On the 10th anniversary of Stonewall in October 1979, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community mounted the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. An estimated 75,000 to 125,000 marchers descended on the nation’s capital to demand equal rights and to call for the passage of civil rights legislation. As historian Amin Ghaziani has written, this was “the symbolic coming out and birth of a national movement for lesbian and gay rights.” In addition to signaling the emergence of this social and political force, the march overcame widespread isolation within the movement itself by “linking local lesbian and gay communities in a highly symbolic, concentrated physical space.”
In the years that followed, the need was less to inaugurate the movement than to challenge the institutionalized homophobia of the Reagan administration and demand a concerted national response to the AIDS crisis. On October 11, 1987 — 25 years ago today — a new wave of marchers flooded into Washington to make their case for change as part of the second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Organizers put the number of participants at between 500,000 and 650,000. There would be other national marches for LGBTQ rights after this one, but this event — because of its size, scope and success — has often been dubbed “The Great March.” October 11 is now National Coming Out Day, which was established in 1988 to commemorate the 1987 march.
I was fortunate to be there that day. I had arrived in Washington a few weeks before to begin a new job as the national co-coordinator of the Pledge of Resistance, a nationwide, nonviolent direct action network working to end the U.S. wars in Central America. I would soon find out that demonstrations take place in the nation’s capital virtually every day — but this was different. For many of us this was the largest crush of humanity we will likely ever experience. As the march lunged its way around the newly created AIDS Memorial Quilt with its 1920 panels carpeting part of the National Mall, we became an enormous throng roiling methodically toward the stage in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. No matter where we stood, there seemed to be no beginning and no end. It was as if, drawn from every part of this nation, this vast ad hoc community was slowly inching its way from the margins to the center, propelled by forces of history that none of us controlled but were moving with a power — composed, disciplined and relentless — to which each of us made a small, incremental contribution.
An impromptu chant rolled through this sea of humanity: We are everywhere. It was a sonorous round, bending and rising, spreading out in every direction — a refrain that became the soundtrack for this august pilgrimage of power and potential. One voice composed of many voices rang out — voices from every part of this land, voices from the suppressed past and the unknowable future, intoning with richness and authority an unshakable truth: LGBTQ people are everywhere.
This somber but also bracing spectacle was profoundly transformative. I felt something loosen within and peel away. Something of my own hetero-centric socialization, the homophobic training I had been put through subtly and not so subtly in my life, that I had uncritically accepted and taken in. At its very best, ritual works a subtle magic — and it was working.
It dawned on me that it was a precious gift to walk side by side with those who had been on this arduous pilgrimage their whole lives. It was a gift to be present, to be with hundreds of thousands of human beings who carried the woundedness of living in a systemically homophobic culture, but who also bore in their own flesh the sacredness of survival and the luminous intimations of resilience and infinite worth. To be together in this highly symbolic and concentrated (but also potentially healing and freeing) space was an inestimable, unmerited grace.
But the transformational energy did not end there.
Two days later 800 people trooped over to the doorways and lawns of the U.S. Supreme Court to protest its 1986 decision upholding sodomy laws in Bowers v. Hardwick. Thus positioned, they refused to leave. I spent the morning watching civilly disobedient groups of five or ten people at a time being plucked from the grounds of the court and taken off under arrest to be booked and dealt with. The initial opening of the heart I had experienced on the march now dramatically expanded. Seeing one human being after another willingly risk arrest and face the consequences that it might entail reached my core. I felt my own mind and soul irrevocably transformed.
Even though I had been practicing civil disobedience for some years by then, it was a revelation seeing the arrests at the U.S. Supreme Court that day. I understood in a new way how the voluntary willingness to put one’s body potentially in harm’s way for justice — especially when this is done by those who have faced the brunt of injustice their whole lives — can speak powerfully and deeply to the right brain of onlookers and, under the proper conditions, of a whole society. It is extraordinarily unfair that the very people who are most violated by the world are often the ones who are most called to assume the burden of transforming it, but it seems to be one of the laws of the universe. While there were allies among the arrested that day, it was mostly people who had experienced the structural violence of politically-and culturally-enforced homophobia who made the decision to face the consequences for nonviolently disrupting the machinery of that oppression using the most powerful symbol at their disposal: their own vulnerable bodies.
One of the allies who help lead the 1987 march was César Chávez, the co-founder of the United Farm Workers who had a long history of supporting the LGBTQ movement, and who understood the power of nonviolent action to change hearts and to change society. As Ian Stokell and Steve Lee reported earlier this year:
Chávez was the first major civil rights leader to support gay and lesbian issues visibly and explicitly. He spoke out on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the 1970s. “César Chávez did not only speak at our 1987 March on Washington but walked the entire march route. His granddaughter Christine Chávez told me that it was the biggest crowd he ever spoke to,” said former National Gay and Lesbian Task Force board member and San Diego city commissioner, Nicole Murray Ramirez. “He never forgot the support the UFW received from the gay community.”
This is just another reason to celebrate the Obama administration’s decision to designate Chávez’s home in California’s Tehachapi Mountains a national monument this week.
Movements seeking justice have been organizing marches to Washington at least since 1894 when Jacob Coxey led “Coxey’s Army” of 500 of the unemployed on a trek from Ohio to the nation’s capital during the second year of a four-year depression to urge the government to create a jobs program. Instead of employment opportunities they were confronted by 1,500 troops, with Coxey and others arrested for walking on the Capitol lawn. (Some scholars think that Coxey’s march may have inspired “The Wizard of Oz,” whose author, Frank Baum, witnessed the march.)
Since then over 100 marches in Washington of varying sizes and from across the political spectrum have been organized. Some of them, like the Civil Rights movement’s 1963 March on Washington, have achieved indelible historic status because they clearly and dramatically laid a compelling choice before the country: Will we take our nation’s values seriously or not? The 1987 National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights takes its place alongside these iconic pilgrimages for justice, not only because it responded forcefully to the dramatic challenges at that critical moment, but because it fueled the many difficult but powerful struggles and accomplishments of the movement over the past 25 years.
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Thanks so much for this, Ken. Interested readers should also check out Nadine Bloch’s recent column, “A Stitch in Time: Quilt 2012,” which is about the latest iteration of the quilt and the globalization of the fight for AIDS justice.