An estimated 1,000,000 LGBT people and straight allies attended the “visionary, aspirational, and unapologetically bold” 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Freedom. It was “one of the most significant mass protests in the history of the United States,” according to speakers in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. gathered for a telecast forum Sept. 18 honoring the March’s 25th anniversary.
Equality Florida Executive Director Nadine Smith, then a March co-director, marveled at how so many people were mobilized before the age of cell phones and social media networks. “I realize how much of that experience continues to be a touchstone 25 years later. What was remarkable was the grassroots nature of it,” she said.
Panelists recalled the March’s emotional and political power. Smith, who helped broker an historic Oval Office meeting with President Clinton, broke down in tears remembering the turmoil as Clinton, who had promised to lift the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the U.S. military, faced fever pitch opposition from Republicans in Congress and seemed to be wavering.
America was also in the throes of the second wave of the AIDS crisis. Demonstrators held candlelight vigils to honor friends and loved ones who were struck down by the disease. But love prevailed. Flirtations singer Michael Callan sang “Love Don’t Need a Reason,” one of his last performances before his own death from AIDS seven months later. And Rev. Troy Perry ceremoniously married more than two thousand couples in front of the IRS headquarters.
“We were angry, we were frustrated, and we were mourning,” said Tony Varona, vice dean and professor at the American University Washington College of Law, who spearheaded the panel with Tom Gaynor, managing partner at Nixon Peabody, LLC, providing his firm’s sponsorship.
Underscoring the arch of history, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a candidate for governor in the November midterms, was honored for his leadership on marriage equality. In 2004, Newsom supported same-sex marriage before it was popular or politically expedient. Panelists suggested the same bold, forward-thinking approach to LGBT civil rights was evinced in the expansive 1993 March platform that called for protection from discrimination, more money for AIDS research and full civil rights for women and racial/ethnic minorities.
The panelists discussed whether another March would be useful or obsolete. Neuroscientist and entrepreneur Vivienne Ming, remembering the Berkley street protests after Prop 8 passed, remarked, “It felt so good. You’re never going to get that on Facebook.”
“This moment cries out for another March on Washington,” Smith said. “This is a moment when we have an administration that wants to drag us backwards and is dramatically altering the legal structure of this country.”