Saturday, September 5, 2009

Memories of Marches Past: Why I'll Be in DC on October 11, 2009

I didn't march in 1979. I was 19, had only been out for less than a year and was not yet out to my family. I was also completely politically unaware. Looking back, I don't think I even knew about the first March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights until after it was over. (Sadly, we weren't inclusive toward bisexual and transgender people back then.) The official estimate of attendance that year was 75,000.

In 1987 AIDS was decimating our community. For five years it seemed like every time I ran into one of my gay friends, they had either just come from a funeral or were going to one in the next few days. Everyone knew someone who was sick.

It was a very scary and depressing time for all of us. All of the progress we'd made in public acceptance since Stonewall had been blown away, seemingly overnight, by a deadly, opportunistic virus that was at first called "Gay Cancer", then "God's Vengeance" against us.

Ronald Reagan was in office and Jerry Falwell and his kind had unprecedented access to the White House. Reagan had never even publicly mentioned AIDS and was reported to have said in private that the deadly epidemic was only targeting fags and junkies, so why bother?

ACT-UP, founded by playwright/activist Larry Kramer, was staging die-ins at public venues all over the country, demanding that the government take action against HIV/AIDS. Monogamy was the rule and people, gay and straight were getting into relationships, even bad ones, just to be out of the dating pool.

I didn't march with the crowd of 500,000 in 1987 because I didn't think it would make a difference.

In April of 1993 I was living in Arlington, Va., just across the river from DC. Bill Clinton had just been elected with a big boost from the queer community, due to his promise to end the ban on gays serving in the military. When I heard about that year's march I decided it was time to get involved.

I'd seen an ad in the Washington Blade asking for volunteers, so I showed up at a hotel in Roslyn, Va. and signed up, not knowing what to expect. It turned out they needed marshals to work with crowd control and counter-demonstrators. "How cool!", I thought.

The several dozen of us were divided into groups, assigned to team leaders and received our training. They taught us how to isolate marchers who might be targeted by angry protesters (lock arms and form a circle around the target), how to protect ourselves by going fetal (get down, cover your face and head with your arms and hands) and passive resistance (go limp). We were told, above all else, don't react to the haters by shouting back or engaging in any other confrontations that might escalate.

We were instructed to assemble near the Washington Monument at 7 a.m. on Saturday, the 25th. Knowing the events would end in front of the Capital building, I parked my card near Union Station at 6:30 that morning and headed to the Mall.

As I approached the Capital, the afternoon stage was being prepared and engineers were testing the 30 foot tall sound system. As the sun peaked over the DC skyline, I bopped my way down the Mall to the strains of Prince's "Cream" bouncing off the walls of the Air and Space Museum, the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art. I was exhilarated in a way I'd never felt before.

I met my team at the appointed spot and our team leader handed out orange t-shirts with the word "MARSHALL" misspelled (with an extra "L") in bold, black capital letters across the front and back. "Great", I thought. "Everyone is gonna think a bunch of guys named Marshall have taken over the city."

Most of the day is still a blur to me. There were so many people and so much was going on, it was hard to keep track. Our teams assembled along the parade route on Pennsylvania Ave. to create a buffer between spectators and marchers. So far, so good. After about a half hour, as the crowd grew, our team leader got a call on his walkie-talkie (no cell phones back then). He was needed at another part of the parade route for some unknown reason. As he disappeared into the throng he told us to stay put and he'd be back as soon as he could. That was the last we saw of him.

After about an hour, when our leader hadn't returned, some of the volunteers had decided to bail on us and went off to enjoy the day's events unimpeded by what little sense of social conscience or conviction they may have had. With six of our original team remaining, we noticed another team several yards away and made our way to their leader and explained the situation. The march hadn't started yet, but there were already thousands of people lining the street. This team was heading to the afternoon stage area. Our new leader told us to follow them.

There was a small fenced off seating area in front of the stage by the Capital that was reserved for the elderly, people with AIDS and others with special medical needs. The only access was through a make-shift 10-foot wide gate. Our new assignment was to keep everyone else, including the press, out. There was an area behind the stage where reporters could interview speakers, entertainers and organizers. The best camera angles, however were in the space we were there to defend. You haven't lived until you've shouted at a CNN reporter and her crew, "NO! You gotta go around back like everyone else!"

As I said, most of the day is a blur, but it must have been around 12 noon when the parade made it's way to the Capital. As we stood our ground at what was beginning to feel like a queer Alamo, we'd make room for the folks that were allowed in, while fending off those that weren't. Throughout the afternoon, golf carts would periodically drive up with people in need of medical assistance. It was getting harder and harder to get the crowd to make way. They could see rows of empty seats behind the fence and weren't taking "no" for an answer.

At one point, a golf cart approached the gate. As we attempted to push back the sweaty human mass to make way, the driver missed running over my foot by mere inches as actor Dick Sargent (the 2nd Darren from "Bewitched") waved from the passing vehicle.

That was my only clear celebrity siting that day. With my back to the stage, I heard politicians and celebrities speak about the need for greater tolerance for LGB people. (The movement had only just added the B that year and had not yet embraced the T's.)

From behind me I heard then-HRC president Urvashi Vaid address the crowd. At some point I heard the voice of actress Lily Tomlin speaking via satellite hook-up, encouraging the marchers and saying she wished she could be there. On one of the massive the jumbo-trons staged around the Mall, I caught a glimpse of RuPaul performing "Super Model" in a red, white and blue sequined Wonder Woman-style one-piece.

Eventually we lost our second team leader in all the the chaos and were on our own. As the day wore on, the team fell apart, mostly due to fatigue or the desire to experience what was an historic event for all of us. They'd done their best in a difficult situation and no one could blame them. The remaining two of us carried on for about another hour, when we finally looked at each other with resignation and decided we'd done all we could. It was about 4:30 or 5 o'clock when we finally abandoned our post.

Exhausted, I found my way to my car and headed home, feeling for the first time like I was part of something bigger than myself. As I drove past the revelers, activists, same-sex couples with children, students, PFLAG parents and Stonewall veterans, I knew they felt the same way, if only for an afternoon.

Like most of our community, I didn't go to the Millennium March in 2000 because it was so badly planned and way too commercial. There was nothing grass-roots about it.

The 1993 March on Washington was my march. The goal of organizers was to have 1 million people in attendance and they came pretty damn close. Conservative pundits back then declared that we only made up 1% of the population and were asking for "special rights". One clear memory I have from that day is of one marcher carrying a poster that read, "If 1% is true, then all of us are here."

That day it felt like all of us were there. Like the million or so other marchers that day, I went home feeling so empowered. Of course, in time the feeling faded with the day to day realities of life. I want to feel that way again.

It's time to tell our government, "No more excuses!"

We will not accept a patch-work of civil rights that are only recognized within certain zip codes. We will not accept symbolic gestures grudgingly doled out piece-meal from on high. We will not accept insincere attempts to pacify us until our government decides it's not too busy to grant us our full constitutional rights. We will not wait until the latest polls show that America is ready to accept us as full and equal citizens.

We've paid our dues. The time is now. That's why I'll be in DC on October 11, 2009.

Visit for National Equality March details.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome.....enjoyed your story. I to will be there in October(a month away..!! )with my partner and friends from Roanke,VA. We must...all together....very visibly...and very,very loudly say.." ENOUGH" !!!


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