Saturday, 14 October 2017

The Run-up to the First March

Today is the anniversary of the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979. It was the first of a series of marches that have taken place every few years is response to US government action, or otherwise, on lgbt causes.

That first march on 14th October 1979 almost never happened. Several attempts were made to organise a march before 1979 but nothing came of them for various reasons. Harvey Milk, who had been on the last of those disbanded organising committees, took up the cause and gained support for a march in 1979 in part to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Sadly, his murder was the final spark which galvanised the lgbt community into making sure the march took place.

Several leading activists, including Frank Kameny, had thought about a national march on Washington for years but had not thought it would have had much success due to the possibility that there were not enough lgbt people willing to become open and participate. That was the concern of those early activists. Just think of those Straight Prides that have been organised in recent years that flopped spectacularly due to lack of support.

The first significant attempt to organise a march on Washington came in 19173 and originated in a student group at the Champaign-Urbana campus at the University of Illinois.

Jeff Graubart-Cervone (then known as just Jeff Graubart) was the main mover behind the organisation of the march. He had joined the US Gay Liberation Front in 1970 just a few months after it was formed in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall Riots. He formed the first Gay Liberation Front group at the University of Illinois where he was a student.

In contrast to contemporary USA where the lgbt community is more unified and connected there was no real sense of a national lgbt community in the 1970. Very few Americans were able to be open about their sexuality. States had their own individual lgbt rights issues that made their way into the national media only in a few exceptional circumstances, and only then in a negative light.

Jeff Graubart believed there were enough people who would join the march given the right amount of organisation and focus. He had, perhaps, been buoyed up by his own successes in lobbying the Champaign-Urbana city council into repealing its law against cross-dressing or the pushing through of Illinois’ first gay rights ordinances. During 1973, while still a student, he also ran for Mayor of Urbana. He didn’t win, but if he did he would have predated KathyKozachenko as the first elected openly lgbt official in the US by a year.

The National Gay Mobilisation Committee was formed at the student union in the Champaign-Urbana campus and the first official meeting took place over the Thanksgiving week of November 1973. Jeff Graubart was the co-ordinator and a set of goals were agreed upon. One goal was to establish a unified national community.

The fears over the possible poor, and potentially embarrassing, response for a march was one reason why the idea was not finalised and was gradually dropped. More significantly was that Jeff Graubart had left the university in 1974 and his organising skills were absent.

The idea of a national march remained in the dreams of activists until 1978 when a series of anti-gay and homophobic incidents had spread across the USA which were influencing the laws of various states. The lgbt community in Minnesota took up the reins from Illinois and a new Committee for the March of Washington was formed. It contacted other groups and activists from around the country to create a national emphasis. Sadly, too many personal prejudices and snobbery created friction among the committee members and, again, before any plans were finalised the committee fell apart.

But the idea of a march was not abandoned by one of the activists who was invited onto the committee. He was Harvey Milk of San Francisco. His declared intention was to go ahead with the march and set a date for Independence Day 1978. Within a month of declaring his intention he was assassinated.

The shock of Milk’s death galvanised the San Francisco community who had, after all, were instrumental in getting him elected to public office. They took up the cause and organised a national conference in Philadelphia in February 1979. This conference had more important things to do than in-fighting, especially after Harvey Milk’s murderer was given a disgustingly light sentence. The 300-strong conference voted to change the date of Milk’s proposed march from Independence Day to October. Too many other distractions would be taking place on 4th July and their march may not get the attention it deserved, and no politicians would be in Washington at the time of the public holiday.

And that is how the first National March on Washington DC for Lesbian and Gay Rights took place on 14th October 1979. Fears of a poor turn-out seemed to have been laid to rest. More than 100,000 people marched that day, and for those of us outside the US this march, and not the Stonewall Riots, is the event which was pivotal in the fight for lgbt rights in America and the world.

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