600 Gay Rights Activists Arrested in Capital Protest

Times Staff Writer

Police officers, many wearing rubber gloves, arrested more than 600 gay rights activists outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday as protesters held a mass demonstration designed to call attention to their cause and denounced last year’s landmark decision upholding a Georgia state sodomy law.

It was the largest mass arrest ever to take place at the court and the largest in Washington since the Vietnam era, police said. Arrests were made throughout the morning as group after group of demonstrators climbed the court’s steps, crossed police barriers and sat down in the plaza in front of the building, where protests are prohibited.

“Civil disobedience is not new to gays and lesbians,” said Pat Norman of San Francisco, co-chairmanof the National March on Washington, which organized the peaceful demonstration and a massive weekend rally that preceded it. “Every day in our lives we commit the act of civil disobedience by loving another. We demand an end to this idiocy.”

The demonstrators sought the arrests as a means of increasing public awareness of their views. They condemned the 1986 high court decision on the Georgia law, which bans homosexual conduct. In that bitterly divided decision, the court ruled that the Constitution does not protect homosexual relations between consenting adults, even in the privacy of their own homes.

That decision “left lesbians and gays constitutionally homeless,” said Susan Cavin, a visiting lecturer at Rutgers University. Other demonstrators wore T-shirts bearing the slogan: “Legalize my love.”


The orchestrated demonstration turned occasionally raucous as protesters trampled through hedges in search of a back entrance to the court and shouted at police, ridiculing those who had donned surgical gloves as well as riot gear out of fear of contracting AIDS or other communicable diseases.

“Lesbians are low-risk,” some yelled as glove-wearing police began to arrest a dozen lesbians who had formed the first wave of protesters. “Your gloves don’t match your shoes,” they shouted later.

Charged With Trespassing

Apart from occasional pushing and shoving, however, there were no clashes between police and demonstrators. The courtroom, where justices were listening to arguments, remained open to the public most of the day.

All of those arrested were charged only with trespassing, a District of Columbia Police Department spokesman said, and were likely to be released by late Tuesday after paying a $100 fine. As the arraignment of prisoners began Tuesday evening, police estimated the number of arrests at 600, though protest organizers said court officials had put the figure at 840.

Many of those arrested also wore bright yellow rubber gloves to mock what they described as an offensive D.C. Police Department practice of using gloves when arresting homosexuals to protect themselves from AIDS.

Capt. William White III, a police department spokesman, said surgical gloves were used by officers to reduce the risk of contracting any kind of communicable disease and are “not intended or designed to reflect upon any particular group.”

“It should be emphasized that the practice of wearing protective equipment was implemented long before the threat of AIDS was known to the public,” White said.

The demonstration was the culmination of a week of activity for gay rights activists from around the country who gathered in Washington to lobby Congress and to participate in Sunday’s mass march from the White House to the Mall next to the Capitol.

That march, which called for increased funding for AIDS research and federal anti-discrimination legislation, attracted at least 200,000 people--organizers put the number at 500,000.

Although Tuesday’s gathering was far smaller, the 2,000 to 4,000 who were there turned the area around the court into a protest ground, blocking streets and sidewalks, waving banners and cheering on those who stepped forward to be arrested. “Hey, hey, ho, ho,” they shouted, “homophobia has got to go.”