Huge March Seeks Gay Rights : Protest: An end to discrimination and expanded AIDS research are demanded. Park Service crowd estimate of 300,000 is disputed by organizers.


Hundreds of thousands of gays and lesbians, accompanied by family members and friends, produced an extraordinary show of strength Sunday during a six-hour demonstration that combined a festive celebration of their lives with demands for an end to discrimination and an escalation in the war against AIDS.

In a bid to convince America that gay rights are synonymous with civil rights, demonstrators produced one of the largest political happenings in the capital’s history.

The day began at noon as the marchers fanned out from the grounds of the Washington Monument, past the White House and onto the grounds of the Mall for a rally that featured a program of speakers and entertainers that lasted until dusk.


The march nearly equaled last April’s abortion-rights protest and was significantly larger than the event to which its producers often compared it: the 1963 civil rights rally at the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Organizers claimed that they had succeed in persuading 1 million marchers to descend on Washington from all across the nation. But the National Park Service, which traditionally produces far lower estimates than do sponsors of demonstrations, placed the number at 300,000.

That estimate seemed low to many observers, and a spokesman for the march charged that “the insults and manipulation have not ended.”

The March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi (Sexual) Equal Rights and Liberation was a joyous, peaceful affair, lacking--except for a few speakers--the angry tone that so often characterizes other Washington protest marches.

Critics of gay and lesbian rights mounted only scattered, small counterdemonstrations, while arrests were limited to 15 vendors without licenses and four people who became involved in a brief scuffle.

While some drag queens dotted the throngs and flamboyant performers filled the rally stage, most participants were dressed in the T-shirts, shorts and blue jeans customarily seen on warm, sunny spring days amid Washington’s monuments and flowering trees.


Many same-sex couples held hands and displayed placards and shirts bearing political, personal and humorous messages: “Lift the ban” on homosexuals in the military, “I can’t even think straight,” “We’re here, we’re queer and we have E-mail.”

Some heterosexual supporters joined the throng, including several groups of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. “Straight but not narrow,” read one sign. “I love my gay son,” read another.

Marchers displayed an ambivalent attitude toward President Clinton, who was in Boston speaking to a group of newspaper publishers. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) read a tepid statement of support from Clinton to a rally on the Mall that followed the march.

“I stand with you in the struggle for equality for all Americans, including gays and lesbians,” said Clinton, who had met with march leaders at the White House 10 days ago and actively courted their support in last year’s election.

Some marchers wore T-shirts saying, “At last, a President who has a clue,” but others chanted: “Where is Bill?” as they strolled past the White House.

“Dear Bill,” began a placard held by Patty Connell of Barkhamsted, Conn. “You have a vision and we are a part of it. Our votes were not invisible, now where are you?


“We campaigned heavily for Bill Clinton,” Connell said. “We just hope he doesn’t turn his back on us.”

Organizers published a list of seven demands, including congressional passage of a civil rights bill specifically protecting homosexuals, a “massive increase” in funding to fight AIDS and a lifting of the Pentagon’s ban on homosexuals in the military.

Other demands called for inclusion of gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the educational system, the right to reproductive freedom, an end to all racial and ethnic discrimination and repeal of all sodomy laws.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke at the rally along with a handful of other well-known politicians, including Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.), Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), New York Mayor David N. Dinkins and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who with Waxman is pushing a civil rights bill aimed at strengthening protection for homosexuals against employment and housing discrimination, sent a videotaped message that was shown on a large screen.

Wearing a black armband with the slogan, “Lift the Ban,” Waxman said: “We are asking the government to allow lesbians and gay men to tell the truth about who they are without losing their jobs, homes and families.”


Schroeder, deploring moves to copy a Colorado referendum overturning local gay-protection laws, said: “We should not let state after state play with your rights. You should not have to be nomads moving around, looking where you can live openly and freely. That is your birthright.”

Also lending support on the speaker’s stand were actresses Cybill Shepherd and Judith Light, tennis star Martina Navratilova, Apple Computer chief executive John Scully and Los Angeles corporate consultant David Mixner, a Clinton campaign consultant who has been critical of the President for wavering on lifting the military ban on homosexuals.

In an awkward way, some activists addressed two audiences Sunday--their fellow homosexuals and the straights who control the power levers they seek to influence.

For instance, Torie Osborn, head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, declared on CNN’s “Newsmaker Sunday” that “this is a kickoff rally for the gay ‘90s,” but altered that statement hours later in a speech to demonstrators. “This is the beginning of the queer ‘90s,” she said there.

Playwright Larry Kramer, founder of ACT-UP, a militant group pressing for more aggressive efforts to combat AIDS, harshly attacked Clinton (calling him “Bill the Welsher”); his wife, Hillary, and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala.

“Bill the Welsher has announced no new AIDS programs nor put into place anything that would change the horrors of the last 12 years,” Kramer said. “He has announced no new AIDS czar.”

In his statement to the rally, the President said his budget increases funding for AIDS research and that his economic plan fully funds an AIDS care bill named after Ryan White, a youth who died of AIDS. Clinton said that he will announce an AIDS coordinator soon.


The predominant colors of the day were rainbow hues (featured in flags and jewelry), pink triangles (which the Nazis forced homosexuals to wear) and red ribbons (commemorating the thousands who have died of AIDS).

Marchers carried flags or wore a series of six colored rings on chains around their necks sporting the different colors of the rainbow--red, orange, yellow, blue, green and purple--which symbolized freedom and pride, marchers said.

“It’s an all-inclusive symbol,” said one. “We wear them to show who we are, and to celebrate our freedom.”

At precisely 2 p.m., the procession stopped for a five-minute “die-in” sponsored by ACT-UP--the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. Marchers and spectators abruptly stopped walking and lay down in the streets to remember those who have died from AIDS.

“Lie down, lie down,” they shouted, and virtually all of Pennsylvania Avenue, stretching before the White House, was covered with still bodies. At 2:05 p.m., everyone rose and resumed marching.

Conservative groups generally stayed away from the march. Several leaders had said privately that they thought counterdemonstrations would be counterproductive.


However, a group of 25 people--some wearing their Sunday best in contrast to the casual garb of the marchers--conducted a one-hour counterdemonstration on a grassy knoll along Independence Avenue near the Washington Monument.

They were members of a suburban Virginia-based organization called Public Advocate of the U.S.

Some members of the group, including executive director Eugene Delgaudio, said they feared that gay marchers might physically assault them and rip up their banners.

Some signs read, “Sodomy Free Zone,” while one--supporting the military ban on gays--said, “Protect Our Privates--Armed Forces Forever Straight.”

With two motorcycle police officers on duty nearby, the only confrontation occurred when about 50 gay marchers arrived at the edge of the group and began jeering and simulating martial arts moves.

“We are representing 97% of the public who feel outraged,” Delgaudio said. “These people are trying to enforce sodomy on the American people. The want to sodomize the American Constitution.”


He said he was not surprised that other groups declined to join his protest, saying that “they feared for their safety and wanted to distance themselves from this lifestyle.”

Many demonstrators took part in the march in wheelchairs or rode in motor vehicles, in some cases because they were too ill to walk because of AIDS.

David B. Forest of Minneapolis, navigating a motorized wheelchair near the head of the procession, wore a T-shirt that read, “Christ did not rise from the tomb to lock me in the closet.”

Wearing a knitted, rainbow-striped cap, he said he runs Dave’s Knit-Wit Shop--so named, he said, because “I also suffer from mental illness from a head injury.

“All my life,” he continued, “I have been told I was different in so many different ways in terms of being big, short, fat, smart in school, gay and disabled. The only way I get validation of who I am is in the gay community.”

Some gay couples celebrated the opportunity to freely acknowledge their homosexuality at a time when, in their regular lives, they feel they still must hide it to avoid unpleasant consequences.


Some said they had come to Washington to acquire civil rights protections long ago guaranteed for other segments of society.

Jeff Slater of Atlanta, for example, held hands with a friend in dark sunglasses who said that he might lose his job as a health care computer consultant if he identified himself.

“Why are we here?” Slater said. “When you go to an apartment, they look you up and down and say they don’t have anything. We don’t have the tax advantages of straight couples. There is discrimination in the military. And we can be fired because of our sexual orientation.”

Gay veterans were significant faces in the crowd because the controversy over the military ban provided a major stimulus for the demonstration.

John Riordan, 60, of Miami, a Korean War veteran, said: “I’m here for the kids. When I was young, I had to be in the closet. I hope we will be the last generation to have to do that.”

An Army veteran carried a placard with the ironic message: “Colin Powell Is Afraid of Me.” That referred to the Army general who, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, opposes lifting the ban on homosexuals in the armed forces.


Many marchers carried placards that bore a likeness to the famous World War II recruiting poster of Uncle Sam, saying: “I Want You.” The gay version depicted Uncle Sam pointing his finger and declaring: “I Want You to End the Military Ban.”

Times staff writers Robert L. Jackson, William J. Eaton, Howard Libit, Marlene Cimons and Edwin Chen contributed to this story.