It was either a meteorological fluke or an act of God, but shortly before noon on the day of the National Equality March on Oct. 11 a rainbow streaked across the sky above Washington, D.C. A murmur rippled through the crowd as people of every age, race, and gender turned to look. The reaction was not as enthusiastic as the cheers that greeted “Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon’s arrival, or the arrival of the cast of the hit Broadway musical “Hair” (who canceled their Sunday matinee to attend the march), but nonetheless the symbolism seemed to touch many of the marchers.
Carrying signs that ranged from the sincere (“God loves gays” and “End SegreGAYtion”) to the sarcastic (“Liz Taylor got married 8 times. My sister only wants to do it once.”), the march’s participants were from all walks of life. Families (gay and straight), groups of friends, couples, and a variety of organizations came together for the largest gathering of LGBT rights supporters in the nation’s capital in almost a decade. The march wound through downtown, past the White House and up to the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Not even the presence of a handful of counter-protesters from Westboro Baptist Church seemed to dampen spirits.
John Wood came to the march with a group from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, where he is pursuing a Master’s degree in Education.
“We wanted to make a statement,” Wood said. “We want to have all our civil rights recognized as if we were straight.”
Gordon Wilson, an 18-year-old student from Duke University was there as well with a group of his friends. “I’m here to take part in a historic event,” he said, adding that he hopes the march is “ideally a turning point for gay rights.”
Signs from various North Carolina LGBT groups dotted the march and rally, and groups from North Carolina State University, Duke University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill came together to charter buses to bring people to the event.
As has been well documented in recent weeks, the National Equality March was not without controversy. President Barack Obama became only the second sitting U.S. president to address the Human Rights Campaign when he spoke at their national dinner the night before the march. But he made no mention of what was to take place the next day.
March co-director Robin McGehee, 36, told The New York Times, “He knows this march is happening and he can’t even acknowledge it?”
Additionally, efforts by Equality Across America, which organized the march, to include prominent activists quickly exposed rifts within the LGBT rights community. Some argued that the money could have been better spent elsewhere. Others suggested that a vocal march on Washington was not the best way to initiate change. Many North and South Carolina leaders have said local- and state-based advocacy work was key. Days before the march, openly gay U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) publicly refused to attend, deriding it as “emotional satisfaction” for the participants.
Despite any previous disagreements among high profile activists, marchers on this National Coming Out Day were focused on the message. Chants of “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” and “Equality now!” rang out across the front lawn of the White House.
Jesse Gephart, 26, of Raleigh, pointed out that despite the differences in opinion regarding the march, “We all want the same thing. I understand the idea that the money could have been used at a local level, but we became more visible. The number of people was staggering.”
One estimate by CNN put the number of attendees at 250,000. Gephart said that by the time he and his friends finished the march, the lawn in front of the Capitol had been completely filled.
At the Capitol rally immediately following the march, activist Judy Shepard joined with a diverse group of speakers including celebrities Cynthia Nixon and Lady Gaga and Speaker of the New York City Council Christine Quinn.
“I’m here today because I lost my son to hate,” Shepard began, as she and others exhorted the crowd to fight for full and equal recognition of LGBT rights in all national, state, and local jurisdictions.
March organizers have planned for a nation-wide advocacy effort in all 435 Congressional districts. Many who attended the National Equality March said the key to success will be bringing the excitement and energy from Washington back to their hometowns.
Alabama native and march attendee Zach Byrnes sent a Twitter message shortly after the march: “Now we begin to ask ‘how do we transform this momentum into statewide action?’”
It is a question activists and advocacy organizations have been asking as they move on from the loss in California’s Prop. 8 battle to new challenges in the States of Washington and Maine.
Perhaps they would take comfort in the story of Mike Newman, a Charlotte native who now resides in Washington, D.C., with his wife Tiffany. Mike, who is white, and Tiffany, who is African American, offered hope and showed their support to the marchers as they stood silently along Pennsylvania Ave. holding aloft a sign that read, “Our marriage was once illegal too.”
— All photos by Leland Garrett.