against racism and sexism, class bias, economic injustice, and religious intolerance. We must realize if one of us is oppressed we all are oppressed. The diversity of our movement requires and compels us to stand in opposition to all forms of oppression that diminish the quality of life for all people. We will be vigilant in our determination to rid our movement and our society of all forms of oppression and exploitation, so that all of us can develop to our full human potential without regard to race, religion, sexual orientation, identification, identity, gender and gender expression, ability, age, or class.

Platform Demands and Related Items

  • 1. We demand passage of a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender civil rights bill and an end to discrimination by state and federal governments including the military; repeal of all sodomy laws and other laws that criminalize private sexual expression between consenting adults.

Passage of "The Civil Rights Amendment Act of 1991" (HR1430 & S574).

Repeal of Department of Defense directive 1332.14. Repeal of laws prohibiting sodomy, cross-gender expression (dress codes) or non-coercive sexual behavior between adults.

Amendment of the Code of Federal Regulations to recognize same-sex relationships.

Passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Implementation of, funding for, and enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991.

Passage and implementation of graduated age-of-consent laws.

  • 2. We demand massive increase in funding for AIDS education, research, and patient care; universal access to health care including alternative therapies; and an end to sexism in medical research and health care.

The provision of responsive, appropriate health care for people with disabilities, deaf and hard of hearing people.

Revision of the Centers for Disease Control definition of AIDS to include infections particular to women.

Implementation of the recommendation of the National AIDS Commission immediately.

A massive increase in funding for AIDS education, research and care—money for AIDS, not for war. This money should come from the defense budget, not existing social services.

An increase in funding and research to provide an independent study of HIV infection in women, People of Color, Bisexuals, Heterosexuals, children, and women/to/women transmission.

Access to anonymous testing for HIV.

No mandatory HIV testing.

A cure for AIDS.

The development and legalization of a national needle exchange program.

Free substance abuse treatment on demand.

The re-definition of sexual re-assignment surgeries as medical, not cosmetic, treatment.

The provision of appropriate medical treatment for all transgendered people in prisons and hospitals.

An increase in funding and research for chronic illness, including breast ovarian, and other cancers particular to women.

The right of all people with chronic illness, including HIV/AIDS, to choices in medical treatment as well as the right to end such treatment.

  • 3. We demand legislation to prevent discrimination against Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transgendered people in the areas of family diversity, custody, adoption, and foster care and that the definition of family includes the full diversity of all family structures.

The recognition and legal protection of the whole range of family structures.

An end to abuse and exploitation of and discrimination against youth.

An end to abuse and exploitation of and discrimination against older/old people.

Full implementation of the recommendations contained in the report of the Health and Human Services Task Force on Youth Suicide.

Recognition of domestic partnerships.

Legalization of same-sex marriages.

  • 4. We demand full and equal inclusion of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transgendered people in the educational system, and inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender studies in multicultural curricula.

Culturally inclusive Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Studies program; and information on abortion, AIDS/HIV, childcare and sexuality at all levels of education.

Establishment of campus offices and programs to address Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender students' special needs.

The ban of all discriminatory ROTC programs and recruiters from learning institutions.

An end to discrimination at all levels of education.

  • 5. We demand the right to reproductive freedom and choice, to control our own bodies, and an end to sexist discrimination.

The right to control our bodies.

Unrestricted, safe and affordable alternative insemination.

An end to sterilization abuse.

That access to safe and affordable abortion and contraception be available to all people on demand, without restriction and regardless of age.

That access to unbiased and complete information about the full range of reproductive options be available to all people, regardless of age.

  • 6. We demand an end to racial and ethnic discrimination in all forms.

Support for non-racist policies and affirmative action.

An end to institutionalized racism.

Equal economic opportunity and an end to poverty.

Full reproductive rights, improvement of pre-natal services, availability of alternative insemination for Lesbians and Bisexual women of color.

Repeal of all "English Only" laws and restore and enforce bilingual education.

Repeal all discriminatory immigration laws based on race and HIV status.

A commitment to ending racism, including internalized racism, sexism and all forms of religious and ethnic oppression in our communities and in this country.

An end to the genocide of all the indigenous peoples and their cultures.

Restoration of the self-determination of all indigenous people of the world.

  • 7. We demand an end to discrimination and violent oppression based on actual or perceived sexual orientation/identification, race, religion, identity, sex and gender expression, disability, age, class, AIDS/HIV infection.

An end to anti-Semitism.

An end to sexist oppression.

An end to discrimination against people with disabilities, deaf and hard of hearing people.

An end to discrimination based on sexual orientation in all programs of the Boy Scouts of America.

An end to economic injustice in this country and internationally.

An end to discrimination against prisoners with HIV/AIDS.

An end to discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS, and those perceived as having HIV/AIDS.

An end to consideration of gender dysphoria as a psychiatric disorder.

An end to hate crimes including police brutality, rape and bashing.

An end to censorship.

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Marches on Washington

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Marches on Washington