On Sunday, October 11, many of us will celebrate National Coming Out Day. Few, however, know that October 11 was chosen to commemorate the largest demonstration on Washington, D.C. up to that point: the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, AKA “The Great March” of 1987. Between 500,000 and 750,000 participants marched on the National Mall for a number of interconnected issues, not least of all demands for the Reagan Administration to finally acknowledge and address the ongoing AIDS epidemic that was disproportionately affecting men who had sex with men. The March encompassed six days of activities, starting with a mass wedding conducted for 2,000 same-sex couples in front of the IRS building. In many ways, we in 2020 share much with those Americans 33 years ago: a fatal disease spreads unchecked through the population as a far-right government callously and intentionally ignores the danger. But against all odds, in just a single generation, activists and allies rapidly transformed attitudes and policies toward queer people altogether, leading to increased research into HIV/AIDS, the adoption and later repeal of the “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy, the legalization of equal marriage, and countless lives saved from disease, homophobic violence, or suicide. And many of those who helped shape the course of our society got their start at The Great March in 1987.
It was a pivotal moment in queer history. The HIV/AIDS epidemic had started in 1981, but had been permitted by the Reagan Administration to absolutely devastate gay communities the entire time. People struggled for years to get help from the medical community, from the government, from anyone -- all while watching their loved ones die. Then in 1986, in the ruling for Bowers v. Hardwick, the US Supreme Court upheld the criminalization of “sodomy” between two consenting men in the privacy of a home. This regressive and outrageous violation of individual privacy spurred a new impetus for people to organize in protest. The group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was one such group to form in this time -- a leaderless organization dedicated to ending the AIDS epidemic through nonviolent direct action: conducting medical research or forcing the government to fund such research, direct treatment of sick people and advocacy for sick people, promoting safe sex and comprehensive sex education, and more. ACT UP played a significant role in The Great March of 1987, featuring prominently in the march itself, the main rally, and the civil disobedience action at the US Supreme Court. It was the first time ACT UP was covered in national news, but it certainly would not be the last -- after participants had returned home, local ACT UP chapters began popping up all over the country, transforming society.
Why was the Great March of 1987 so successful? After all, it was the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights -- what made this second one so much more successful than the first? The first march was held in 1979, ten years after the Stonewall Riots and a year after the assassination of Harvey Milk. Big names were in attendance: Allen Ginsberg, Audre Lorde, Congressman Ted Weiss, and more. The National Steering Committee mandated gender parity and 25% representation of people of color. A few other groups were contacted to support the March: Lambda Legal Defense Fund, National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, the National Organization of Women (NOW), and the National Gay Task Force. Organizers agreed upon a few specific demands unique and inclusive to all lesbian/gay people. Despite all that, only 75,000 to 125,000 participants attended -- a relatively small crowd compared to many other marches of the past couple decades. What’s worse, the event did not seem to inspire participants by and large to organize and take action on their own.
By 1987, the situation had changed dramatically. The HIV/AIDS crisis in the United States started in 1981, two years after the first march. In the first six years, at least 1,920 people had died from AIDS, each one represented by a 3 ft by 6 ft panel of the AIDS Memorial Quilt first presented on the National Mall during The Great March, and the number was rising unchecked; when the Quilt was laid out for the first time, it covered an area larger than a football field. President Reagan himself did not publicly utter the word “AIDS” until well into his second term, and intentionally ignoring the crisis had become a de facto policy. But in the intervening years, queer activists had linked up with other social movements, learning from more experienced groups and coming to recognize the commonality of their oppressions. In preparation for The Great March, a new list of demands was made that included not just legal protection for people in homosexual relationships nor the mere repeal of all anti-sodomy laws, but also included a demand to end discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS (regardless of sexual ortientation), a demand for reproductive freedom, and a demand for an end to racism in the United States and apartheid in South Africa. In the months of organizing leading to The Great March, queer activists contacted not just big names to participate, but big organizations to endorse this platform. The list of groups endorsing the March in 1987 filled several pages, and included labor unions, civil rights groups, women’s organizations, religious groups, and elected officials at various levels. Cesar Chavez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers and a leading figure in the Chicano civil rights movement, was a keynote speaker. Eleanor Smeal, three-term President of the National Organization for Women, was also a keynote speaker. In a speech at the March, Democratic Presidential candidate Jesse Jackson said, “We gather today to say that we insist on equal protection under the law for every American, for workers' rights, women's rights, for the rights of religious freedom, the rights of individual privacy, for the rights of sexual preference. We come together for the rights of all American people.” In a summary of how this new LGBTQ+ movement connected to other social movements, Chicago Mayor Harold Washington wrote in his endorsement letter, “The breadth of the issues highlighted by the March -- against racism and apartheid, as well as for civil rights -- is consistent with the historic thrust of struggles for civil rights in this country.”
Indeed, the March in 1987 was one the first times the LGBTQ+ movement exercised another American tradition: mass civil disobedience. Three days into the activities, ACT UP led the nonviolent action “Out & Outraged” in which activists attempted to enter the US Supreme Court to demand the reversal of the decision in Bowers v. Hardwick. Although the scene may have appeared chaotic to some, ACT UP had previously learned certain organizing practices from groups like the War Resisters League in order to safely and effectively perform actions -- some practices that many other groups still use today. For example, every participant was required to be part of an autonomous “affinity group.” This rule meant that no single individual could spontaneously join the action without their group nearby to keep the individual both accountable and safe. It also meant that there was a great amount of trust shared between members of the same affinity group. Affinity groups would be formed months in advance, and members would often train, learn, and work together on the same issues. These best practices in organizing, like the use of affinity groups, helped maintain safety, accountability, and focus while diverse participants carried on potentially dangerous actions. With these practices, the LGBTQ+ movement joined the ranks of more mature, experienced, and successful movements that had already won many successes with the same nonviolent action strategies.
Of course, the situation facing us now is not quite the same as in 1987. Because Covid-19 is a sickness of the breath, not the blood, and is thus much easier to spread than HIV/AIDS, we must exercise far greater caution. And yet, when George Floyd was murdered in May, people found ways to express their rage on the streets while staying safe. From 1981 to 1987, the United States tragically lost about 1,920 people to AIDS. The pain of those losses sparked a movement during a deadly epidemic that not only saved countless lives by pressuring a negligent government and speeding up HIV/AIDS research, but also helped to rapidly transform attitudes and policies toward queer people in the United States altogether. Sometimes, it is from pain and outrage that the most transformative movements grow. It’s time to let them come out again.
(The image for this post is a part of a collection assembled by Markley Morris, a LGBTQ+ activist and artist involved with War Resisters League, and is featured in the War Resisters League Perpetual Calendar. Full source for the image below. To see more pages from the Perpetual Calendar as well as to order your own copy, follow this link: https://www.warresisters.org/store/wrl-perpetual-calendar
If you would like to subscribe to the text-only Google Calendar version of the Perpetual Calendar, follow this link: https://calendar.google.com/calendar/embed?src=i10q0ba7d5vsn857rhopomg98o%40group.calendar.google.com&ctz=America%2FNew_York)
“Affinity Groups & Support.” ACT UP. https://actupny.org/documents/CDdocuments/Affinity.html
Butigan, Ken. “LGBTQ everywhere: the power of marching on Washington.” Waging Nonviolence. October 11, 2012. https://wagingnonviolence.org/2012/10/lgbtq-everywhere-the-power-of-marching-on-washington/?pf=true
D’Emilio, John. “The 1987 March on Washington Committee: The Chicago Chapter.” Out History. December 21, 2016. http://outhistory.org/blog/in-the-archives-the-1987-march-on-washington-committee-the-chicago-chapter/
“Jim.radke.3” Nonviolent Civil Disobedience at the U.S. Supreme Court, October 13, 1987. http://supremecourtcd.org/Photos.html#38
Springate, Megan E. “LGBTQ Civil Rights in America.” LGBTQ America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History. National Park Foundation, 2016: Washington, DC. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/lgbtqheritage/upload/lgbtqtheme-civilrights.pdf
Stein, Marc. “Memories of the 1987 March on Washington - August 2013.” Out History. http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/march-on-washington/exhibit/by-marc-stein
“Wedding, The.” Histories of the National Mall. http://mallhistory.org/items/show/532
Williams, Lena. “200,000 March in Capital to Seek Gay Rights and Money for AIDS.” The New York Times. October 12, 1987. https://web.archive.org/web/20070326092700/http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?sec=health&res=9B0DE7DA1E3CF931A25753C1A961948260