During LGBTQ history month, we celebrate this community and the wide impact its members have had on society, culture, and the larger world. One key event in LGBTQ history in the United States is the October 14, 1979, march on Washington, which essentially launched the national gay and lesbian rights movement. To celebrate the anniversary of this milestone event, Gale is highlighting key primary sources that provide deeper knowledge about the march taken from Gale’s new Archives of Sexuality & Gender. This important, rich resource provides rare and unique primary source information about gender and sexuality. It helps scholars and students gain unparalleled insight and understanding about all facets of the community, including LBGTQ history, activism, and related social, political, health, and legal issues and topics.
Marching for a Purpose
Organized by the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights, the march was partially inspired by the assassination of the first openly gay California politician to hold office, Harvey Milk, in November 1978. Before his death, Milk had wanted to raise national awareness about gay and lesbian issues through a march on Washington and had worked on early planning for such an event. The march also commemorated the tenth anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall uprising.
Organizers outlined specific objectives for the march, which was to serve as a national call to action for expanded rights and an end to legal, social, judicial, and economic bias against gays and lesbians in the United States and around the world. Five demands were outlined, including the repeal of all laws that discriminated against gays and lesbians and a presidential order to bring an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation in the U.S. federal government and the military.
Attracting an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 attendees, the march included gays and lesbians and their supporters from all 50 states, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and countries in Europe and Africa. The weekend before the march the First National Conference of Third World Lesbians was also held. It focused on furthering the fight for rights in disenfranchised and minority LGBT communities.
The march ended at a rally held near the Washington Monument that featured speakers such as poets Audre Lorde, Allen Ginsberg and National Organization of Women president Eleanor Smeal as well as entertainment from musicians and comics. Though counter-protests were held, the event showed the national and international cohesion of the community and the increasing perception that discrimination of gays and lesbians was intolerable.
Digging Deeper into the March
The Archives of Sexuality & Gender features an abundance of contemporary information on the march, including efforts to organize it, advertisements for activities held in support of it, and a list of endorsers of the march itself. Through a “Guide to the March” published in the Gay Community News, researchers can learn about preparations, read a schedule of march-related events, and understand how the march was perceived by the LGBTQ community of the era. This guide also includes a map of the route the march took through Washington, D.C..
Using these kinds of primary source materials from the Archives of Sexuality & Gender can provide knowledge that would be hard to find elsewhere. This concept is further shown by coverage after the event included in the archive. It includes newspaper articles summarizing the march, reactions to the march from people who were there, and published images from the march itself. Even contemporary concerns that march’s attendance and impact had been underreported by mainstream media sources are represented.
Building for the Future
Though the fight for LGBTQ rights has had many recent achievements that would undoubtedly please the 1979 marchers—including same sex marriage rights in the United States—much work remains to end the discrimination against and within this community. By using resources such as the Archives of Sexuality & Gender, research and discussion of topics of importance to the LGBTQ community can be informed with knowledge of past oppressions and emboldened as the fight for rights continues.
Stay tuned for LBGT History Month posts all month long!