Why the March on Washington matters for LGBT activism


Participants in this year's Gay Pride March in New York City waive flags in support of the movement. Photo taken June 30, 2013 by Shinya Suzuki.

Participants in this year’s Gay Pride March in New York City waive flags in support of the movement. Photo taken June 30, 2013 by Shinya Suzuki.

By Irene Morse

September is Pride Month for Southern states, who moved the famous parade event from June to September in an attempt to escape the intense summer heat. Pride parades are one of the most visible aspects of gay culture in America, and when LGBT issues are raised in government, many Americans picture the iconic parades of San Francisco and New York.

Highly visible events such as parades have been a big part of minority movements in America since the 1960s.  On August 28th, 1963, more than 200,000 African Americans and their political allies gathered at the national mall as part of a protest that became famous as the audience for Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have A Dream” speech.  The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom caught the nation’s attention and, in combination with targeted legislative efforts, prompted momentous political change, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  It also caused a revolution in protest tactics. Organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Students for a Democratic Society, and the National Organization for Women began to employ nonviolent protest tactics designed to generate widespread public awareness and media coverage in addition to their traditional legislative advocacy efforts.

LGBT activists have often been reluctant to place themselves within a larger history of civil rights progress.  There are several reasons for this. One is a sense of inferiority emerging from the repressed shame many LGBT individuals feel thanks to a society that tells them that their desires are wrong and their problems just aren’t that big. And indeed, while the LGBT community faces a great deal of discrimination even to this day, it has never faced institutionalized prejudice and exclusion from the political process to the extent that African Americans did in the past. Another is the worry that locating the LGBT rights movement within a tradition that includes the African American civil rights movement will alienate potential supporters, particularly members of the African American community who may be willing to support LGBT rights but unwilling to concede that they have continuity with their own civil rights struggle. Finally there is the problem of the LGBT movement’s own inclusiveness, as too often activism has been lead only by white, rich, privileged, gay men, to the exclusion or dismissal of other groups.

However, even if the LGBT movement cannot be placed within larger civil rights traditions without some qualms, it cannot be denied that it has been inspired and aided a great deal by those that came before.  The March on Washington in particular has an important legacy for LGBT activists.  Seven members of the Mattachine Society of Washington, an early gay advocacy organization, attended the March, and one of its primary organizers, Baynard Rustin, was an African American who was also gay.  Because of his sexuality, Rustin rarely served as a public spokesperson during the height of the Civil Rights movement, but in a 1986 speech he declared:

“Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change.  Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination.  The new ‘niggers’ are gays.”

By October 1979, gay rights activists had emulated the 1963 march with their own National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.  This first march had 75,000 participants; the next one in 1987 had 500,000; by 1993 one million demonstrators showed up.

Visibility is particularly important when it comes to LGBT activism.  This is because in the US, as in many liberal democracies, people have generally adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to gay issues.  In other words, as long as LGBT individuals didn’t flaunt their sexuality, friends and family were content to let their “strange uncles” live in peace.  Of course problems began when gays and lesbians did try to initiate frank discussions about their sexuality, as evidenced by past hate crimes such as the assassination of Harvey Milk, the rape and murder of Brandon Teena, and the murder of Matthew Shepherd.

After the blatant dismissal of the AIDS epidemic by the Reagan administration, it became clear to the LGBT community that it was no longer possible to live quietly in order to avoid harassment.  It was necessary that the government notice and respond to LGBT issues: AIDS initially and later gay marriage, gay military service, nondiscrimination in employment, et cetera.  Organizations such as ACT UP played a huge role in making the LGBT community increasingly visible.  Other less explicitly political events, such as Pride parades, were fundamental in forcing American society to acknowledge the existence of gays and lesbians and eventually the discrimination they faced.

LGBT individuals are in a much better political position today than ever before.  This is in part thanks to increased visibility from successful protest movements.  Like many other minority groups, they have the legacy of the 1963 March on Washington to thank for that.

Posted by on September 8, 2013. Filed under LGBT,Recent News,Top News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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