25th Anniversary of the March on Washington - Thoughts and Reflections
Roberta Sklar, Director of Communications
“The first March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights and Liberation. That event drew 100,000 people to the streets of the District of Columbia on October 14, 1979, at a moment in our community's history vastly different from the one we occupy today. As I thumb through my scrapbook and archives of organizing materials from that effort, and as I listen to the record and the videotapes produced capturing the '79 march, a range of memories and conflicted feelings rush through me. Clearly, the world has changed in our lifetimes.” — Eric Rofes, veteran community organizer. (Read the full essay at the bottom of this release)
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force asked its members to send in thoughts and reflections on this, the 25th anniversary of the March. Below are some of the responses we received:
Thoughts & Reflections on the 25th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights and Liberation October 14, 1979 / October 14, 2004
“What is most memorable to me was the power of being in the company of thousands of gays and lesbians who were passionate about our cause — to be accepted and acknowledged as citizens of our country with all the equal rights and opportunities that we deserve.”
Carole Mayer, New York, NY
“It was such a wonderful, if not spiritual experience. Even though there was close to a million people, the atmosphere was so welcoming and you felt like one big family. I have never felt such a welcoming experience since. My favorite part was riding the escalator up from the subway and everyone who had already arrived was welcoming those who were on the way. Upon the conclusion of the march, I was motivated to make a difference, happy, yet depressed that I had to leave that wonderful experience. I would have to say that it was the turning point for me in feeling confident who I was as a person. Now that I have children, I would love to have them life altering experience as the March in Washington was to me.”
Kassie, Ann Arbor, Michigan
“I remember the tide of cars and buses driving to DC guiding me better than my inadequate maps to the March. I remember the happiness of being with friends there at the Capital, the heart of the national government, out in the open. I remember the emptiness of the larger city, our presence unseen except for those who were there with us. I remember thinking how many more of us there were and that we would not be ignored.”
“I was one of the organizers of the March when I was in college, and it introduced me to the national gay community for the first time, working with people who are still out there today making a difference. It was thrilling to look out from the stage and see the sea of people, and know for at least that moment, we were the majority. It was a rude awakening the next day when all of the different newspapers reported varying crowd estimates that were mere fractions of the actual, including one claiming only 14,000 people !!!!”
“I attended the 1979 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights as part of the Florida contingent and as a delegate to the first Third World Lesbian and Gay Conference. It was an exhilarating experience just to be part of a worldwide gathering of lesbians and gay men (as well as bisexual, transgender, and heterosexual people) in a city that was, at least for that glorious weekend, ‘truly gay.’ I also had the pleasure of meeting some of our community's political and cultural greats, including some of my personal heroes.”
Jesse G. Monteagudo
“I had only just recently graduated from the idea that I was the only man in the world who felt like I did for other men. I now thought maybe there might be a couple hundred guys like me. Then I went to Washington and I was blown away to realize that I was really part of a world-wide brother and sisterhood. I was liberated and I could not be turned back.”
“We have come so far as a community! The 1979 March was the first time I took a national-level leadership role, and it has shaped my queer, anti-ageism, and anti-prejudice activism in the quarter-century since. Personally, it was one of my big life milestones.”
Loree Cook-Daniels (San Francisco March on Washington co-chair, one of the national youth caucus spokespersons)
“I was awed by the number of folks who attended the 1979 march and such diversity! In order to take in the enormity of the day, rather than taking my place in the procession, I left my friends and parked myself at the corner of 14th and Pennsylvania. Later we were all disappointed that the number of marchers was so underreported.”
Jeffrey Slavin, former Task Force Board member
“I remember how, that whole weekend, the streets of DC seemed to have been taken over by an invasion of lesbians and gay men, and it was the most exciting thing i had ever experienced. And i remember a grand queen from the Los Angeles Marching Band, in full uniform, twirling his baton like there was no tomorrow, flinging it way up into the sky, and catching the damned thing on the way down.”
John D'Emilio - (first director of the Task Force Policy Institute and renowned historian and author)
“okay i wasn't *there* but i remember seeing the poster for the March on the lesbian bulletin board at the Women's Resource and Action Center at the University of Iowa in Iowa City — my home town to which i had returned after two years of sexual discovery in san francisco. i'd left SF just before the quake, just before harvey milk and mayor moscone were assassinated, and being home, in iowa city where i was trying to get through being a college freshman for god's sake in a dorm with 2 small town iowa girls i kid you not but still trying to adjust to being around all these people who knew nothing about being a sex worker and roommates who couldn't imagine having sex with women or goddess forbid anyone who understood pain/pleasure/leather...”
Melinda Chateauvert, PhD, Washington DC
“As I recall, three of us drove from rural, redneck Preble County, Ohio, to go to the March. We loved DC and had been there for several anti-war marches in the early '70's. I will NEVER forget walking away from the crowd to head home. And the amplifiers could be heard for blocks and blocks. As we were departing, Meg Christian was singing !!! I was moved to tears to realize that MEG CHRISTIAN, on OUT LESBIAN was singing!!! In Washington, DC!!! At a MARCH! For THOUSANDS OF US!!!! It was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. I KNEW we were not alone, but that was the first time that I felt it to the very core of my being!”
Beverly Brubaker, Camden, OH
“The inclusiveness is what I remember best. Meeting new people on the plane who were "out" during the flight. Our pins, necklaces, etc. showed our common bonds. Once at the staging area I recall the excitement of looking for and finding folk from my own state. The joyfulness of that march stayed with me for weeks afterwards!”
Jackie Grover, Long Beach, CA
“I loved every minute of the 1979 lesbian/gay rights march. I learned and have not forgotten the power of a social movement. Without people in the streets nothing really happens. You cannot depend on elected officials and well meaning liberals, it takes in-your-face demands, principled alliances with others who are left out, and tough leadership that doesn't push for the election of Democrats (or Republicans) to create change. When is the next national march?”
“The 1979 March on Washington changed my life, as a gay man, an activist, and a social justice organizer. The work of organizing the march challenged all of us to learn to work across profound racial, class, gender, generational, and political differences. It was intense! Twenty-five years ago, I'm left with gratitude to all the grassroots organizers who worked with zero money and against all odds to pull off this tremendous event. My favorite moment occurred as we were assembling and the DC police began to hassle leather guys who had handcuffs displayed. Without being heavy-handed or sex-negative, Sylvia Robinson, a March organizer from Detroit, over the sound system, brilliantly joked, cajoled, and eventually convinced the men to put the cuffs away. One of the million crises of the day was averted!”
Eric Rofes, 1979 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, Co-chair National Policy Committee.
“I framed the poster when I got back and it has hung on my wall ever since. I remember the huge throng of our people just as happy and gay and proud as can be. We took over the streets and felt like we belonged in America.”
“Four of us stood with thousands others, in front of the IRS building, participating in a marriage ceremony. At that moment it was clear to me that our partnerships and families will never have equal rights until we are all equal under the tax code.”
Dorothy Sander, Fort Lauderdale, FL
“For the first time since the struggle to even have the word ‘transgender’ placed in the 1979 March brochure, and to again being left out of the name of the 1987 March, the name of the 1993 March AND the name of the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riot in 1994 -- in which gender variant people were THE catalyst -- the LGBT community will finally be unified against a common enemy: the enemy of hate, closets, unemployment, violence, religious persecution and family ostracism. I was there. I attended all four of the above events and spoke from one of the two stages in 1993. My feeling about us being unified at this 25th anniversary of the 1979 March is this: IT'S ABOUT DAMN TIME!”
“Went home to my boyhood home in DC with my then college boyfriend, Dale Wallington, and another gay male couple. We all stayed in sleeping bags on the floor of my parents'’living room. We took a great photo of the four of us there. Happy memories.”
Charlie Spiegel, San Francisco
“The ‘79 march was the most statewide effort in Indiana to that date. Groups from several cities organized a car caravan for an all-night drive. We had a code for the turn signal lights--so many blinks meant ‘cute guy or girl to the right or left.’ We thought our delegation and our banner would be the biggest, but our small group and one twin-size sheet effort were lost in the crowd. When we lobbied our conservative Congressman's representative, one man in our delegation couldn't stop crying and we were kind of embarrassed. Skipping through the streets of DC, making new friends everywhere, was one of the most joyful experiences of my life&I met the Gay Community News gang in person after years of reading and writing for it from a distance, and a few months later I moved to Boston to work for GCN, so the ‘79 March changed the course of my life.”
Maida Tilchen, Somerville MA
“I remember the energy and the color. Coming from Fort Wayne, Indiana I was not familiar with the socialist wing of anything. Those red socialist banners stand out in my mind. This confirmed that we were, indeed, very diverse. I remember the affirmation of hearing a variety of both ordinary and famous people proclaim their support for our struggle. Our Indiana contingent was not very large, but it was significant. This was the most important march that I ever attended. Bar none.”
“Just this past weekend I was sharing pictures of the first March on Washington with an lgbta gathering. It always re-inspires me to see my ‘audience'’fill with pride and realize that they can be part of this effort to bring social justice to all of us. Especially now, it is important to remember the importance of standing up even when you think you are a political minority or even a target of oppression.”
Philip Deitch, St. Louis Missouri
“This was the first national march that we had ever been to. It empowered us to become activists, and we have been so ever since. Both of us are now retired, and we are spending our retirement years not playing golf, but traveling around the southeast putting on workshops and seminars about GLBT civil rights issues - especially equal marriage rights. We are even on a neighborhood billboard (the billboard reads ‘we are your neighbors and we are gay,’ and includes a photo of Frank & Gary).”
Frank & Gary
“I had come out in Arizona only 8 months before and had just moved to Washington to attend law school. I had no idea what to expect from a ‘March on Washington’ and I was a little scared. I will never forget the overwhelming feelings of amazement and pride in being there. It was the largest gathering of gay and lesbian people I had ever seen or could even imagine. It inspired me to become an even more vocal and visible activist.”
Lorri L. Jean, former Task Force executive director, currently CEO of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center
“In 1979 when the March took place, I was serving in the Peace Corps in a southern African nation, and only saw the pictures printed in such mainstream coverage as Time and Newsweek. Being gay in another culture half the world away when thousands of people like me were marching down the Mall and demanding our rights made me feel even more of an outsider than before- and determined to get more fully into the community when I returned the following year. Those pictures alone did more good than any number of speeches and sit-ins- because they reached so many more people in a safe and silent fashion.”
“It was the beginning of the age of empowerment. Over the years, in good times and bad, we have developed a most significant sense of community that has attained worldwide recognition.”
“I was at that march and to see so many different types of gay people in one place actually opened my eyes to the diversity of our culture. I also learned how important it is to participate in gatherings of this type, I remember after getting home how the media down sized the numbers of the attendees, I was shocked.”
“I remember well the 1979 March on Washington. I attended the march as part of a group of gay men who, in 1973, had left urban life and started an intentional community in rural Massachusetts. We carried a sign that said nothing more than this: ‘Royalston, Mass., population 973.’ Our goal was to make a simple statement that gay people could live openly and proudly in rural communities, thus combating conventional wisdom suggesting that gay men and lesbians could only find happiness and safety in urban gay ghettos. That message is still important today. ”
“The FEELINGS I had are still strong in my memory. To be a part of such an historic event will stay with me the rest of my life.”
“My partner, Tom Madigan, and I participated in this amazing event. It was glorious! And, it continues to have an impact on my life as a result of a chance meeting that day. We were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers that assembled that morning. It took us quite some time to find the contingent from New York. As we were lining up, we ran into neighbors from down the block, Randy Sizemore and Alan Anuskiewicz. We were each surprised and delighted to see the other. None of us were aware of the depth of commitment to the movement that we all had. The four of us marched and spent the rest of the day together. That began a wonderful friendship that, despite the deaths of Tom and Randy, continues to this day. Alan and I are best friends and continue to support the cause in every way we can.”
“I was the emcee and producer of the huge free concert in DC, the night before the March, and emceed and line produced the main stage of the March. I remember several things vividly: (1) The train across the country, which stopped in cities where we gave speeches to the gay community; (2) The first huge ‘huge’ community concert at the Sylvan Theater the night before, with an attendance of 10,000! (3) The many main stage speakers and performers, including Kate Millet, Meg Christian, Rev. Troy Perry, and several who are no longer with us-Alan Ginsberg, Flo Kennedy; (4) The shock that 100,000 people turned out. We absolutely had no idea. But perhaps, the one thing I remember the most, is that not-one of the 5 simple demands we made (right to work, right to keep our children, etc.) has not been met on a Federal Level. No matter who has been in power, Republicans or Democrats, with all of our marches, and organizations, and lawsuits, we have been unable to see one Federal Right come to fruition. The great thing that emerged was our pride, or self-esteem, and our visibility. On this 25th Anniversary, the grassroots of our community, needs to get angry and rise up again. Power is never given, it must be taken.”
Robin Tyler, California
“I remember it well, because I wasn't well! I had come down with a bad case of the flu and spent most of the weekend in bed, really annoyed that I couldn't attend. What I remember most was the anxiety my few gay friends and I shared because we were not out at work, to most friends, or to family. What if we wound up on network news, or on the front page of the paper? We also got our first taste of the low ‘crowd estimates’ phenomenon that plagued most progressive rallies in that era, and we were very angry about it.”
Jerry Clark, Washington, DC
“I had been out since 1973, but this was the first time I had ever been around SO MANY Gays & Lesbians at once! It was exhilarating and awesome. Great photo-opts too.”
Peter Cooper, Oak Park, MI
“I was one of the organizers for Delaware’s contingent to the March on Washington. It was my lover Jim Welch’s first queer march and 25 years later we are still together and it is still a special shared life experience.”
Ivo Dominguez, Jr., former Task Force board member
“I recall the extraordinary sense of the power of our numbers, the diversity of our kinds, and the joy of our visibility. I also recall remaining in the closet as a bisexual, fearing the disapproval of my queer community. I applaud our progress in inclusiveness in the 25 years since.”
Sharon Page-Medrich, former delegate from Massachusetts (Boston) to the Houston Organizing Conference for the MOW
“I attended the March with a bus load of Marchers from Baltimore, Md. It was the most wonderful thing I ever did. I also help plan the Third World Conference of Lesbians and Gay which also the first ever meeting of Gay and Lesbians of color. It drew LGBTQ people from all over the world and was held at the Harumbee House Hotel on Howard Univ.’s Campus in Washington and delegates from the conference marched down GA Ave to meet the rest of the march.”
Louis L. Hughes, Jr., Baltimore, MD
“What an amazing array of people--The woman holding the sign (I LOVE MY LESBIAN DAUGHTERS) is the one that really got to me (since my mother would never have considered doing anything like that or sharing those sympathies---just the opposite!) ”
Wendy Judith Cutler, Portland, Oregon
“I abandoned classes at Wake Forest early for the lonely drive to DC. Scared, hopeful, nervous--I’d never seen a person I knew to be gay but all that was about to change. I was far too afraid to joining in. Instead inched along with the marchers sitting at the corners of buildings and on the edges of bushes pretending to look for something and only casually glancing up at the throngs of marchers. I was afraid, but I was inside I bubbling with my newfound excitement. There were my people. There was my tribe! I've never been alone again thanks to those, the bravest queers amongst us! ”
Don Davis, former Task Force board member, Williamsburg, VA
“In February of 1979 I drove from Boston to Philadelphia with Amy Hoffman, Eric Rofes and Dee Michel for the organizing convention for the first Lesbian & Gay March on Washington. & I was 23 years old and excited and overwhelmed and inspired. Eight months later I was driving a truck with Amy on our way to DC with the special March edition of GCN. The March was of course exciting, exhilarating, frustrating and moving. I think Meg Christian sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow and we stood on a hill and everyone cried. When I think of the March I think of it as one of the first (the first?) times our separate gay communities around the country ever really worked on anything together. I remember it as the beginning of a real national lesbian & gay movement.”
Richard D. Burns, New York LGBT Center Executive Director
“What I remember most about the March in the early 90's was reading an article on the front page of the Metro section of the Washington Post. I was traveling into town from Dulles & the article was detailing the differences between the current issues and it's precedessors. Here we were fighting for adoption rights and the abolition of sodomy laws when back in the beginning we were fighting against being treated as lepers and the ‘bearers of the 20th century's worst plague.’ It was fascinating to see how the differences and ideals were portrayed in the National Media and to see them actually comment and seemingly support our rights and priviledges as menu, women, lovers, partners, children, and parents.”
“Wow, what an event that was. Being a university professor in the State of Virginia, I knew my place in the eyes of the State - not place for gays to congregate in public. I decided it was time to take a chance and march. I with several who worked for the federal or other state governments marched that day. It was both personally rewarding, but wonderful to be with so many others who had ‘enough.’ We proudly marched. That march opened many doors...the world now realized we were a group of humans, not ‘rejects from nature.’ It was a great moment for the generations to come. Those today never had to experience ‘sneaking around’’ to have a gay party without being arrested. They don't know what was like to be intimidated and having to watch your every move because you could lose your job and future if someone really wanted to ‘turn you in.’ Now being retired, I can finally enjoy my life as a gay person without the ‘fear’ of intimidation. ”
“I attended the first March in ‘79, and my impressions were that it was amazing to see so many LGBT people in one place. Having grown up in Texas in the 1950s I was totally blown away by a 50 piece marching band from Dallas, Texas. I didn't think there were that many queers in all of Texas! The other thing I remember is how it was a media non-event. It was like the media was afraid to mention it in polite society. There was one other thing that bugged me. The visible absence of clergy. In previous civil rights movements liberal clergy were quite visible. I was the only one wearing a collar... and royally ticked off that so many of the liberal clergy whom I had expected to be there - weren't. It has taken them 30 years to begin to get involved. It still bugs the hell out of me! ”
Rev. Sarah J. Flynn, Burlington, VT
The First Queer March on Washington: A veteran community organizer commemorates the twenty-fifth anniversary
By Eric Rofes
The first March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights and Liberation. That event drew 100,000 people to the streets of the District of Columbia on October 14, 1979, at a moment in our community’s history vastly different from the one we occupy today. As I thumb through my scrapbook and archives of organizing materials from that effort, and as I listen to the record and the videotapes produced capturing the ‘79 march, a range of memories and conflicted feelings rush through me. Clearly, the world has changed in our lifetimes.
In 1979, I was a 24 year old schoolteacher and member of Boston's radical Gay Community News collective. That winter, a group of collective members rented a car and drove through the New England snows to what would become an historic event at the Quaker Meeting House in Philadelphia. Converging that weekend were over 200 grassroots activists from throughout the nation who came together to debate whether or not to launch the massive organizing effort we knew it would take to bring our rank-and-file to Washington.
I am surprised how much I recall about that weekend. The frigid winter air became electric as out gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender activists met counterparts from other locales (yes, bi and trans organizers were there from the start). Women's music met disco clones; revolutionary socialists linked arms with the nascent gay leadership of the Democratic Party; smug San Franciscans sat side-by-side with smug New Yorkers. While voices were present aiming to interrupt the energy flow towards marching, it was clear from the outset that the chamber was filled with men and women eager to ratify a call to march. The 60s were still alive for many of us, and marches on our nation’s capital retained tremendous symbolic power: to hit the radar screen as a national movement demanded a pilgrimage to Washington.
Our work that weekend was torn by the divisions of the day: tensions between lesbians and gay men, racism and calls for specific outreach to communities of color, attempts by Left sectarian groups to dominate organizing efforts. Yet we united around visionary ideals of a world without homophobia, sexism, and racism, and a movement which valued economic justice, youth liberation, and sexual and reproductive freedom. The tepid national gay groups sent mostly stealth emissaries to the event, hoping that the rag-tag refugees from the 60s who embarrassed them so, would become enmeshed in internal bickering over narrow political points and grind to a halt the drive to march before it got out of the gate.
Their hopes were dashed by a vote which endorsed the march and that weekend a call went out from Philadelphia to queers around the United States to use whatever means necessary to bring the masses to Washington. I threw myself into the effort, chairing the national policy committee and serving as one of the lead media organizers. A follow-up meeting that summer in Houston and one in Washington, D.C. cemented our determination to work through the highly-charged politics of the time (debates about trans inclusion became ugly) to bring off the march of our dreams. It was a heady time but an exhausting time, those years before faxes, phone conferencing, and e-mail. We licked thousands of envelopes, plastered posters on the sides of buildings, and found ourselves facing personal phone bills for hundreds of dollars.
Our challenge was formidable: we knew we needed to turn out a large number of queers but no one had done this before. While some of the coastal and urban communities already were home to networks and formal organizations, we had to work overtime to identify and catalyze gay people in many states. I remember the frustration we encountered thumbing through early gay guides, trying to identify activists in Arkansas, Alabama, North Dakota and Montana and the delight at our New York City headquarters when a call came in informing us that Alaska was sending a delegation to the Houston meeting.
During this pre-HRC era, none of the big bucks organizers who would soon be funding AIDS organizations came through with a cent for the 1979 march. Most of them had disdain for gay liberation even as they benefited from it and erected pleasure enclaves in beach communities. Instead we organized endless fundraisers, hawked buttons and t-shirts on the street, and begged bar owners to toss a few dollars our way. We entered the weekend of October 14 with no cash reserves and, when the company we'd hired to provide us with a stage alongside the Washington Monument surprised us by demanding a $1000 deposit, we turned to a straight progressive funder in Boston who got out of bed late at night (he was sleeping with one of my female housemates) to wire us the cash.
The morning of the march was cold and sunny and shortly after we arrived at the mall to chalk off assembly areas for the various contingents, busses filled with marchers began arriving. District police soon freaked out at the sight of men in leather and threatened to arrest anyone wearing handcuffs. Crisis was averted when one of our key organizers from Detroit took up her bullhorn and found a way to cajole burly leather men into slipping their cuffs into the pockets of their motorcycle jackets.
The march itself rushed by in a blur as thousands upon thousands poured into the streets waving banners identifying their hometowns. These were the years before celebrities opened their arms to gay communities and Cher, Barbra Streisand, and Elizabeth Taylor were nowhere to be found; only Lily Tomlin sent one of her cautiously worded letters which was read from the stage. Our own community-based stars headlined the stage including writers Allen Ginsberg and Kate Millet, musicians Holly Near, Meg Christian, and Tom Robinson, Blackberri and comic Robin Tyler. As the fundraising pitch was made, we march organizers grabbed big plastic Hefty bags and walked through the masses as people filled them with money. We stashed them in a nearby trailer which served as our on-site headquarters and, as the rally wound down, gathered them up and dashed to Washington's Women's Bank where we counted money into the wee hours of the next day.
The 1979 march stands as the single pre-AIDS mass event which attempted to unify lesbian and gay organizers whose work overwhelmingly had been based in local communities into a coordinated national force. Hence the organizing tells a great deal about the directions our movement had taken in the brief decade following Stonewall and serves as a snapshot of so-called ‘gay power’ at the moment before AIDS struck. I am consistently surprised by the writings of revisionist journalists who describe the pre-AIDS gay community as powerful, well-organized, and well-funded. Clinging to the idealism of social movements of the 1960s, we were unaware of the one-two punch that was about to strike. A year after the march Reagan was elected president, beginning almost two decades of the Reagan-Bush-Gingrich regime that opposed our movement at almost every turn. At the same time, the plague era began and soon took the lives of some of the best organizers of the 1979 march.
We could not have mobilized as we did against the rising tide of Reagan's Religious Right and the scourge of AIDS, without the 1979 march. Critical alliances forged through that organizing process between women and men, the networks developed in communities of color, the political organizations founded in its aftermath, became literal lifelines to which we clung as we were swept into a cyclone more horrific than any of us had imagined. The fact that twenty-five years after our first March on Washington, some of us remain to recall its ambitions and continue the grunt work of organizing towards a more equitable world, is a tribute to the ideals
The mission of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is to build the political power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community from the ground up. We do this by training activists, organizing broad-based campaigns to defeat anti-LGBT referenda and advance pro-LGBT legislation, and by building the organizational capacity of our movement. Our Policy Institute, the movement’s premier think tank, provides research and policy analysis to support the struggle for complete equality and to counter right-wing lies. As part of a broader social justice movement, we work to create a nation that respects the diversity of human expression and identity and creates opportunity for all. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., we also have offices in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis and Cambridge.
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