Black Jack didn't blink

Sandy Grady

April 27, 1993|By Sandy Grady

Washington -- BLACK JACK Pershing never saw anything like it.

I kept a close eye on the aloof, mustachioed statue of Gen. John Pershing, the World War I demigod who led a victorious American Expeditionary Force across Europe.

Amazingly, Black Jack didn't blink.

Past Pershing's statue rolled the most bizarre, flamboyant troops that ever marched up historic Pennsylvania Avenue.

They wore beads and bangles and leather and see-thru bras. And that was some of the men. Some women wore nothing topside.

They chanted defiantly, "We're proud, we're gay, we won't go away." Or light-heartedly, "We're here, we're queer, let's have a beer." Or firmly, "No more hate, justice now."

They flaunted wacky T-shirts and signs: "I Can't Even March Straight," "Find a Cure for Homophobia," "Closets are for Clothes," "Gen. Powell Stay Out of My Colin," "I'm A Mainstream Faggot," and "We Came to Do Chelsea's Hair."

They cheered when organizer Torie Osborn shouted, "This is the beginning of the Queer '90s."

OK, maybe straight America isn't eager for the "Queer '90s."

But this national homosexual and lesbian march hoped to show by its fervent mass turnout that gays are a force politicians can't ignore, especially when Congress votes on the gay military ban.

If Bill Clinton stayed home, he would have been impressed.

The mob that swung past the White House was wildly diverse -- gay American Indians, Buddhists from Colorado, Muslims from New York, lesbian Kansas teachers, a Pittsburgh Gay Rhythm Band, parents pushing toddlers ("We're gay, we're in the PTA.")

How many? The National Park Service estimated the march at 300,000. D.C. cops guessed 1.1 million, closer to the organizers' hopes. My suspicion is that the National Park figure was lowballed.

Put it this way: The march thronged Pennsylvania Avenue for six hours. Three-deep spectators also seemed predominantly gay. Aerial shots showed the Mall jammed with humanity almost one mile deep.

My guess is that Sunday's mob was bigger than the 1969 anti-Vietnam protest (600,000) I attended. Bluntly, this was the biggest demonstration in Washington history.

And the most good-natured. Despite a prophecy here that the march would create a backlash because of a TV image dominated by Sister Boom-Boom-style kooks and ACT-UP weirdos, that didn't happen.

Sure, there was enough freakishness to fill a Barnum & Bailey tent. Or a Freud textbook. A sado-masochistic exhibit with sexual devices that would appall Dr. Ruth. Bare-breasted lesbians dancing in the street. Lipsticked men and flaming drag queens.

But in truth, most of the mob looked -- as Campaign for Military Rights leader Tom Stoddard said -- like "carpenters, teachers, lawyers, mainstream America." Curiously, blacks were not evident. There were servicemen, in and out of uniform. And as grim reality, AIDS victims in wheelchairs.

But the mood was celebrative, genial, a coming-out party without bitter anger.

Not that Christian right-wingers didn't try to ignite fireworks.

One church group of 50 converted ex-gays called "Exodus" showered marchers with leaflets, "Come back to Jesus!" Their leader, 36-year-old Andy Falzarano, screamed, "Being gay is being unhappy!" A Topeka, Kan., Baptist group, guarded by a dozen cops, held banners, "Sodomy Is No Civil Right" and "Faggots Burn in Hell."

The marchers' chanted taunt: "Waco Wackos!"

Did Mr. Clinton make a mistake skipping town? I think he made a wise political move. He isn't the gays' president. JFK didn't speak at Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" rally, did he?

Sure, the prez took flak. Gay hotheads carried posters of Mr. Clinton with a Pinocchio nose. They chanted, "Where's Bill?"

"I didn't expect him to speak. But I expected him to be in that building (the White House) for this symbolic event," fumed David Mixner, ex-Clinton gay adviser.

"Clinton's a welsher. He hasn't done one thing to reverse the 12-year horror," flared ACT-UP founder Larry Kramer.

There were muted boos when Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., read Mr. Clinton's letter. But most gays shrugged off criticism of Mr. Clinton -- "after Reagan and Bush, he's a hero," said a Cambridge, Mass., teacher.

If Mr. Clinton was AWOL, there were plenty of fame-seekers, including TV celeb Phil Donahue, who bellowed, "America, get used to it!"

The key question is whether this well-behaved mob scene will tilt straight America and Congress, both opposed to lifting the gay military ban. Maybe. "Senator (Sam) Nunn and General (Colin) Powell -- you too, Senator (Jesse) Helms -- look at us," insisted openly gay Rep. Gerry Studds, D-Mass. "We are an enormous family."

They swept up Pennsylvania Avenue in Mardi Gras fever. A woman burned a red dress in front of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI building. A man danced in a plastic Statue of Liberty suit. A band in bogus Marine uniforms tootled the "Chorus Line" theme.

Black Jack Pershing, hero of 1918, surely gaped in wonder. Ah, but that was another America.

Sandy Grady is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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