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30 years of marching for equality

By Lambda Archives Staff | Out of the Archives

As we prepare for the Equality March this Sunday, June 11, we’d like to take a look back on the LGBTQ community’s legacy of protesting, marching and stepping up for our rights. Specifically, one of the precursors to this weekend’s Equality March: the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.

AIDS Quilt on National Mall in 1987 (Photo by Charles Kaminski)

After hearing in a few of our oral history interviews and passing conversations with some elders in San Diego’s LGBTQ community that San Diego had sent a significant contingent to the second National March in 1987, we dug into our collections. Sure enough, on Oct. 11, 1987, San Diego sent about 500 activists to Washington, D.C., joining a crowd of over 500,000, for what would be the largest civil rights demonstration since the 1960s.

The organization of the march struck me, as did the intersectionality of the demands, as listed on the official March on Washington flyer.

“Passage of the congressional lesbian and gay rights bill; an end to discrimination against people with AIDS, ARC, HIV-positive status, or those perceived to have AIDS. Massive increase in funding for AIDS education, research, and patient care; the repeal of all laws that make sodomy between consenting adults a crime; a presidential order banning anti-gay discrimination by the federal government; legal recognition of lesbian and gay relationships; 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.”

Handwritten chants used by protestors after they were arrested (Courtesy Lambda Archives)

Oct. 11, 1987 also marked the first time that the AIDS Quilt, created by Cleve Jones through his NAMES Project, was unveiled in Washington, D.C. This early iteration of the quilt was laid out on the National Mall the morning of the march, honoring and mourning the 2,600 people who died from AIDS-related illnesses and brought national attention to the enormity and scale of the AIDS crisis.

The 1987 March on Washington was more than just one day of a massive march through the streets of Washington, D.C.

Two days after the march, on Tuesday, Oct. 13, over 600 people were arrested in a large civil disobedience action at the Supreme Court, protesting the 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick that upheld an anti-sodomy law in Georgia. Among the 600-plus people arrested at the Supreme Court were San Diego’s own Jess Jessop (a founder of both the Lambda Archives and the San Diego LGBT Community Center) and Albert Bell (a founder of San Diego’s ACT UP chapter).

Nestled in Jessop’s file on the 1987 March was a short list of eight “cheers/chants,” recorded after the civil disobedience arrests. Also in Jessop’s papers were other documents related to the day of the march, including a full schedule of events from formal lobby days at the Capitol, to mass wedding ceremonies at the IRS building, informal teach-ins, a coincidentally concurrent SM/Leather conference, to various dance parties (dancing has always been part of LGBTQ resistance).

A schedule of events flyer for March 1987 (Courtesy Lambda Archives)

Recently, we hosted a group of local high school students at the Archives and engaged them in a walking tour around Hillcrest. While at the Archives, the students looked through some archival materials, including flyers for the 1987 March. They remarked on the similar language between the 1987 march and the now-regularly-scheduled marches and protests of 2017, most notably comparing the 1987 march with the 2017 Women’s March in January.

They noted at first that it seems demoralizing and exhausting — and it is true; we’ve made so much progress, and yet, we’re still fighting so many of the same fights we’ve been fighting for 30 years and longer. But these students also noted that this similarity connected them with their history, with all of the leaders and activists that came before them.

We are at a unique and powerful point in history right now, in 2017, built on the foundation of our community’s elders and LGBTQ ancestors. Nearly 30 years after the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, the Equality March of 2017 will be historic and it will weave this particular moment into our longer arc of history.

Lambda Archives of San Diego will be out at the Equality March in San Diego on June 11, both participating and actively archiving the historic moment, and will act as the repository for march materials (posters, signs, buttons, T-shirts and other ephemera) after the fact.

We hope to see you there. Contact our archivist, Jen LaBarbera, at archivist@lambdaarchives.org if you’d like to schedule a time to drop off any Equality March materials.

—Lambda Archives, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to collecting, preserving and teaching the history of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in San Diego and the Northern Baja California region, is located at 4545 Park Blvd., in University Heights. To learn more, stop in or visit their website at lambdaarchives.org.

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