Memories of the 1987 March on Washington - August 2013

By Marc Stein

The 1987 March on Washington was an incredibly important episode in my intensifying involvement in the gay and lesbian movement and my efforts to link my sexuality and my politics. From 1981 to 1985, I had been a mostly straight student at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where I had participated in abortion rights, anti-apartheid, antiracist, antiwar, feminist, gay/lesbian, and student activism. After I graduated in 1985, I spent most of the next year working and travelling with my girlfriend in Europe and Israel. In 1986, after my girlfriend and I broke up, I moved to Boston and began working for the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies. Around this time I also began volunteering at Gay Community News, first helping with the weekly mailing of the paper on Friday nights, then assisting with layout and proofreading on Thursday nights, later joining the Board of Directors, and finally becoming the newspaper's coordinating editor in 1988 and 1989. Michael Bronski, one of GCN's most active contributing writers, mentored me at GCN; he and several others introduced me to the gay and lesbian world, which was quite new to me.

Shortly after I began volunteering at GCN, I started attending meetings and demonstrations organized by the Gay and Lesbian Defense Committee, which was campaigning against Governor Michael Dukakis's policies against placing children with gay and lesbian foster parents. Through GCN and GLDC I got involved with a social and political network of about two dozen gay and lesbian activists, several of whom were editors of the journal Radical America, which was in the process of putting out two special issues on AIDS. Within this network I became friends with two young gay men who had graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design—Fred Gorman and Gregory Gazaway—and we were taken under the wings of a group of older lesbian activists, including Margaret Cerullo and Marla Erlien, both of whom were Radical America editors, along with Jade McGlaughlin, Nancy Wechsler, Ann Holder, Judy Andler, and Susan Levene. Eventually, though I can't remember whether this occurred before or after the march, several of us formed the core of MASS ACT OUT, which was inspired by the work of ACT UP New York and predated the formation of ACT UP Boston.

If AIDS was one of the focal points of my developing gay and lesbian political consciousness in this period, the 1986 Supreme Court's 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, which upheld state sodomy laws, was the other. The Supreme Court's ruling was announced just a few months after I moved to Boston; I remember reading the decision in the New York Times and feeling a combination of anger, fury, rage, and disappointment. I distinctly remember going to a demonstration at Boston University to protest a speech by William Rehnquist, who joined the conservative majority in Bowers and was appointed Chief Justice later that year.

At some point in this period, probably in the first half of 1987, I began attending meetings of the New England Organizing Committee for the March on Washington, which I think was led by Judy Andler and operated, at least for a time, out of GCN's offices. The work involved publicizing the upcoming march, distributing flyers in the bars, using buttons, stickers, and posters to recruit participants, organizing fundraisers, and participating in discussions about march demands and strategies. At Wesleyan, I had participated in campus organizing for two marches on Washington to protest cutbacks in education funding and student aid, so this type of political work was familiar to me. I experienced the organizing process for the 1987 march as very grassroots; it seemed to me that the national organizers very much involved local activists in the process. And in Boston and New England, the local organizing was led by radical gay and lesbian activists with progressive class, gender, race, and sexual politics. In fact, many of the same people who were involved with GLDC, GCN, Radical America, and MASS ACT OUT were active on the New England Organizing Committee.

I don't remember much about traveling to the march and I don't remember many details about the march itself; I attended approximately ten marches on Washington in the 1980s and 1990s and it's difficult for me to remember anything specific about each one. I remember that the 1987 march felt huge; we were so pleased and proud about the attendance. I visited the NAMES Project Quilt, which was very moving, but I think my radical friends and allies were somewhat ambivalent about its politics. We understood the emotional and political work of the quilt, but favored more aggressive, militant, and radical forms of political activism. It was either at the march or at a gay pride parade in New York or Boston that I first witnessed the impressive and inspiring spectacle of a large number of ACT UP activists marching together and chanting "Act Up, Fight Back, Fight AIDS."

What I remember more distinctly was the civil disobedience action at the U.S. Supreme Court on the day after the march. At some point in the organizing process we had learned that on the day after the march activists were planning to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Supreme Court building to protest the decision in Bowers. Several of us formed an affinity group and decided to participate together; I think it included Margaret, Marla, Fred, Jade, Ann, and a few others; I think we were a group of ten or twelve people. I had never done civil disobedience, but was very excited about the prospect. I think one member of our group agreed to serve as a witness in case there were troubles with the police; this was based on advice from activists who were experienced in nonviolent civil disobedience. Several of us attended an evening planning session that featured trainings in nonviolent civil disobedience. On the day of the action, the scene at the Supreme Court was intense, chaotic, and full of energy. Our group met up and joined the large crowd massing, marching, and shouting in front of the building. The police had set up barricades and they were stationed at various points around the building. We had been told in advance that they would likely be wearing plastic yellow gloves because of AIDS hysteria; sure enough they were. We had purchased plastic yellow gloves of our own and had painted them to look like we had purple nail polish; we wanted to mock the police. I saved those gloves for many years (until they fell apart)!

At some point we noticed that the police had created a small opening in their barricades, large enough for a single file line of activists to walk through. We watched as a line of activists walked through the barricades and were led directly onto a set of school buses that were positioned in a parking lot, presumably to take us to jail. At this point, I think our group had a sense of ourselves as falling somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of activists who were there that day. Some protesters were content to follow the procedures set up by the police and walk peacefully to the buses. Some were determined to break through the barricades, run as far as possible toward the building, refuse to move when confronted by the police, and act in other aggressive ways. We wanted to do more than the first group but not go as far as the second. At some point someone encouraged us to run to the back of the Supreme Court building, where apparently the police were relying on shrubs to block access. We joined several other affinity groups and rushed through an opening in the shrubs, where apparently no police officers were stationed.

I recall running with our group toward the Supreme Court building. The feeling was exhilarating; there was something about challenging authority in the way we were doing that felt incredible. I think we ran a few hundred feet and then several police appeared. Someone cried out, reminding us of our plan--sit down, link arms, and begin chanting. We did just that. I remember my heart was pounding. Soon other activists poured through the opening in the shrubs and the officers guarding us ran off to block their access to the building. At some point we realized that no one was guarding us and that we could get up and begin running toward the building again, which we did. After another few hundred feet, the police again blocked our way; this time they didn't leave us unguarded. At some point I think someone in authority came over to us and explained that we could walk ourselves to the buses or we would be physically carried. We decided to walk ourselves, which we did. I think it was at this point that Fred and I were separated from the women in our group. At some point someone in authority came onto the bus and told us that they were going to handcuff us with plastic cuffs (really plastic ties). I think we had been advised during the civil disobedience training about how to hold our wrists so that the cuffs would not be too tight. Sure enough, mine were so loose that I quickly was able to free my hands and discreetly showed Fred that, if need be, I could free myself again.

We were taken somewhere to be processed; I think it was a school gymnasium. I remember sitting for hours and talking with Fred. I remember feeling totally bored. We had been warned in advance that we might be issued a ticket and fined or we might end up spending the night in jail. We had been confident enough about this to plan our return trip to Boston that day or the next, but we also knew it was possible that we wouldn't be released in time. None of us knew exactly what would happen and there were all sorts of rumours that circulated in the gym about what the police were doing. Eventually, it was our turn to be processed. I could be wrong about this and I could be exaggerating, but I think Fred and I were fined $200 each. Having been warned to expect this, we had brought enough cash to cover the fines. I don't remember anything else about leaving the gym, meeting back up with our friends, or returning to Boston.

I remember the civil disobedience action at the Supreme Court with great pride and pleasure. There was something about the collective nature of the experience—collective in the sense of the way I participated with my friends and allies from Boston and collective in the sense of joining with hundreds of others to engage in civil disobedience at the Supreme Court—that made it feel very special. There was something about my willingness to put my body on the line—we didn't know what to expect and whether the police would respond violently—that signalled my deepening commitment to the gay and lesbian movement specifically and political activism more generally. There was something about our emotions and our politics at that particular moment in time—after the Supreme Court rejected us in Bowers and as the U.S. government continued to reject us in the AIDS crisis—that had a deep and lasting influence. In retrospect, I can see that the 1987 March on Washington played a role in my decisions to deepen my involvement in gay/lesbian and AIDS activism, apply for a job at Gay Community News in 1988, and go to graduate school to study gay and lesbian history in 1989. And the politics of the march—its class, gender, racial, and sexual politics and its radical politics—influenced how I did all of those things in the next several years.