First March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

More than 100,000 people converged on the National Mall for the first March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The event encouraged and embraced racial and gender diversity within the lesbian and gay movement and showed that lesbians and gays—representing a variety of backgrounds—could come together at the national level.

Summary of Event

On October 14, 1979, more than 100,000 people gathered at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to take part in the first March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The march was the main event of four days of conferences, meetings, lobbying, and social gatherings, which brought together gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender (GLBT) persons, and their supporters from nearly every state in the United States. [kw]First March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights (Oct. 12-15, 1979) [kw]March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, First (Oct. 12-15, 1979) [kw]Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, First March on (Oct. 12-15, 1979) [kw]Lesbian and Gay Rights, First March on Washington for (Oct. 12-15, 1979) [kw]Gay Rights, First March on Washington for Lesbian and (Oct. 12-15, 1979) [kw]Rights, First March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay (Oct. 12-15, 1979) March on Washington (1979) Political activism;marches [c]Marches, protests, and riots;Oct. 12-15, 1979: First March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights[1320] [c]Civil rights;Oct. 12-15, 1979: First March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights[1320] [c]Organizations and institutions;Oct. 12-15, 1979: First March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights[1320]

Logo for the first National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights.

(Courtesy: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center Archive)

The march was held at the end of a decade that saw a growing movement against GLBT people. In 1977, entertainer Anita Bryant began her “Save Our Children” campaign in Florida, which led to the repeal of one of the country’s first gay-civil-rights laws. On November 27, 1978, the first out elected official, Harvey Milk, had been assassinated in San Francisco along with San Francisco’s mayor, George Moscone. The killer, Dan White, received a lenient sentence. Also in 1978, the Briggs Initiative was introduced to voters in California, which, if it had passed, would have required the firing of all gay and lesbian teachers in the state. Although this initiative was narrowly defeated, it sparked a mobilization against the gay and lesbian community carried by the newly emerging Christian Right. These actions, combined with a nearly decade-long movement to build strong and political gay and lesbian communities, led to the national gathering for lesbian and gay rights in 1979.

Initially, several groups were reluctant to support the march for fear of sparking a backlash. Even after groups agreed to participate, there was intergroup conflict regarding how the march should be run, what type of tactics to use, and how to frame the issues. This conflict mirrored the schism that had grown among organizations in the broader gay and lesbian movement. Some organizations, such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, felt that the event should emphasize similarities between gays and lesbians and heterosexuals and should hold informative conferences instead of protests; they feared that anything more radical would alienate those who would otherwise support the rights of lesbians and gays. Other organizations, such as the Gay Liberation Front and the National Coalition of Black Gays (NCBG), now the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays (NCBLG), wanted to organize protests and other more disruptive activities to demand equal rights and protections under the law. In the end, however, there were no radical protests or acts of civil disobedience.

The march and rally had the following five formal demands:

Prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Repeal antigay legislation.

Urge then-President Jimmy Carter to sign a federal bill banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military and in federal government jobs.

Amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sexual orientation.

Create family protection laws.

The four-day event also included the first National Third World Gay and Lesbian Conference. Groups such as the NCBG and the D.C. Coalition of Black Gays had urged during the planning stage that organizations involved with the main march be racially balanced and diverse; and the main march was diverse.

Along with the march, rally, and the third world conference, there were workshops, legal forums, religious ceremonies, a lesbian and gay concert, dances, dinners, and other social events, all taking place peacefully; there were counterprotesters, however. March on Washington (1979) Political activism;marches


The 1979 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights was the first gathering—of this magnitude—of gays and lesbians. The sheer number of people with many common experiences created an atmosphere of celebration.

Several groups and organizations grew out of this event, including the National Black Lesbian & Gay Leadership Forum and the National Gay Rights Advocates (NGRA). An organization dealing with immigration issues for lesbians and gays was founded in Los Angeles soon after. Also, the D.C.-based Gay and Lesbian Parents Coalition emerged to support, educate, and advocate on behalf of gay and lesbian parents. The year following the march saw the founding of the Human Rights Campaign Fund (now the Human Rights Campaign), the National Association of Black and White Men Together, as well as several other lesbian and gay organizations.

The 1979 March on Washington had been one of the first such gatherings to be organized with attention to racial diversity. The NCBG helped plan the march, and it organized the third world conference, a gathering of gays and lesbians of color that had far-reaching implications, including the formation of several groups concentrating on issues facing gays and lesbians of color.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernstein, Mary. “Celebration and Suppression: The Strategic Uses of Identity by the Lesbian and Gay Movement.” American Journal of Sociology 103 (1997): 531-565.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">D’Emilio, John, William B. Turner, and Urvashi Vaid, eds. Creating Change: Sexuality, Public Policy, and Civil Rights. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">LeVay, Simon, and Elisabeth Nonas. City of Friends: A Portrait of the Gay and Lesbian Community in America. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, Thomas. “National Gay Rights March, Counter Events Set Here.” The Washington Post, October 12, 1979, p. C4.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Saslow, James. “A Monumental March Marks a Big Moment in Gay History.” The Advocate, November 29, 1979, 7-9.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sears, James T. Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones: Queering Space in the Stonewall South. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

July 2-August 28, 1963: Rustin Organizes the March on Washington

August, 1966: Queer Youth Fight Police Harassment at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco

June 27-July 2, 1969: Stonewall Rebellion Ignites Modern Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement

June 28, 1970: First Lesbian and Gay Pride March in the United States

1977: Anita Bryant Campaigns Against Gay and Lesbian Rights

November 7, 1978: Antigay and Antilesbian Briggs Initiative Is Defeated

November 27, 1978: White Murders Politicians Moscone and Milk

1979: Moral Majority Is Founded

October 12-15, 1979: First National Third World Lesbian and Gay Conference Convenes

October 11, 1987: Second March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights

April 24, 1993: First Dyke March Is Held in Washington, D.C.

April 25, 1993: March on Washington for Gay, Lesbian, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation

June, 1994: Stonewall 25 March and Rallies Are Held in New York City

June 19, 2002: Gays and Lesbians March for Equal Rights in Mexico City

Categories: History