Contrary to popular belief, Oct. 11 was established as Coming Out Day, not because it’s Cleve Jones’s birthday, which is a happy coincidence, but rather because it was established to commemorate the 1987 Second March on Washington. Gay historians refer to the event as The Great March because of its success, size and scope. While The Great March today is rarely remembered except for by the few of us who were there, it left a lasting legacy, Coming Out Day, which has been an annual event since 1988.
The 1987 march on Washington drew more than a half million people to protest the Supreme Court’s decision that stated privacy in America was not a Constitutional right. Fifteen years later that decision was overturned. Young people who have come to sexual maturity in the last eight years have never known the stigma of being regarded as sexual criminals. For nearly 35 years of my adulthood, every time I had sex with a man I broke the law in Utah and in most other states. My love was illegal. The Supreme Court’s, Bowers v. Hardwick opinion was so odious to gay activists everywhere that even a hardy group of Utah queers made way to Washington, D.C. to join the protest.
Utah actually played an important role in The Great March because of Mel Baker. Mel had been a co-host on a KRCL program called Concerning Gays and Lesbians with Becky Moss. He left the program to serve on the National Planning Committee. I first heard of a march on Washington from Mel when he was pitching to the Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah for funds to help him get to D.C. However, I never thought I’d be going myself until early October of that year. Call it being moved by the spirit or whatever, but I knew I had to be there for that historic occasion.
I bought a round-trip train ticket, and with about $100 to my name I ventured forth. I was determined to be there even if I had to sleep on a park bench. I did not go alone. My ex-Marine drag queen friend, Marc Lamar, insisted that he was going too.
After three days of travel we reached Union Station in Washington D.C. We were surprised at the greeting by a contingency of Utahns who had arrived days earlier. “There beyond the throng of strangers were at least 16 people from my gay Salt Lake family! They all cheered and clapped for Marc and I, while Rev. Bruce Barton snapped pictures of us arriving in D.C., two ragged and weary sojourners. It was just wonderful to me. They made us feel like heroes!”
On the day of the march, Oct. 11, it was a wonderfully cool autumn day. From the Lincoln Memorial we walked to the Ellipse which was filled with hundreds of thousands of people filing into marching order by regions of the United States. California, New York and Texas were their own region. Utah wasn’t even listed on the program since we had no planning committee. Nevada was also left out because obviously they thought no one was coming from those states. So we just eased ourselves in between New Mexico and Colorado.
I was worried that no one would know that Utah was being represented so I managed to find an ACT-UP group which had created signs for all 50 states and territories. I claimed the sign that read UTAH ACT UP and brought it back to the Utah delegation. I was determined to let the rest of the nation know we were here! Every state in the Union was represented this time unlike in 1979 when Utah was not represented at all.
California’s delegation had an estimated 50,000 people. We had 19. But you could not believe the reaction we were getting from the crowds because we were there. Some encouraging soul yelled at us, “Utah, small but proud and brave!” That is how we all felt. We had no pretty flags, no large signs or banners, but people were stopping us to take pictures of the Utah group. It was like no one could believe that anyone would dare show up from Utah because of the perception that Utah gays were so oppressed; that it was a blooming miracle that we were in the march. At one point Michael Aaron got us chanting, “We’re sorry for Orrin Hatch!” A cute kid then yelled at us, “We forgive you!” I truly believe that Utah being in the march meant a lot to people; that civil rights could grow and take root even in the harshest of conditions.
The brave souls that represented Utah – to the best of my ability to remember – were John Bennett, Chris Brown, Ragnar McCall, Michael Aaron, David Nelson, Guy Larsen, John Bush, Cory Cozzi, Joe Dewey, Val Mansfield, Marc Lamar, Steve Oldroyd, another John, and two more gay guys that I didn’t know, but one was on crutches for the entire march! Two lesbians also joined us en route who said they used to be from Utah. There were many more Utah folks there who marched under the banner of Affirmation in the section relegated for spiritual organizations. I know Rev. Bruce Barton and Bruce Harmon marched with MCC and Tony Feliz, John Butler and Robert McIntier marched with Affirmation.
After the march, I literally stumbled upon the Names Project’s AIDS Quilt which was displayed for the first time. It covered three football fields. Involuntarily I broke out in tears witnessing the reality of how AIDS was decimating our lovers and friends.
Later I heard Rev. Jesse Jackson address the multitude, calling for AIDS funding, civil rights protection and an end to anti-gay violence. Running out of steam, and too traumatized by the effect of the quilt to listen to more speeches, I left for Mel Baker’s place. I will always be grateful to Mel, not only for representing Utah in the planning of the event, but also for allowing me to crash on his apartment floor when I had little money and no place to stay.
On the way home to Utah I met one of the organizers of the AIDS Quilt on the train. He told me all about the vision of Cleve Jones, and I became determined to create a quilt project in Utah. I met with Ben Barr of the AIDS Project Utah and we organized the Utah AIDS Memorial Quilt Project. It was my honor to create the first AIDS panel in Utah for Tracy Ross, a beloved member of the Royal Court.
Feeling like I had been to a gay revival meeting I was eager to spread the gospel of gay liberation. Within a year I formed Unconditional Support for Gays and Lesbians, became a co-host for Becky Moss on KRCL, helped with the formation of a youth group and a gay father’s group, established a gay historical society with Connell O’Donovan, organized community dances and founded Beyond Stonewall, a mountain retreat workshop for Utah’s gay people, and of course a gay archives.
I hope you all realize that you too can make a difference in our community. One person can. I did. So can you. Just open your heart to the possibilities and believe. Heed the legacy of The Great March. Come out! Because we love you!