Guest Editorials

When we mobilize — the 1987 March on Washington pushed the AIDS crisis to public consciousness

by Mel Baker

In April of 1987 I was back home in Salt Lake City after having marched across the U.S. on the Great Peace March the year earlier. I was itching to take on a new challenge. 

The valley was the community I’d been raised in and the one I come out in back in 1981, when I got involved with young activists like Michael Aaron and became co-host of KRCL’s Concerning Gays and Lesbians. 

In the early 80’s a strange disease affecting gay men in San Francisco and New York was still mostly a mystery to us, it would soon become the all consuming fire raging thru our community. That May I left Salt Lake again to go to Washington, DC to volunteer on the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.

Was I running away from the fire beginning to burn in my home community or was I bravely racing into the fire to fight for our lives? I’m still not certain, but here at least is my story of those days. 

[mks_dropcap style=”letter” size=”52″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]T[/mks_dropcap]he march from the White House to the Capitol was already underway on that Sun., Oct. 11. I was working in the press area in front of the main stage, where I’d been handing out press credentials and answering reporters’ logistical questions for hours.

One of the reporters was a man about my age working for United Press International’s radio unit, the second biggest wire service in the U.S. He was carrying a Marantz cassette recorder, just like the one I had used at my radio job in Salt Lake City, Utah. I walked up to him thinking I’d talk shop about his gear and noticed the white cassette in the dock, on it scrawled in bright red magic marker was just one word, “FAGS.” I was stunned, then furious. I grabbed the March press credential around his neck and with barely controlled fury and said, “Give me your damn press pass now!” With a smirk on his face, he asked, “Why?”

I said, “You know damn well why, give it to me!” He handed me the credential and I walked him to the press gate and told the other volunteers not to let him back in. I hoped he would be in deep shit for not getting to record the Reverend Jesse Jackson [A&U, November 2000] and others yet to come on stage.

The reporter’s homophobia was hardly surprising, President Reagan had only said the word “AIDS” in public for the first time in May of that year. Nearly 21,000 Americans had already died after years of neglect and deliberate efforts to slow AIDS research and education by Reagan and conservatives like Senator Jesse Helms. Now we’d brought the graveyard to their front door.

Saturday at dawn, volunteers dressed in white ritualistically and reverently laid out 1,920 three-by-six foot quilt panels — each the size of a grave — with the name of a person who had died of AIDS. Two blocks of the massive Washington Mall became a cemetery of hope.

Cleve Jones [A&U, January 2017] dedicated the Quilt with these words; “We bring a quilt. We bring it here today with shocked sorrow at its vastness and the speed with which its acreage redoubles. We bring it to this place at this time accompanied by our deepest hope: that the leaders of our country will see the evidence of our labor and our love and that they will be moved.”

As someone who suspected I already had the virus I wondered what my panel would look like.

The 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights was not the first time the LGBT community had marched in D.C. The very first protest was a small group of Mattachine Society and Daughter’s of Bilitus members, who carried placards in front of the White House on April 17, 1965, more than four years before Stonewall.

A few weeks before our march, I was working in our little media office when a man in his 60s came in. He introduced himself as Jim Kepner. I recognized the name and said, “You were in the Mattachine Society!” He seemed pleased that I knew who he was and took a pin out of his pocket and gave it to me; it was from the 1979 March on Washington. He touseled my hair and said how happy he was that young folk were carrying on the work.

The ’79 March on Washington brought around 80,000 people to the Ellipse just south of the White House. Eight years later a community galvanized by the AIDS crisis and the rising power of the fundamentalist right would bring an even broader swath of people from around the U.S., and the world.

It had been an exhilarating morning, up at dawn getting our press kits together in our offices just two floors above the ‘George Bush for President’ campaign. Hundreds of marchers had been coming in to the offices to ask questions or just see what was happening. A favorite pastime had been to “accidentally” stop on the Bush floor and try to put a little “fear of the queers” into the Republican space. In fact some of the Bush office staff were helpful, including a young, I suspected closeted gay man in a suit who allowed us use of the Xerox machine when ours went on the fritz.

As the march kicked-off from the White House on Sunday morning I was riding in a flatbed truck in front of the march main banner with the camera crews and photographers working to catch the march in motion.

Whoopi Goldberg was in the “People with AIDS” contingent just behind the first banner, pushing one of her friends with AIDS. She would later hold an impromptu press conference in which she said, “I’ve lost sixty of my friends to AIDS. I’m here for me, my friends, my daughter and all of those who are suffering.’’

There were so many people it took hours for the march to make its way from the White House Ellipse to the Capitol. Several hours into the march, organizers simply told those waiting on the White House ellipse to forego the route around the White House and walk straight down the Mall and around the AIDS Memorial Quilt to the rally stage.

The U.S. Park Police had told us before the march that the mall could hold around 250,000 people per block. We filled three blocks all the way back to the AIDS Quilt. The Park Service’s official number would be given as 200,000 taken from earlier in the day. It was clear that the number was at least three times higher.

As people moved past the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the Reverend Jesse Jackson took the stage and used the metaphor of a quilt to define his vision of America. He believed the United States is not so much a melting pot, eliminating all differences, as it is a patchwork quilt of many groups: African-Americans, labor, feminists the poor and others. He urged us to join his campaign and warned the lesbian and gay community that, “your quilt is too small.” The message was that we needed to join with other groups to win political power. A philosophy shared by slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk a decade earlier, when he won office with the help of labor, minorities and seniors.

Jackson’s speech came late in the day, but brought with it significant press coverage. He had just declared his bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination the day before and when he entered our stage he carried a huge contingent of reporters with him from his campaign bus.

Jackson had been here in Washington with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., on the other end of the Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the historic 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington. Now he spoke of the need for civil rights protections for gays and lesbians and more funding for AIDS.

While the political power demonstrated by the march and the call for compassion created by the AIDS Memorial Quilt were powerful, we as a community were crippled by the Supreme Court’s Bowers v. Hardwick decision handed down a year earlier. The ruling upholding sodomy laws gave our enemies a perfect weapon to deny AIDS education and research funding at all levels. It was easy to argue that we didn’t deserve compassion or help when we were felons in many states because of the way we loved.

The rage against that decision boiled over on the steps of the Supreme Court itself on Monday morning. More than 600 people were arrested during the course of the day, denouncing the high court’s ruling upholding sodomy laws. Michael Hardwick and another man had been arrested in his Georgia bedroom while having sex, after police were allowed to enter the apartment by a roommate. The “Out and Outraged” protest at the Supreme Court was the largest civil disobedience demonstration in the nation’s capitol since the Vietnam War.

At the time of the march many wondered if it would actually make any difference. The mobilization of October 1987 did in fact empower the LGBT and HIV communities. ACT UP surged to even greater direct actions. The AIDS Memorial Quilt would return a year later, this time on the vast oval ellipse behind the White House with 8,288 panels. LGBT lobbying and political organizations also grew in size and influence.

The vile Hardwick decision was reversed in 2003 when a case involving Texas police arresting a gay man for consensual sex in his own home was this time, gratefully found unconstitutional in Lawrence v. Texas, rapidly unraveling sodomy laws across the United States.

Whether it was the first protest in 1965 or later LGBT marches on Washington in 1993 or 2000, what we’ve learned applies to the work of activists today whether it’s for HIV treatment, education and decriminalization, the Black Lives Matter movement, a woman’s right to choose, or the ongoing efforts to expand the protections and rights of LGBT folks.

Feet on the street matter. Mobilizing people to march builds community and is a show of force both to the media and to politicians.

Finding a way to generate a compassionate response from the public is vital. There was no more powerful tool than the direct, emotional impact of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Righteous anger is a powerful weapon, when harnessed in a nonviolent way. The civil disobedience at the Supreme Court and the numerous ACT UP direct actions showed that injustice should be met with rage and a demand for change.

The 1987 march changed my life. I stayed in D.C. and worked in the antinuclear movement and later for National Public Radio. October 1987 inspired me to fight HIV with as much courage as those men being pushed in wheelchairs during the march. Nine years later after taking part in four clinical trials, buyer’s club herbs, supplements and other therapies, I would start taking the protease inhibitor cocktail that saved my life.

Perhaps someday I’ll give one of my remaining march badges to a young activist and tell them how proud I am that they are continuing to carry on the work that so many embraced with the 1987 march theme, “For Love and for Life We’re Not Going Back!”

Mel Baker is a broadcast journalist working in San Francisco. He was an activist in the antinuclear weapons, LGBT civil rights, and AIDS care movements. He took part in four AIDS drug trials in the late 1980s and ’90s and was one of the Lazarus patients saved by the protease drug cocktail. He is married to artist Leslie Aguilar.

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