The below article is reprinted from the excellent web site Lesbian History constructed by historian Esther Newton at the University of Michigan. The site contains many excellent articles.
The Role of Lesbians in the 1979 and 1987 Marches on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights
by Jean E. Balestrery
The year 1979 witnessed the first historic national political “March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights” (1979 Official Souvenir Program). Since 1979, there have been three similar ensuing Marches on Washington for civil rights of the broader, more inclusive LGBT community, notably in 1987, 1993 and 2000. Utilizing a semiotic framework, this paper explores the role of lesbians in the 1979 and 1987 “Marches on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.” Questions to be addressed include: To what extent were lesbians present and visible in these first two Marches on Washington? How were lesbians represented and characterized in each of the marches? What are the similarities and differences in the role of lesbians between the 1979 and 1987 Marches on Washington?
In this paper, I assert that while the 1979 March appears to reflect a sense of “success” for the role of lesbians, the later 1987 March does not and the apparent reason for this discrepancy is due to multiple factors. Just as the role of lesbians throughout the broader lesbian and gay liberation movement is characterized by a layered complexity, so is the role of lesbians during the 1979 and 1987 Marches on Washington. Utilizing a semiotic framework, my analysis of the role of lesbians during the 1979 and 1987 Marches on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights is based upon primary sources and augmented by secondary sources [click here for “Methods” section as listed at the end]. First, I review the significant background events leading up to the 1979 March so as to situate the semiotic analysis of the role of lesbians in the first two marches.
While there is a long history of lesbian and gay identity politics preceding the 1979 March, significant background events during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s illuminate the salient sociopolitical climate leading up to the 1979 March. These events include the “Lavender Scare” alongside the emergence of the Homophile Movement during the 1950s, the Stonewall Riots in 1969, lesbian feminism in the 1970s, Save the Children campaign in 1977 followed by the Briggs Amendment in California and the assassination of Harvey Milk in San Francisco, California in 1978.
The decade of the 1950s in the U. S. is often described as a time of the “Red Scare” as it refers to “McCarthyism,” the hysteria associated with the potential threat of Communists infiltrating the U.S. government and the concern of U.S. national security (Johnson 2004). Concurrent with the “Red Scare,” the anti-homosexual movement known as the “Lavender Scare” was occurring. The “Lavender Scare” was “a fear that homosexuals posed a threat to national security and needed to be systematically removed from the federal government” and it “permeated the 1950s culture” (Johnson 2004: 9). The anti-homosexual movement’s rhetoric conflated labels of “communist,” “criminal sexual psychopath,” “sexual deviant” and “homosexual” and triggered public anxieties (Miller 2002). At this time there were a series of civil liberty violations, or “witch-hunts,” throughout the country whereby “homosexuals” were charged with sex crimes, sent to mental hospitals in lieu of prison, fled out of cities and states or jailed.
With regard to the anti-homosexual purges from the U.S. government during the “Lavender Scare,” the total number of people-gay, lesbian or heterosexual- affected is “incalculable” (Johnson 2004:166). Yet, during the early Cold War period, the “statistics suggest that the total number of federal employees fired for homosexuality is well into the thousands” (Johnson 2004:166). In discerning the impact quantitatively of the “Lavender Scare” upon gay men as compared lesbians, there are no exact numbers. However, it should be noted:
“Lesbians have traditionally had less access to public space then men and therefore were less vulnerable to arrest and prosecution for their homosexuality. As one psychiatrist wrote about the disparity in the policing of gay men and lesbians, ‘I learned from authoritative sources [in Washington, D.C.] that there have been no cases of female homosexuality which came to the attention of the police that were prosecuted” (Johnson 2004:155).
Yet, lesbians were very much interrogated by government officials with consequences including dismissals and voluntary resignations. In response to the “Lavender Scare,” gay men and lesbians created “a sense of solidarity” whereby they would “rely on one another in social settings requiring a display of heterosexuality” (Johnson 2004:153).
While there were gay groups before the 1950s, they were not necessarily interconnected nor politically mobilized. “In 1950, in California, State Department firings of gay men helped convince Harry Hay to found the first Mattachine Society (Johnson 2004:211). The Mattachine Society was “the first effective gay political organization in the United States, one that in its early years devoted itself to challenging and repealing repressive legislation and altering public opinion” (Rimmerman 2008:16). Then, in 1952, ONE, Inc. “splintered off from the Mattachine” and offered counseling, workshops and classes focused on gay issues and published ONE, the first nationally distributed gay magazine (Quimby & Williams 2000:168).
It should be noted that the Mattachine Society primarily attracted men, “negated the experience of lesbians and conspired to keep them out…” (D’Emilio 1983:93). Consequently, a small group of eight lesbians, with Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon as instrumental leaders, began the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) in San Francisco, California in 1955. DOB was “the first lesbian political organization” in San Francisco and organized social events, served as a site for referrals, and developed “The Ladder” newsletter (D’Emilio 1983:101).
The collective development and sustainability of the Mattachine Society, ONE, Inc. and DOB symbolized the emergence of the “homophile movement.” This movement rejected the medical term homosexual in favor of “using homophile to express the notion that it was their same-sex (homo) love (philia) that united them, rather than just sexual behavior” (Quimby & Williams 2000:172-175). The homophile movement focused on educating the larger public by “the dispelling of myths, misinformation, and prejudice-as the primary means of improving the status of lesbians and homosexuals” (D’Emilio 1983:103).
On June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village was raided by police. While historian John D’Emilio characterized the 1950s as “something of a national coming-out experience for gays and lesbians,” the Stonewall Riots of 1969 marked the birth of the lesbian and gay rights movement (Miller 2002:107). Other bars in New York had been raided by the police, yet “what made Stonewall a symbol of a new era of gay politics was the reaction of the drag queens, dykes, street people, and bar boys who confronted the police first with jeers and high camp and then with a hail of coins, paving stones, and parking meters…a new form of collective resistance was afoot: gay liberation” (Adam 1995:81).
By the 1970s, the identity politics associated with “lesbian” and “lesbianism” erupted with a new, growing intensity of collective emotion and political mobilization. “It would have been impossible to mobilize large numbers of lesbians before 1970: the taboos were too strong and the fears too great” (Cruikshank 1992:150).
“For many radical lesbians, the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s was too bourgeois, too homophobic, and still too focused on how women needed to operate in a man’s world. It made women who loved women invisible. In 1970 a group known as the Radicalesbians brought gay liberation and feminism together by arguing that a separatist world was the highest form of feminism and would lead to the complete elimination of patriarchy. For Radicalesbians, lesbianism was not merely a desire or a sexual object choice, but a deliberate rejection of heterosexuality in a patriarchal world” (Schneer & Aviv, 2006:232)
On May 1, 1970, a group of lesbian feminist leaders known as “The Lavender Menace”, including Rita Mae Brown, Cynthia Funk, March Hoffman, Lois Hart and Ellen Bedoz, pre-empted the regularly scheduled 2nd Congress to Unite Women to address lesbianism (Echols 1991). Outcomes included adoption of resolutions by “The Lavender Menace” and “The Woman Identified Woman,” the Radicalesbian position paper aiming to allay feminists’ fears of lesbianism (Echols 1991).
The beginning of lesbian feminism is associated with the founding of “The Furies” in 1971 in Washington, DC. followed by other lesbian feminist groups which began forming in urban areas throughout the U.S. During the early 1970s and as a result of the gay liberation movement, “lesbians demanded recognition and support from the women’s movement” (Taylor & Whittier 1992:351). While both radical and liberal heterosexual feminists viewed women’s liberation and sexual liberation as distinct from one another, lesbian feminists did not. Lesbian feminists promoted the slogan “the personal is political” and recast lesbianism as a political agenda rather than a collective identity agenda (Taylor & Whittier 1992:352).
During the 1970s, the lesbian movement appears to have followed a trajectory of turning more inward during the early years and more outward during the later years. Turning more inward, lesbians focused on influencing the larger feminist movement, advocating a “separatist” agenda as evidenced in the work of Radicalesbians and “The Lavender Menace.” The early 1970s witnessed the emergence of lesbian specific community centers, groups and issues. Turning more outward, lesbians focused on joining forces with gay men in the larger struggle for gay and lesbian civil rights.
In the late 1970s, particular events culminate to give impetus for lesbians to join gay men in a unified struggle for civil rights, events leading up to the 1979 March. These events include Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign in 1977 and the coalescing anti-gay Christian Right movement, California’s Briggs Amendment-Proposition 6 in 1978 and Harvey Milk’s assassination in San Francisco on November 27, 1978. After an ordinance passed in Dade County, Florida in 1977 which prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation, “evangelist singer Anita Bryant” led an anti-gay campaign with the Save Our Children organization (Adam 1995:110). This campaign resulted in the repeal of Florida’s anti-discrimination ordinance on June 7, 1977. In response to this repeal, lesbians and gay men organized a boycott of orange juice and raised funds to fight Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade.
The day after Florida’s anti-discrimination ordinance was repealed, California state senator John Briggs made a public announcement that he would introduce formal legislation to ban lesbians and gay men from teaching in California’s public schools. In response to this announcement, lesbian and gay activists organized a coalition to fight the Briggs Amendment-Proposition 6 which they successfully defeated in 1978. This coalition was one of the lesbian and gay community’s “most successful organizing campaigns” where “lesbian and gay activists worked together in a display of solidarity that overcame gender divides to help defeat the amendment” (Rimmerman 2008:27-8). Shortly after this organized effort to defeat the Briggs Amendment, the lesbian and gay community experienced the assassination of Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s first openly gay supervisor, on November 27, 1978 in San Francisco. The assassination of Harvey Milk “came to symbolize the gay community’s determination to be part of the political process” (Thompson 1944:166).
The First “March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights” in 1979
“At a planning meeting in Houston it was agreed that “third world” women, followed by white lesbians, would lead the march. Prior to the march, lesbians and gays of color attended the First World Gay and Lesbian Conference, held near Howard University. The march was held on 14 October 1979, and both United Press International and the Associated Press reported between fifty and seventy-five thousand participants.” (Retter 2000:210-11)
Focusing on primary sources associated with the 1979 “March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights,” I conduct a semiotic analysis to demonstrate that the role of lesbians in this march is characterized by the following main themes: 1) a relatively equitable, and therefore relatively high (on a scale of low-medium-high) level of visibility in direct relation to gay men; 2) an expanding representation of lesbian identity to include collective diversity across social categories; and 3) a predominantly unified and coordinated position of political activism in direct relation with gay men.
My semiotic analysis is premised upon Pierce’s theory of signs and Waugh’s theory of markedness. According to Piercian semiotics, a “sign” possesses a particular relationship to an object. “A sign may be termed an Icon, an Index, or a Symbol” (Buchler 1955:102). First, an icon is a representation of an object through its “likeness” to that object, such as a visual image or picture. Second, an index is a representation of an object such that “it refers to the object”-it is metaphorically a “pointing finger” (Buchler 1955:102). A symbol is a sign which refers to “an association of general ideas” (Buchler 1955:102). Waugh’s theory of markedness refers to “the asymmetrical and hierarchical relationship between the two poles of any opposition” (Waugh 1998:299). Thus, markedness is constituted by a dialectical relationship between oppositional pairs, between the “marked” and the “unmarked,” whereby the interpretation of meaning in this dialectal relationship is derived by the context in which it occurs rather than by any absolute criteria. Thus, what is “marked” is indexed by a subjugated position to what is “unmarked” in the hierarchical relationship of this paired relation. “Any semiotic system is a hierarchical system of relations, and markedness is one of the relations that help to hierarchize that system” (Waugh 1998:316).
Prior to the 1979 March, hegemony in the U.S. was reflected by patriarchy and, therefore, women embodied the marked gender. And, it follows along the hierarchy of markedness that lesbians embodied the marked subgroup among the female gender. Consequently, the relatively equitable visibility of lesbians in the 1979 March indexes a relatively high level of visibility in context of the sociohistorically marked position of lesbians. This visibility of lesbians is in direct contrast to the semiotic process of erasure, “the process in which ideology…renders some persons or activities invisible” (Irvine & Gal 2000:38).
First, the relatively equitable, and therefore relatively high, level of visibility of lesbians in direct relation to gay men in the 1979 March is evidenced by the presence and positioning of lesbians in planning efforts, print journalism and program schedule. While the National March is cited to have originated in St. Paul, MN as a result of a repeal of the city’s gay and lesbian rights ordinance in April 1978, the first planning conference for the 1979 March was held on February 23-25, 1979 at Friends Meeting House in Philadelphia. This first planning conference followed the assassination of Harvey Milk on November 27, 1978 in San Francisco when activists in San Francisco, Philadelphia and New York began discussing plans for a National March. Following this initial planning conference, Washington D.C. area activists provided public statements in the press in March 1979 expressing the need to include equitable representation of minorities and women in the planning process for this march.
The next planning conference occurred July 6-8, 1979 in Houston, Texas where 128 delegates, 48% women and 28% Third World Persons attended (Official Program Souvenir 1979:30). As a result of this conference, many organizations decided to endorse the march, including the National Gay Task Force, Gay Rights National Lobby and the National Organization for Women. Most importantly, this conference instituted structural guidelines whereby “there be a minimum of 50% women and a minimum 20% Third World inclusion in all planning and leadership of the March…This inclusion allows for the clearest decision making, allows for full representation, and maximizes a flowing of information throughout the community” (Official Souvenir Program, 1979:31).
With regard to print journalism, the presence and positioning of the word “Lesbian” in primary source materials associated with the March indexes lesbians’ relatively equitable and high level of visibility in direct relation to gay men. The word “Lesbian” is replete throughout primary source print material. And, the word “Lesbian” is repeatedly located in the initial position as a leading term in print material titles and sentences. The title of the March begins with “Lesbian.” Also, the first word in the Official Program Souvenir begins with “Lesbians” in the initial “Welcome” address. Other sections in the Official Program Souvenir focus on lesbian herstory and lesbian cultural identity. There is also a visual image of a woman holding a sign which says “Lesbian Amazon and Proud” which is an icon of lesbian feminism and also symbolizes lesbian visibility as a separate, unique cultural identity.
With regard to the 1979 March program schedule, lesbians fill symbolic positions of leadership. It is Audre Lorde, a self-identified Black Lesbian Feminist and poet, who provides the Keynote Speech. Also, there are other lesbian speakers included in the program schedule including Charlotte Bunch, Lesbian Feminist Theorist, Betty Santoro, a spokeswoman for Lesbian Feminism Liberation and Juanita Ramos, a latina lesbian activist. When quantifying the list of speakers at this march, there are twenty-four speaker positions. Of these twenty-four positions, eleven of these speaker positions are filled by women while thirteen speaker positions are filled by men. While these speakers may not be presumed to be lesbians and gay men, the relatively equitable and high level of visibility of females in direct relation to males in the Speaker schedule does support the relatively equitable and high level of visibility of lesbians in general.
Second, the role of lesbians in this march is characterized by an expanding collective identity to include diversity across social categories as evidenced in print materials and content in audio sources. Amidst the print material, a March pamphlet states: “We must recognize that our strength lies in our diversity.” Also, in the Official Souvenir Program, there are multiple speakers represented from various diverse ethnic and racial groups and organizations. As previously noted, the Keynote Speech is provided by Audre Lorde, a self-identified Black Lesbian Feminist (click on link below and scroll down page):
1979 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights – Keynote Speech
In this Keynote Speech, Lorde addresses the inseparability of all oppressions and poses a call to action for everyone to carry this solidarity into his or her everyday life in order to continue the struggle for civil rights: “for not one of us will ever be free until we are all free.”
Included in the March’s schedule of entertainers, Holly Near and Meg Christian sing “we are an anti-racist people” in the song “A Gentle Angry People.” This song directly indexes a call to include all ethnic and racial identities in the collective identity of lesbians, as well as the larger lesbian and gay community (click on link below and scroll down page):
1979 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights – “A Gentle, Angry People”
Among the 1979 March’s program schedule of speakers, Ramos Gaetan and Juanita Ramos symbolized Third World Gays and Lesbians. As Ramos conducted a Spanish version of their speech, Juanita conducted an English version. Ramos began with a warm welcome: “Greetings you beautiful multicolor people…greetings from this Chicano from Massachussetts…greetings from Latino lesbians and Latino gays…” Juanita continued in English (click on link below and scroll down page):
1979 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights – Juanita Ramos
This speech calls for transcending the division of difference in order to unify toward collective political activism in seeking social justice across intersectional marginalized social identities. This speech indexes a call to expand the collective lesbian community and unity and builds upon the messages communicated during the preceding first Third World Lesbian and Gay Conference which was held on October 12-14, 1979.
Third, the role of lesbians in the 1979 March is characterized by political activism in predominant coordination and unity with gay men as evidenced in primary sources. As noted previously, there were structural guidelines instituted during the planning conference from July 6-8, 1979 in Houston, Texas whereby “women,” presumably lesbians, were formally adopted into the planning efforts at a “50%” inclusion rate. In addition to the march’s planning efforts, lesbians being politically active in predominant coordination with, rather than in opposition to, gay men is indexed in the march print materials. For example, in the Official Souvenir Program, the “Welcome” address employs inclusive language such as “we,” “us” and “our” and actually begins with the opening sentence: “Lesbians and gay men are making history here today.” Also, the March slogans in the print materials employ inclusive language, such as “We Are Everywhere!” This inclusive language symbolizes a unified and coordinated position of political activism between lesbians and gay men in the struggle for social justice.
Furthermore, in the 1979 March’s program schedule, there are individuals whose song and speech reflect the role of lesbians as being in a unified and coordinated position of political activism with gay men. For example, “A Gentle, Angry People” sung by Holly Near and Meg Christian reflects a theme of political activism symbolized by coordination and connection between lesbians and gay men and also with heterosexuals. Also, Alan Ginsberg’s reading of his poetry and warning to Congress indexes the coordinated, unifiied political activism between lesbian and gay men: “Congress and American people, how can you help yourself? We have come out here to help you, to ease your grief stricken hearts…” (click on link below and scroll down page):
1979 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights – Alan Ginsberg
A caveat is necessary with regard to the role of lesbians in the 1979 March. While my semiotic analysis identifies lesbians’ role in political activism to be in predominant coordination with gay men, there is one particular primary source, “Messages on the Occasion of the Washington March, October 14, 1979,” which provides a contrary perspective. Published by “Homosexuals Intransigent!” this pamphlet advocates for gay male separatism: “The time has come for a homosexual Declaration of Independence from women-all women. Kick them the hell out of our marches, organizations, bars-lives.” Indexing misogyny toward women and lesbians, this publication calls for a “new gay movement” and “gay world” which is devoid of lesbians. In sum, while there was much coordination, connection and unification between lesbians and gay men during the 1979 “March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights,” there remained divisive elements and factions, however marginal.
While the initial quote in this section cites an estimate of 50,000 and 75,000 people who attended the 1979 March, other sources cite figures of 25,000 to 125,000 people who attended this march. Regardless of exact numbers, the sheer size, organization and visibility of lesbians and gays for this initial March symbolized unity, pride, political power and, by many standards, “success” for both lesbians and the broader lesbian and gay liberation movement. Yet, this notion of “success” may vary depending upon the perspective of analysis or evaluation.
With regard to the role of lesbians in the 1979 March, one may adopt a narrow, micro or larger, macro historical perspective of analysis. From a narrow, micro historical perspective, the semiotic analysis of primary sources of the 1979 March indexes lesbians to be relatively “unmarked” in direct relation to gay men. Yet, from a larger, macro historical perspective, lesbians were historically marginalized, represented by ideological erasure and, therefore, “marked” in terms of both sexual orientation and gender. By the 1987 March, the role of lesbians appears to undergo another representational shift.
The Second “March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights” in 1987
Focusing on primary sources associated with the 1987 “March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights,” a semiotic analysis shows the role of lesbians in this March to be characterized by the following main themes: 1) a relatively inequitable, and therefore relatively low (on a scale of low-medium-high) level of visibility in direct relation to gay men; 2) an increasing erasure of lesbian presence and identity in context of the AIDS epidemic, the 1986 Bowers vs. Hardwick Supreme Court decision ruling state sodomy laws as constitutional and an expanding political platform of “oppression”; and 3) an opaque position with regard to any unified and coordinated political activism in direct relation with gay men.
First, the role of lesbians in the 1987 March yields a relatively inequitable, and therefore relatively low level visibility in direct relation to gay men as evidenced by the print, television and video media coverage of the March. For example, in the print media, “The Advocate-The National Gay Newsmagazine” coverage of the 1987 March includes multiple articles addressing various topics. Of the six articles in the November 10, 1987, issue 485 of this magazine which covered the 1987 March, five article titles included the term “Gay.” Yet, when one reads each of these articles, it is apparent that the term “lesbian” is rendered invisible in each of the large, bold article titles. For example, one article title reads “Hundreds of Thousands take the Gay Cause to the Nation’s Capital” and the article then begins: “With tears and laughter, anger and joy, several hundred thousand lesbians, gay men, and their supporters marched on Washington D.C. on Oct. 11 in a massive, emotion-filled demonstrated to demand a federal war on AIDS and an end to homophobic discrimination” (The Advocate 1987:11). Another article title reads: “Mass Wedding Ceremony Affirms Gay Relationships-Gay Couples Vow to Win Recognition by Society” while the article then proceeds to portray interviews of both lesbian and gay male couples.
Among the television and video media primary sources of analysis, included are three television clips by Gay Cable Network (GCN) which cover the 1987 March. In this particular source of GCN’s television coverage, it is noteworthy that the news anchor is male in all three television clips.
1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights – Television Clip Part I
In Part I of GCN’s television coverage, the male anchorman proceeds to conduct more direct interviews with men as compared to women. Specifically, five direct interviews with men, all of whom are presumed to be gay men in the given context, are portrayed in this television clip while there are only two direct interviews with women, both of whom appear identified as lesbians. It is interesting to note that the last lesbian interviewed, at the end of the Part I television clip, the newsman asks “Are you impressed with the number of women here today?” and the lesbian responds “there’s a lot more men than there are women but we’re happy-that we’re here.” Among the Speeches covered in Part I, two speeches are by men and one is by a woman. Additionally, one of these male speeches covered in Part I is by San Francisco Supervisor Harry Britt. Harry Britt references Harvey Milk and Milk’s symbolic leadership for lesbian and gay rights. Yet, where are the references to the requisite lesbian leaders from the early period, such as the 1970s, in this broader lesbian and gay liberation movement?
Second, the role of lesbians in the 1987 March indicates an increasing erasure of lesbian presence and identity in context of the AIDS epidemic, the 1986 Bowers vs. Hardwick Supreme Court decision ruling state sodomy laws as constitutional and an expanding political platform of “oppression” as evidenced in primary sources of television media and print media coverage of the March.
1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights – Television Clip Part II
1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights – Television Clip Part III
In GCN’s television coverage clips of Part II and Part III, for example, the role of lesbians is apparently marked, symbolizing a positioning which is hierarchically subordinate to gay men. In both television clips of Part II and Part III, there is the same male anchor newsman as in Part I who covers the 1987 March. In Part II, there are eight direct face-to-face interviews with individuals: five of these interviews are conducted with men, all presumably gay men, and three interviews conducted with women, one of which is the state congresswoman Nancy Pelosi-an “ally,” another woman who self-identifies as “bisexual” and only the third woman who may be presumed to be lesbian. Also, Part II includes television coverage of speeches by two male speakers and one female speaker. The two male speakers include Harvey Fierstein and Jesse Jackson. While Harvey Fierstein identifies as gay, Jesse Jackson does not. Yet, Jesse Jackson speaks largely to the “AIDS Crisis,” an epidemic which was initially represented as largely “a gay male disease.”
Furthermore, Part III of GCN’s television coverage of the 1987 March focuses predominantly on the NAMES Project. While the news anchorman conducts a few direct individual interviews, none appeared to be identified as lesbian. And, the primary interview in Part III is conducted with Cleve Jones, the principle organizer of the Names Project. In this interview, Cleve shares that he originally had the idea for the NAMES Project back on November 27, 1985 at the candlelight memorial for Harvey Milk and George Mosconne, a memorial held every year in San Francisco. Cleve states the 1987 March drew approximately 750,000 people and that “everyone said we’ve had enough, we demand our rights and we demand a response to AIDS.” Cleve proceeds to use predominantly the term “gay” to reference the “gay community” and it is unclear as to whether he includes lesbians in his use of the term “gay.” Regardless, whether Cleve includes “lesbians” as subsumed under his use of the term “gay,” the term “lesbian” remains invisible. Referring to the 1987 March, Cleve states “this is a sign of strength, unity and solidarity.” Yet, with regard to the role of lesbians in the 1987 March, is it truly a sign of strength, unity and solidarity?
With regard to print media coverage of the AIDS epidemic, “The Advocate” national magazine (November 10, 1987-Issue 485), includes an article covering Jesse Jackson’s presence and speech at the 1987 March. Entitled “Rev. Jesse Jackson To Gay Marchers: Stand With Me,” this article reports that “Much of his speech at the rally was devoted to the subject of AIDS” and proceeds to address Jesse Jackson’s speech focused on this AIDS epidemic (The Advocate 11-10-87:15). Due to the high incidence of AIDS among gay men, public officials labeled this disease as largely “a gay male disease.” By 1987, the death toll from AIDS was approximately 34,500, a number derived from reported cases only and of which approximately 75% were gay men, while approximately 2,000 cases were of women, and not necessarily lesbians (Official Souvenir Program 1987:42). The Center for Disease Control (CDC) initially defined AIDS as “GRID-Gay-Related Immune Deficiency” (Official Souvenir Program 1987:42).
In the Official Souvenir Program of the 1987 March, the initial introduction page describes the history of what led up to the 1987 March. Specifically, this introduction describes 1987 March as a “call for legislative, judicial and social change” in response to the 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bowers vs. Hardwick (which upheld the criminalization of sodomy in the state of Georgia) and “the erosion of civil rights of people with AIDS, ARC and testing HIV positive” (Official Souvenir Program 1987:Introduction). While these issues bear direct impact upon lesbians, they position gay men as the central dominant group among the LGBT community, thereby yielding an erasure of lesbians in the 1987 March. The 1987 March was premised upon an agenda of “civil disobedience” and “demands” in direct response to the 1986 Supreme Court ruling in Bowers vs. Hardwick and the AIDS crisis.
Furthermore, in the Official Souvenir Program of the 1987 March, the table of contents is comprised of seven major topical domains, or headings. Lesbians are directly identified and present in only one of these topical domains, or headings, namely “Lesbian and Gay Movement.” Yet, within this section, there appears no article specific to lesbians, their presence or unique identity. Amidst the 65 page Official Souvenir Program, there are only a few lesbian specific paragraphs or articles. For example, in the “Vision Statement,” there is one paragraph addressing lesbians and how “Lesbians have often been unrecognized within the gay movement, just as all women have been excluded from full participation and acknowledgement in a society in which men are dominant” (Official Souvenir Program 1987:2). Another short paragraph specific to lesbian presence and identity occurs in a section entitled “A Call to Action.” And, there are direct references to lesbians under the section entitled “Women and Sodomy Laws.” However, amidst the entire Official Souvenir Program for the 1987 March, the sections focused specifically on lesbians appear quite scant.
The increasing erasure of lesbian presence and identity is also evidenced by an expanding political platform, or awareness, of “oppression” in the broader lesbian and gay liberation movement. For example, the Official Souvenir Program for the 1987 March includes multiple articles and sections which address the expanding intersectionality of oppression, the intersection of multiple marginalized social identities and categories. These articles address marginalized social identities and categories including: classism and access to health care, sexism, racism, anti-semitism, agism, able-ism (disability issues), bisexuality and international contexts (“Gay People and Central America”). In these articles, each marginalized social identity or category of oppression tends to be discussed as a general social issue within society, affecting all individuals, and then discussed in a reflexive manner with regard to how each of these issues impacts the larger “Lesbian/Gay Movement” (Official Souvenir Program 1987:35). Thus, lesbians per se were not a focus of this expanding political platform of oppression.
It should be understood that while there were many gains for lesbians during the 1980s, these gains were not necessarily represented with parity alongside issues salient to gay men. For example, while Black Lesbian Feminist Audre Lorde achieves a symbolic position of lesbian leadership as she is a speaker for Third World lesbians and gay men of color at the 20th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1983 and the National Gay Task Force adds “Lesbian” to their title in 1986, becoming “National Gay and Lesbian Task Force,” neither of these events receives public recognition at the 1987 March (Official Souvenir Program 1987).
Third, in the 1987 March, the role of lesbians appears characterized by an opaque position with regard to any unified and coordinated political activism in direct relation with gay men. Unlike the 1979 March, where the organizing efforts were quite transparent and clearly explained in the primary sources under analysis, the 1987 March lacks transparency with regard to this topic in the primary sources under anaylsis. With regard to the 1987 March, there were a few planning meetings the year prior: an initial planning meeting in July 1986 which was in direct response and protest to the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold sodomy laws in the Bowers vs. Hardwick case; another meeting occurred in November 1986 when a steering committee was established to plan the second march; and, in February 1987, a midwest organizing conference was held at the Friend’s Meeting House in Indianapolis where representatives from many lesbian and gay organizations began the practical work of organizing delegations for the October 1987 (“1987 March on Washington” Pamphlet; March on Washington Planning Conference Agenda 1986, Nov. 14-16; March on Washington Planning Conference in Indianapolis 1987, February; Official Souvenir Program 1987; Freiberg, P. 1986, August, 19; Freiberg, P. 1986, December 23). While lesbians were present and involved in the politically active organizing efforts and demonstration march for the 1987 March, the specific details of how and to what extent lesbians were involved are unclear due to a lack of transparency and focus in the role of lesbians among the primary sources under analysis.
While the 1979 March appears to reflect a sense of “success” for lesbians in terms of a relatively equitable and inclusive role of lesbians in direct relation to gay men, the later 1987 March apparently does not. The role of lesbians in the 1987 March was overshadowed by the legal and health threats indexed by the 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bowers vs. Hardwick and the AIDS crisis, both of which focused predominantly on gay men. Thus, lesbians experienced a seemingly ideological erasure in the 1987 March, an erasure which harkens back to the 1950s and prior in the U.S.
Yet, this seemingly ideological erasure of lesbians in the 1987 March must be put in perspective with regard to the devastating, catastrophic AIDS crisis. In direct response to the AIDS crisis, “ACT UP,” AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, was formed in March 1987 in New York City and, according to its founding statement, was described as a “diverse, non-partisan group united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis” (Rimmerman 2008:49). Quoting a woman who began attending ACT UP in June 1987 in New York:
“ACT UP has always been called a gay white male group. But the group of people who started ACT UP initially included women and people of color…Part of this was about the difference in status between women and men at the very beginning of the AIDS crisis, even though they were both sick. Women were erased totally and also pictured as vectors to men getting infected, and all the advertising on the subways in New York was about women taking condoms with them in their purse” (Wolfe 1997).
Lesbians experienced an erasure in the 1987 March due to apparently multiple variables. These variables include the normative patriarchal society, the hegemonic framing of the AIDS crisis as a “gay male disease,” the sheer number of gay men afflicted by AIDS as compared to lesbians, and the central role of ACT UP in response to the AIDS crisis.
Within a framework of political activism premised upon assimilationist versus liberationist strategies, the broader lesbian and gay liberation movement is not one single, monolithic movement. While the assimilationist strategy seeks inclusion and accommodation reflected by “a ‘let us in’ approach,” the liberationist strategy is an outsider approach which aims to “’let us show you a new way of conceiving the world’ strategy” (Rimmerman 2008:5). Historically, there have been occasions during the broader lesbian and gay liberation movement which reflect the movement’s adoption of one strategy of political activism or the other. Yet, throughout the historical trajectory, this movement appears to adopt both strategies. For example, the homophile movement of the 1950s reflect an overall assimilationist strategy of political activism while the 1969 Stonewall Riots reflect a liberationist strategy.
Just as the broader lesbian and gay liberation movement is not one single, monolithic movement, “lesbians” are not one, single monolithic group. Consequently, the role of lesbians throughout the broader lesbian and gay liberation movement is characterized by layered complexity. This layered complexity is reflected in the role of lesbians during the 1979 and 1987 Marches on Washington. For example, the lesbian groups of Radicalesbians and “The Lavender Menace” in the early 1970s adopted liberationist strategies in their attempt to seek equal representation within the mainstream feminist movement while the lesbians who formed coalitions with gay men in the late 1970s in order to fight Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” anti-gay campaign and the Briggs Amendment adopted assimilationist strategies. Yet, even while adopting an assimilationist strategy in coordinated political activism with gay men during these later 1970s coalitions, lesbians were simultaneously adopting a larger liberationist strategy with gay men aimed at opposing the “Save Our Children” anti-gay campaign and the Briggs Amendment.
Lesbians are a sociohistorically multiply “marked” group in U.S. society-“marked” as the female gender in normative patriarchal society and “marked” as lesbians in the larger gay and lesbian community. Beyond this macro-level perspective, it is difficult to arrive at any global generalizations with regard to the role of lesbians during the 1979 and 1987 Marches. Suffice it to say, I attempt to offer a coherent, yet largely micro-level perspective, of analysis with regard to the role of lesbians in the 1979 and 1987 Marches on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
And yet, even within this largely micro-level of analysis of the role of lesbians in the 1979 and 1987 Marches, there are limitations. First, this analysis is based upon only the listed primary and secondary references. Secondly, these references are comprised of various media-print, audio and visual. And, as Cruikshank states “the media often distorts, trivializes, or ignores gay issues” and:
“A specific problem with the media is that it tends to portray gay life as a male phenomenon, a misperception strengthened by the AIDS epidemic. Women play a much greater role in the radical Group ACT UP, for example, than readers of the mainstream press Know…Gay men outnumber lesbians, and lesbians keep a low profile by choice, but the cosexual character of gay liberation has not been discovered by the media” (Cruikshank 1992:171).
While the primary references under analysis for the 1979 March include primarily print media generated by organizers of the march, the primary references under analysis for the later 1987 March include an expanded purview of media (print, audio and video) generated by both organizers of the march as well as non-organizers of the march (“The Advocate” magazine and GNC). The primary references generated by non-organizers of the 1987 March add a second level of shaping with regard to representations and interpretations associated with the 1987 March. And, considering that “The Advocate” and GCN, included among primary references under analysis with 1987 March, were predominantly male oriented and dominated from their inception, it follows that the role of lesbians would be ideologically erased during coverage of the 1987 March.
I recommend that the analysis of the first two national political Marches on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979 and 1987 undertaken in this paper be continued to include the two later similar Marches on Washington in 1993 and 2000. Such an analysis would yield additional insight and contribution with regard to the role of lesbians throughout the history of the lesbian and gay liberation movement, or, as described in more contemporary terms, the history of the LGBTQ civil rights movement.
Methods (back to top)
The methods employed in research for this paper include a review of both primary and secondary sources associated with the 1979 and 1987 Marches on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Primary sources were accessed from various locations at the University of Michigan including: 1) Special Collections Library-Labadie Collection; 2) Askwith Media library; on-line library databases of 3) “Gerritsen Collection: Women’s History 1543-1945”; 4) “Women and Social Movements in the United States: 1600-2000”; 5) “Lexis Nexis Academic”; 6) “Proquest Historical Newspapers”; and, 7) a world wide web based search which yielded four primary source audio files (The Rainbow History Project) and three video files (YouTube 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights-Part I, Part II, Part III). Secondary sources were accessed from the University of Michigan’s Mirlyn library catalog. Additionally, this author sought consultation with University of Michigan’s copyright specialist/librarian to ensure the safest use of and reference to primary sources under the “Fair Use” copyright law.
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Jean Balestrery is a pre-candidate in the Joint Doctoral Program of Social Work and Anthropology at the University of Michigan. Dually licensed as a mental health provider and having over 16 years of professional social work practice with diverse populations in various geographic regions, Ms. Balestrery is currently pursuing her scholarly research interests. Her research interests include aging, specifically in the areas of multi-generational theory and programming, social support and social networks, mental health, minority and underrepresented populations of LGBTQ and Alaska Native communities and intersectional ally development. To contact Jean, please write her at email@example.com
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