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Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights

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Nancy Pelosi, marching in 1987

The Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights was a large political rally that took place in Washington, D.C., on October 11, 1987.[1][2] Its success, size, scope, and historical importance have led to it being called, "The Great March".[3] It marked the first national coverage of ACT UP, with AIDS activists prominent in the main march, as well as making headlines the next day during mass civil disobedience actions at the United States Supreme Court Building.[4]

Background and planning[edit]

Buttons announcing the march

The desire for a national march in the LGBT community was prompted by two major events in the 1980s: the AIDS pandemic, the Ronald Reagan administration's lack of acknowledgment of the AIDS crisis; and the Supreme Court of the United States ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick upholding the criminalization of sodomy between two consenting men in the privacy of a home.[3] In 1986, Steve Ault and Joyce Hunter, co-coordinators of the 1979 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, drafted documents to extant lesbian and gay organizations soliciting interest in a new march. The response was favorable, and the two organized an initial planning meeting in New York City on July 16, 1986, where it was decided that the march would be held in 1987.[3] Representatives from all known lesbian and gay organizations were subsequently invited to a national conference in New York City on November 14–16, 1986 where they would discuss the politics, logistics and organization of the event. The delegates would be addressing four primary concerns:

  1. What will a March on Washington accomplish?;
  2. How should organizers and LGBT organizations proceed?;
  3. What should be the focus and platform of the event?; and
  4. When should the March take place?[3]

The conference was held under the slogan "For love and for life, we're not going back!"[5]

Throughout the planning weekend, delegates debated many aspects of the march itself, including the needs of more marginalized members of the community – lesbian and gay people of color, those living in poverty and with disabilities.[3]

The second meeting of the steering committee was held in January 1987 in the City of West Hollywood at City Hall. Steve Ault, Pat Norman and Kay Ostberg were elected as the three national co-chairs of the event.[3]

The final organizational meeting for the march took place in Atlanta on May 2–3, 1987. This meeting served primarily to hammer out logistical details and determine the slate of individuals to speak at the rally.


The delegates at the West Hollywood convention chose seven primary demands to serve as the platform for the 1987 March. Each of these demands was supplemented with a broader list of demands which extended beyond the scope of single-issue LGBT concerns. In doing so, the organizers wished to underscore their recognition that oppression of one group affects oppression of all groups.[3] The seven primary demands were:

  • The legal recognition of lesbian and gay relationships.
  • The repeal of all laws that make sodomy between consenting adults a crime.
  • A presidential order banning discrimination by the federal government.
  • Passage of the Congressional lesbian and gay civil rights bill.
  • An end to discrimination against people with AIDS, AIDS related complex (ARC), AIDS related conditions, HIV-positive status and those perceived to have AIDS.
  • Massive increases in funding for AIDS education, research, and patient care.
  • Money for AIDS, not for war.
  • Reproductive freedom, the right to control our own bodies, and an end to sexist oppression.
  • An end to racism in this country and apartheid in South Africa.[6]

Activities and speakers[edit]

Buttons from the march

The march was part of six days of activities, with a mass wedding and protest in front of the Internal Revenue Service on October 10, and, three days later, a civil disobedience act in front of the Supreme Court building protesting its rulings upholding Bowers v. Hardwick.[4] The march, demonstration and rally also included the first public display of Cleve Jones's NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.[7]

The march itself was led by Cesar Chavez, Eleanor Smeal, Jesse Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg and several other celebrities, who were followed by people with AIDS and their supporters, a number of whom were in wheelchairs. Members of ACT UP brought their brand of theatrical and photogenic direct action to the march, and were featured prominently in the media of the event.[4]

Speakers at the rally included, among others:

  • former National Organization for Women president Eleanor Smeal
  • union president and Latino civil rights figure Cesar Chavez[8]
  • actor and comedian Whoopi Goldberg[9]
  • Jesse Jackson, then a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president.[10] Jackson told the crowd, "Let's find a common ground of humanity... [W]e share the desire for life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, equal protection under the law. Let's not dwell on distinctions."[10]
  • Judy Tallwing McCarthey, the leather community's keynote speaker at the march[11]
  • Robin Tyler, activist, producer, and out gay comic, also emceed the main stage at the march and produced "The Wedding," the first mass act of civil disobedience by the gay community in support of the right to marry.

The march marked increased visibility for bisexuals. A bisexual contingent of about 75 (co-organized by artist Liz Nania)[12] marched, and then held the first nationwide bisexual gathering, which led to the eventual 1990 founding of the North American Bisexual Network. Lani Kaʻahumanu's article "The Bisexual Movement: Are We Visible Yet?", was also included in the Civil Disobedience Handbook for the Supreme Court action.[13]

The 200,000 person estimate, widely quoted from The New York Times,[1] was made several hours before the march actually began; similarly, most of the pictures the mainstream media used were taken early in the morning, or of the AIDS Quilt viewing area rather than of the much larger march itself. Police on the scene estimated numbers during the actual march to be closer to 750,000.[14][15]

The event was supported and endorsed from its early stages by such national LGBT organizations as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.[3]

Faygele Ben-Miriam attended the March on Washington, who in September 1971 applied for a marriage license with his partner Paul Barwick in Seattle Washington. They later filed the suit Singer vs Hara, which ended in 1974 with a unanimous rejection by the Washington State Court of Appeals.


Energized by the sense of community, moved by the AIDS Quilt, and inspired by the activists from ACT UP New York, many participants returned home and started their own chapters of ACT UP or similar lesbian and gay rights organizations.[4]

A year later, in commemoration of the march, and to continue the momentum, the first National Coming Out Day was established.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Williams, Lena (October 12, 1987), "200,000 March in Capital to Seek Gay Rights and Money for AIDS", The New York Times, pp. A1, archived from the original on March 26, 2007
  2. ^ "March on Washington: Gays Intensify Fight for Civil Rights". Commonwealth Times. Richmond Va. 1987-10-20. pp. 1, 7–8. Retrieved 2024-05-28.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Ghaziani, Amin. 2008. "The Dividends of Dissent: How Conflict and Culture Work in Lesbian and Gay Marches on Washington". The University of Chicago Press.
  4. ^ a b c d Stein, Marc, "Memories of the 1987 March on Washington" for OutHistory.org, August 2013. Accessed October 11, 2015
  5. ^ Byron, Peg. "Plans for National March Begin Amidst NY-DC Turf Battle." Washington Blade. November 21, 1986
  6. ^ Official Program of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Gerber/Hart Library
  7. ^ Cannon, Carl M. (October 11, 1987), "HOMOSEXUALS STAGE MASS 'WEDDING' HUNDREDS OF GAYS EXCHANGE VOWS, PROTEST TAX LAWS", Miami Herald, pp. 6A
  8. ^ Getlin, Josh (October 12, 1987), "Gays, Lesbians and Backers March in Capital, Demand Federal Law Against Discrimination", Los Angeles Times, p. 1
  9. ^ Crawford, Craig (October 12, 1987), "GAY RIGHTS ACTIVISTS JAM NATION'S CAPITAL", Orlando Sentinel, pp. A1
  10. ^ a b "HOMOSEXUALS RALLY IN WASHINGTON", Philadelphia Daily News, p. 4, October 12, 1987
  11. ^ "Creating Change Conference announces awards | Dallas Voice". 14 December 2019.
  12. ^ Jordahn, Sebastian (2019-10-23). "Queer x Design highlights 50 years of LGBT+ graphic design". Dezeen. Retrieved 2021-06-12.
  13. ^ http://www.lanikaahumanu.com/OUT%20OUTRAGED.pdf [bare URL PDF]
  14. ^ Hinds, Stuart (December 2015). "The 1987 March on Washington" (PDF). The Phoenix Newsletter.
  15. ^ Springate, Megan E. "LGBTQ Civil Rights in America". LGBTQ America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History (PDF). National Park Service. pp. 18–48 (51 in the file).