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Reflections on the 1993 March on Washington

As part of the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington on April 25, 1993, the Task Force joined with StoryCorps to share real-life stories about LGBT people as we approached today’s anniversary. You’ll find a series of related posts on our blog from the past week.

And, today we have our own guest post from Deborah Moncrief Bell, was the National Organizer of the 1993 March and fondly referred to by volunteers as The Supreme, Mega Grand Diva of the Whole Blessed Universe:

Anniversaries are an occasion for celebration, remembrance and reflection. On April 25, 1993, “The March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation” (93 MOW) took place. It was a significant day for the 700,000 folks present. Park police placed the number at 300,000. One of the performers that day, Deidre McCalla quipped, “That is because women and people of color are invisible.” Later analysis indicated the larger crowd estimate. And for me, as one of the main organizers, I was at the heart of it so I have my own perspective.

As an activist in Houston, Texas, I had been involved for many years in the peace and justice movement with a strong feminist base in the National Organization for Women (NOW). I had been a co-chair for two years of Houston Pride, and had attended previous national marches. Little did I realize that attending the Task Force’s 1991 Creating Change conference would change my life as dramatically as it did. Many people describe Creating Change as “coming home” and it felt that way for me as well.

Click here to watch Urvashi Vaid’s speech at the 1993 March on Washington.

I soaked up what I learned at the workshops, was inspired by the plenary sessions, and met other folks who were talking about organizing another great march on Washington, at the call of former Task Force Executive Director Urvashi Vaid. I joined in those sessions because I believed strongly in the power of visibility, which led me to join the steering committee and start organizing locally.

When the call came to hire a national organizer, I answered it, and helped to build the infrastructure that was used to make the event successful. Working with hundreds of others, including the Washington Host Committee, building a base of volunteers and making sure the march was documented with significant media coverage*.

Working with a 12-member executive committee and a 200-plus member steering committee for nearly two years, using a consensus process, we set about the permitting, the logistics, the networking and fund-raising that would comprise the march and a week of events that were held in conjunction.

Using consensus to chose a name for the event was a challenge and many folks were not pleased with the title that was chosen (for example: transgender was not included). Likewise, devising the platform was challenging. Many people thought it was too broad, because there was not an understanding by all at the time of the intersection of movements or the importance of being allies, something I have come to understand more deeply through Creating Change conferences. As I like to think of it, we just weren’t there yet. There was also a lot of criticism of the efforts to be inclusive, strangely enough.

We built on the platform of previous marches, expanding it with supplemental demands. We were newly under the Clinton administration’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy so we gave particular attention to current and veteran service members. The community was struggling with the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, and the Names Project Memorial Quilt first presented at the march in 1987, was once again covering a large part of the mall in D.C. Marriage equality was only a dream for many, one we did not think would happen in our lifetimes. The platform was:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • We demand legislation to prevent discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender 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.
  • We demand full and equal inclusion of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people in the educational system, and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender studies in multicultural curricula.
  • We demand the right to reproductive freedom and choice, to control our own bodies, and an end to sexist discrimination.
  • We demand an end to racial and ethnic discrimination in all forms.
  • 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.

The first MOW was in 1979, 10 years after Stonewall, and there has been one roughly in each decade since (Millennium March on Washington 2000 and the National Equality March 2009). So, how far had we come from 1979? And in the 20 years since 1993?

This social justice movement has been advanced by making ourselves heard not only through massive demonstrations, but also in our daily lives, taking action in public efforts, and on more personal levels, to understand and to use political science to work in our local communities, integrating us into the fabric of American life in cultural, societal, academic, institutional, business, religious, political and governmental realms. Polling now indicates overwhelming majority support for the tenets of that platform.

The ruling in Lawrence v. Texas ended sodomy laws in this county 10 years ago; “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been overturned; Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is federal legislation that would prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Advances in medicine and care for those with HIV/AIDS and the implementation of a national health-care plan, that while far from ideal, offers a form of universal health care.

Our ability to form families has become more within our reach.

Twenty years ago, marriage equality was something most of us did not think we would see in our lifetimes. Even though hundreds took part that week in a “holy union” ceremony, none were legally married. The Supreme Court is on the verge of decisions regarding marriage-equality. Nine states and the District of Columbia allow marriage equality.

Departments of LGBT Studies exist in most major universities, including one posed to have a graduate transgender studies program. Comprehensive and inclusive multicultural curricula have been developed, and implemented in some primary and secondary schools.

Hate crime laws offer protections from violence, along with work with law enforcement and community agencies.

More LGBT characters exist in popular media than ever before, including entertainment and sports, with more public figures coming out. It is no longer unusual, or token, or treated in a negative way. There is hope for those who have endured a lifetime of discrimination.

Did the 1993 MOW bring about all these advances? No, not alone. Many thousands of individuals, our community of heroes as I call them, went forth to create change that day and the work has continued through grassroots to local, state, and national efforts, including the work of the Task Force and the 25 Creating Change conferences. This progress has been accomplished not by the march of one day, but in the collective efforts of millions over many years taking many steps forward together. I am excited to be part of the host committee efforts for the Creating Change 2014 conference in Houston as we continue the journey, the journey of the unfinished agenda of the civil rights movement, which as we said then, “is a simple matter of justice”.

* In 1993 we were the first national organizing effort to utilize the Internet. Primitive documents can be accessed, as well as videos on YouTube (there was live coverage via C-SPAN and via the Pacifica Radio network and is available in its archives). Return to main text