The planets have aligned and I can go to the National Equality March in Washington D.C. this Sunday, October 11, 2009.
Ironically, the last and only time I ever march in a national demonstration of any kind was the very first gay rights March which also took place in Washington D.C. The date was October 14, 1979. It was called "The March on Washington."
The funny thing is I had not planned on attending either one of these marches. While I have been out since the spring of 1964 as a gay man, I have never participated in any kind of public demonstrations. That is not my nature. I've never even been to a rock concert let alone a public political demonstration.
How I happened to go on the first march in Washington to demand equal rights as a gay man was quite by chance. In 1979 I was living in an apartment on Spruce Street in Philadelphia, waiting for the construction of my home in Chester County to be completed. One Friday or Saturday (I forget which) I was in my usual spot at the 247 Bar, a leather and western bar down the street from where I lived.
I was with a group of fellow bar attendees on a night out of cruising when someone asked me "Are you going on the march tomorrow?" I said "What march?" He explained to me it was a march that was taking place in Washington D.C. to demand recognition for our civil liberties as gay men and women. My first response was "No." Then I thought, "Why not?" I wasn't doing anything the next day.
I asked, "How would I get there?" He said "A bus is leaving tomorrow from the front of the 247 Bar." How convenient. I asked "How much would it cost?" He said "There is no charge." How could I refuse? Put up or shut up. I decided to make myself known as a gay man in the most visible place in the world, the capital of the United States of America.
I made my decision right then and there. The bus was to leave at 8 am the next day. I slept little that night. I thought "What have I gotten myself into?" I remembered Harvey Milk was assassinated less than a year ago for publicly displaying himself as a homosexual. I myself had been threatened many times with violence for just exiting a gay bar, being on a gay beach alone, and walking on a darkened road to my motel room in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I've been chased with a baseball bat and had a gun pulled on me and, of course, had the standard invective hurled at me many times, "F*cking faggot!" I have also been very, very lucky and survived without injury. I am not a religious person but I attribute my good fortune to my guardian angel. He is always with me. His name is Don.
The day of the trip my knees were literally shaking. I was that nervous. I climb on the bus with other gay men that I didn't know. However, we all had one thing in common, we were going to demonstrate in our nation's capital that we too, were citizens of this country and deserved the same rights and respect that every other citizen in this country takes for granted.
The trip takes a little less than three hours to get us to Washington D.C. The day was overcast, with shards of sunlight occasionally slicing through the clouds. The first thing I notice was how many people were there. I never saw so many gay people together in one place in my lifetime. And I've been on Commercial Street in Provincetown in the height of the summer season. There were thousands and thousands of gay men and woman blanketing the Washington Monument Mall.
The next thing I notice is the wonderful, exhilarating feeling that is overtaking me. The only time I had that feeling before was the first time I visited Provincetown. The feeling was one of freedom. It sounds corny but the phrase that immediately came to my mind was "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty I'm free at last!" I literally felt the weight of oppression lifted from my shoulders. I stood straight and tall.
I had lived with the oppression of hatred and discrimination so much of my life that I didn't even realize how much it had oppressed me. But once on October 16, 1979 in Washington D.C., I had that same feeling of euphoria.
Something else I noticed was that the police were protecting us! Our parade route was lined with Washington D.C. police officers on their motorcycles (rather small motorcycles I thought by the way.) There we were thousands of gay men marching down a route lined with uniformed, sun glass wearing, butch D.C. cops on motorcycles. Now if that doesn't make a gay man feel good, nothing will!
Well, to sum it that day was one of the best days in my life. Oh there were a few pockets of homophobes during the route of our parade looking at us with shock and disgust. One can only imagine what was going through their minds but they were outnumbered and they knew it. Now that truly was a rare feeling, to outnumber the straights.
During and after the parade I met a few guys I knew. I was really impressed with San Francisco contingent of the parade. I never saw to many men with such beautiful blue eyes. When I expressed my admiration for all those beautiful blue eyes someone next to me said "They're wearing contact lenses."
After the parade and the speeches, we milled around the Washington Monument Mall. I think I took my camera with me but I don't remember. If I did, I don't know what I did with the pictures if I took any. Remember, back in those Dark Ages days, many gay men and women didn't want their pictures taken for fear of being blackmailed. How times have changed.
Tomorrow morning at 8 am I board another bus for a gay rights march in Washington D.C. This time I'm 30 years older (67 now instead of a nervous and scared 37 year old) and I have my camera with me. There will be pictures taken. This time I am not nervous. This time I am not afraid.