October 14, 1979– Harvey Milk dreamed of a gay march on the Nation’s Capital & spoke of it many times before he was murdered in 1978. He believed that gay visibility would lead to the end of discrimination. Inspired by Milk, the first march was held on this day in 1979.
The man who would become my husband & I had just started our romance in October, 1979 & we were cautious of being “too out”. A Democrat in the White House, demands for sweeping civil rights protections, religious opponents working to undo a string of state based victories; this was the backdrop in 1979 when gay rights activists staged the first national march in Washington.
The National March On Washington For Lesbian & Gay Rights was the name given to first such march on the nation’s capital. It drew close to 200,000 gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, & straight allies to demand equal civil rights & urge the passage of protective civil rights legislation.
The march served to nationalize the gay movement, which before, had been focused on local struggles. This spirit is invoked in the closing paragraph of the program for the march:
“Today in the capital of America, we are all here, the almost liberated & the slightly repressed; the butch, & femme & everything in-between; the androgynous; the monogamous & the promiscuous; the masturbators & the fellators & the tribadists; men in dresses & women in neckties; those who bite & those who cuddle, celibates, diesel dykes & nelly queens; amazons & size queens, Yellow, Black, Brown, White, & Red; the short-haired & the long, the fat & the thin; the nude & the prude, the beauties & the beasts, the studs & the duds, the communes, the couples, & the singles; pubescent & the octogenarians. Yes, we are all here! We are everywhere! Welcome to The March On Washington For Lesbian & Gay Rights!”
The march began at the National Mall, turned left onto Pennsylvania Avenue, proceeded northwest towards The White House & ended in a rally between The Washington Monument & Reflecting Pool. It was led by the Salsa Soul Sisters, who carried the official march banner. Speakers at the main rally included: Harry Britt, Allen Ginsberg & his boyfriend Peter Orlovsky, Flo Kennedy, Morris Knight, Audre Lorde, Leonard Matlovich, Kate Millett, Reverend Troy Perry, Eleanor Smeal, & Congressman Ted Weiss. DC Mayor Marion Barry gave a welcome to the marchers on behalf of the city.
In addition to the march itself, the organizers offered 3 days of workshops, artistic events, strategy sessions, focus groups on specific issues of women & minorities within the LGBT community, consciousness raising, local organization, religion & other issues. The Monday after the march was organized as a Constituent Lobbying Day where over 500 participants attempted to contact every member of Congress to express support for gay rights legislation. The participants successfully met with 50 senators & 150 house members.
36 years later, with work still to be done, the country has full Marriage Equality, Out & Proud celebrities, & World Of Wonder’s always entertaining RuPaul’s Drag Race.