Last month wasn’t just LGBT History Month — it’s also the anniversary of a monumental milestone in the queer liberation movement. On October 14, 1979, tens of thousands of LGBT people marched on Washington DC to demand equality and protection.
We’re coming up on the forty-year anniversary of that march, and though a lot has changed, some of the demands of the marchers are still unmet. A lot has happened in the intervening four decades, including an epidemic that nobody could have predicted in the late 70s. But now’s a good time to look back at the march, at the impact it continues to have, and at the lessons it teaches us today.
It took five years to make the national march happen. Plans began for a national march in 1973, and was to occur in Minneapolis. But the movement was still in its infancy then, and there was still a lot of division over whether a march should happen at all. Many in the movement opposed a national march — a reluctance that is echoed in the rejection of Pride marches and political strategizing to this day.
Concrete plans for a national march finally started coming together, with the target of November of 1978. But just one month before the march was to happen, the organizers were torn apart by disagreement and dropped their plans.
That’s when Harvey Milk stepped in to resume planning. He put together the logistics for the march, and was working on the planning around the time he was assassinated. His murder spurred activists around the country to action, and they finally coalesced around a plan to march in 1979, on the ten-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
This was at a time when intersectionality was not as big a deal as it is today, and the organizers established five demands that all related to LGBT issues — there were no attempts to build bridges to ally communities with the march’s platform. Organizers issued five demands:
1. Pass a comprehensive lesbian/gay rights bill in Congress.
This has happened, somewhat, in piecemeal ways. Hillary Clinton has said that she’ll sign the Equality Act into law, which would give everyone the same protection on the basis of sexual orientation that they currently have on the basis of race.
2. Issue a presidential executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in the federal government, the military, and federally contracted private employment.
This finally happened under President Obama.
3. Repeal all anti-lesbian/gay laws.
Still waiting for a complete repeal of these, although these days things are a lot better than they were in 1979. Back then, the country had just been gripped by the first wave of gay-marriage hysteria, and many state passed laws banning marriage equality.
4. End discrimination in lesbian-mother and gay-father custody cases.
Again, this has drastically improved in the last 40 years, but we still see bias in the courts.
5. Protect lesbian and gay youth from any laws which are used to discriminate, oppress, and/or harass them in their homes, schools, jobs, and social environments.
Another piecemeal solution, with some states and towns offering protections but others leaving queer kids vulnerable.
The march itself was a huge success. Around 100,000 people showed up, and marched openly in the streets. Various national luminaries were present, from Robin Tyler to Allen Ginsberg to Harry Britt. Washington Mayor Marion Barry welcomed them. There were lots of workshops, art events, and lobbying — and, let’s assume, plenty of hookups.
It was the beginning of a movement — and we’re much closer to its culmination today.