Feeling their political oats, gays flock to Washington as rights march nears

April 22, 1993|By Peter Honey | Peter Honey,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Buoyed by a deep conviction that they hold the political initiative at last, gays and lesbians from around the country have begun arriving in the nation's capital for events leading up to Sunday's mass march for homosexual rights.

Organizers are predicting the biggest civil rights demonstration in U.S. history.

"For the first time, we're actually being heard. That's what makes it so special," said Cameron Wolf, co-chair of the Maryland Organizing Committee for the march.

Gay activists expect as many as a million people to join this weekend's march in downtown Washington, and they hope it will help speed such long-standing legislative demands as civil rights protection for gays, an end to the ban on homosexuals in the military and increased funding for AIDS research.

"Seven or eight years ago, hardly anyone bothered about us. But now there isn't a politician around who doesn't have to [confront] the gay-lesbian issue," said a co-chair of the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation who identified herself as Scout.

A similar march in 1987 drew between 200,000 (police estimate) and 650,000 (organizers' estimate). But the atmosphere was much different.

"For a start, we had a president and administration that were at best indifferent and often downright hostile to the issue of equal rights for gays and lesbians," said John Hannay, head of Baltimore's Gay and Lesbian Community Center.

Six years later, the capital will be the scene of an unprecedented display of sexual freedom, as thousands of individuals and groups, once unorganized or too shy to reveal their sexual orientation, arrive for the 290 parties, receptions, lectures and workshops in the days leading up to the march.

Under discussion will be gay, lesbian and bisexual issues ranging from AIDS support and research to military policy, gay art and the right to same-sex marriages.

Several black church leaders in Washington sharply attacked the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's endorsement of the march yesterday, saying it was "offensive, immoral and against the intent and purposes" of the group.

"This is not a civil rights issue; it is a moral issue," said D. Lee Owens, pastor of the Greater Mount Zion Church in Washington.

Controversy also has broken out over a 62-point platform of demands issued by the march organizers this week, including issues some participants regard as extraneous to the gay rights cause, such as the repeal of "English-only" laws.

"We will not endorse their platform, period," said Richard Tafel, head of the Log Cabin Federation, a national gay Republican group.

Those issues did not appear to pose a major threat to harmony, however.

"Our movement is so different and varied that we have agreed to all stand together," said Gil Aurellano, a Marylander serving on the march steering committee.

Some activists want to make this weekend's march the biggest coming-out party that this city, or probably any other, has ever seen. Amid the offbeat functions, the flaunted sexuality and Mardi Gras atmosphere are such lighthearted events as the Queer Scout Cookie Sellathon, the Radical Faerie Get-Together and the National Lesbutante Ball.

Some march organizers fear that the radical fringe could overshadow the more mainstream -- and far more numerous -- participants in Sunday's rally.

The march, two years in the planning, grew in significance after President Clinton, shortly after being elected, restated his intention to abolish the decades-old ban on gays in the military. ,, The resulting anti-gay backlash led Mr. Clinton to delay, for at least six months, an order lifting the ban.

In the Baltimore area, shuttle buses will run from Memorial Stadium, Mondawmin Mall and the Hippo nightclub at North Charles and Eager streets to the New Carrollton metro station outside Washington from 6 a.m. and 11 a.m.

The march will begin Sunday at noon. The route starts on the Washington Monument grounds, winds past the White House onto Pennsylvania Avenue and spills onto the Mall at Seventh St. N.W., where there will be an afternoon of speeches and entertainment.

Among the scheduled speakers are Democratic Reps. Barney Frank and Gerry E. Studds of Massachusetts, the highest-ranking openly gay elected officials in the country; the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson; talk show host Phil Donahue; New York Mayor David N. Dinkins; Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women; David Mixner, a leading fund-raiser for the Clinton campaign in the gay community; tennis star Martina Navratilova; and movie actress Cybill Shepherd.

Among the dozens of entertainers will be Peter, Paul and Mary, the female vocal trio Betty, singer Melissa Etheridge and drag celebrity RuPaul.

March organizers, who tried unsuccessfully in a private meeting last week to persuade Mr. Clinton to attend, say they are still hopeful that he will deliver a live, televised message to the gathering.

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