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Lambda Lore

1987 National March on Washington for lesbian and gay rights

National March on Washington
Written by Ben Williams

In October 1987, a handful of Utahns went to the National March on Washington for lesbian and gay rights. The march was planned in response to the Supreme Court’s Bowers v. Hardwick decision. The justices upheld the legality of state sodomy laws which criminalized homosexuality. Additionally, people went to protest Ronald Reagan’s lack of response to the AIDS crisis.

Approximately 20 to 30 Utahns went to the March on Washington compared to 50,000 from California and 1,000 from neighboring Colorado. We were a minuscule part of the 650,000 gay and lesbians who marched and rallied in Washington, D.C., where a quilt the size of two football fields with 1,920 quilt panels laid representing people who had died of AIDS.

I traveled by train with a former drag queen and ex-marine friend named Mark Lamar to the event. Upon arriving, we went down the ramp leading to the lobby and there beyond the crowd of strangers were at least 16 people from my Salt Lake City. They all cheered and clapped for Mark and me. It almost made me cry. It was so beautiful and thrilling to step into a strange city and be greeted by people who care about you.

Everyone was on a high being in D.C., knowing why we were there, being with our little band from Utah. Singing and skipping, we felt like for at least that weekend; D.C. was our town. Everywhere gay and lesbian people were converging on the city. There was a heightened sense of solidarity, real brother and sisterhood; of mission; of purpose; and while it seemed like a huge National Pride Day event, it was much more.

On Saturday, Oct. 10, mass gay weddings took place on Constitution Avenue and 10th Street in front of the IRS building. There was a platform stage that contained sound equipment along with a massive arch of helium-filled white, black, and silver balloons. The Loudspeakers blared songs from La Cage Aux Folles. Perhaps 10,000 people or more massed in the streets, hanging in trees, on steps, holding hundreds of silver balloons. The couples getting married were in the middle of the crowd of thousands. Many were in tuxedos and wedding dresses, and beautiful people holding roses and celebrating their love. Speakers told the crowd ‘We are here to declare that love is what makes a family.”

Later in the day, I wrote of my impressions of the thousands gathered in front of the Lambda Rising Bookstore at Dupont Circle.

“Thousands of gay and lesbian people were strewn everywhere, holding hands with lavender flowers tucked behind ears. Hunky guys were sitting on concrete benches with their shirts off. There were slender New York lesbians in black leather outfits, wearing dark glasses and black berets over their long hair — with matching t-shirts. Older women sported short cropped silver-gray hair.

“Of the gay men, almost all were dressed in young preppy East-Coast styles of pastel Izod shirts. There were a lot of stonewashed Levi jackets and leather flight jackets, as well as a small leather presence in the crowd of gorgeous gay men. Everyone had on at least one button, but most donned ‘March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights’ to a pink triangle on a black background. The overall feeling of the place was of love and support, commitment, pride, and a dedication to never going back into the closet.

“A camera crew filmed the crowd and asked people, ‘Where are you from?’ When a news reporter stuck the microphone in my face, she asked where I’m from. I said ‘Salt Lake City!’ as enthusiastically as I could. She perked up and motioned the cameraman over and said: ‘Could you repeat that?’ I smiled as brightly as I could and said ‘Salt Lake City’ — in my Brigham Young University sweatshirt. I don’t know if I made the local news, but I think I did.”

The march and rally were held on Sunday, Oct. 11. At first, the Utah group had no signage to identify with, tucked in between Arizona and New Mexico. However, I located a poster from the National Anti-Violence Task Force which had Utah printed on it. And someone else had managed to pull together a rainbow flag. So from nothing, we put on a respectable showing.

Some encouraging soul yelled at us: “Utah, small but proud and brave.”

You would not believe the reactions because we were there. We had no pretty flags, large signs or anything else, but many people took pictures of the Utah marchers. It was like no one could believe that anyone would dare show up from Utah. As we marched, our spirits lifted by the kind souls yelling, “Yay Utah! Glad you’re here.”

Michael Aaron led us in chanting, “We’re sorry about Hatch.” People laughed along the way saying “We forgive you” and “It’s not your fault” and “We’re sorry too!” Encouraged by the response, we also chanted another one of Michael Aaron’s originals, “We’ll fight, we’ll scratch, to get rid of Orrin Hatch.”

It took two hours to reach the end of the march route at the Capitol. Before the Utah delegation broke up, we took a group picture, and then we absorbed into the massive crowd.

As I walked toward the Washington Monument almost by happenstance I came upon the Names Project; the AIDS Quilt. When I first saw it, I thought “how colorful”, but upon looking at the first panel, I realized it was a grave. I saw a panel sewn with the name of Mike White and a teddy bear. I immediately burst into tears. It hit me like a ton of bricks that each panel represented some loved one who died of AIDS. I was almost in shock walking and seeing panel after panel of the quilt. People were grief-stricken.

Mark Lamar sobbed so hard I had to hold him. I tried to be stoic, covering my face with my hands to brush away the tears, but it was devastating. A young gay man witnessed my grief and touched my arm as if to say “I understand. We are all sharing the same pain.” No one spoke. All were in reverent silence.

Mark asked me later if I had a funny feeling about leaving Washington, D.C., and I said, “No, I’m ready to go home. I have a lot of energy, ideas, and enthusiasm to take back.”

I felt somewhat like a gay missionary ready to bring civilization to the deepest, darkest Utah.

About the author

Ben Williams

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