Gay Rights March in Washington Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Following six years of planning and preparation, a large demonstration in support of equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans was held in October, 1979, in Washington, D.C. Widely reported, the march attracted an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 demonstrators, marking the first time that gay citizens had massively gathered in a unified national effort to protest their civil discrimination and persecution within the United States.

Summary of Event

The planning for a national demonstration in support of equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) Americans began during a November, 1973, convention sponsored by the National Gay Mobilizing Committee National Gay Mobilizing Committee and held at the Student Union on the Champaign-Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. The attendees used skills gained from previous participation in organized, nonviolent, social resistance efforts during the Civil Rights movement and the antiwar movement in the Vietnam era. Gay rights;demonstrations [kw]Gay Rights March in Washington (Oct. 14, 1979) [kw]Rights March in Washington, Gay (Oct. 14, 1979) [kw]March in Washington, Gay Rights (Oct. 14, 1979) [kw]Washington, Gay Rights March in (Oct. 14, 1979) Gay rights;demonstrations [g]North America;Oct. 14, 1979: Gay Rights March in Washington[03730] [g]United States;Oct. 14, 1979: Gay Rights March in Washington[03730] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Oct. 14, 1979: Gay Rights March in Washington[03730] [c]Social issues and reform;Oct. 14, 1979: Gay Rights March in Washington[03730] Kameny, Frank Gittings, Barbara Bryant, Anita White, Dan Milk, Harvey Moscone, George Feinstein, Dianne Ginsberg, Allen

Ironically, many openly gay individuals were forced out of direct participation in the Civil Rights movement. Consequently, most gay social activists kept their sexual orientations private, fearing persecution by heterosexuals actively involved in the Civil Rights and antiwar movements of the 1950’s-1970’s. Motivated by official discrimination and their personal experiences of persecution, gay rights advocates assembled for the first time at the 1973 convention to begin planning a nationally organized demonstration on behalf of the GLBT community.

The gay rights movement was born out of the Stonewall riots of June 28, 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Sheridan Square, physically attacking and arresting many openly defiant, lawfully gathered gay and transgender patrons. The committee hoped to organize a national march on Washington, D.C., during 1974 to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the civil resistance by Stonewall Inn patrons and their neighborhood supporters.

New York City’s officially sanctioned police actions continued a tradition of physical harassment and civil persecution of openly gay and transgender Americans initiated during World War II by military and other law-enforcement agencies around the United States. Chiefly noted for their persecution of Hispanic Americans during World War II, the Los Angeles and San Francisco police departments, frequently joined by military police from the various U.S. armed services, also targeted openly gay men. Verbally and physically assaulting these individuals because of their sexual orientation, police arrested many gay and transgender Americans during this era under the guise of existing sodomy statutes. Dubiously similar to the Jim Crow laws of many southern states, local and state sodomy statutes across America were specifically intended to target and persecute sexual minorities.

Despite philosophical support for a national demonstration, many local and regional gay rights organizations, including the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Mattachine Society, Mattachine Society headed by astronomer Dr. Frank Kameny, expressed serious reservations to the 1973 organizing convention, stating that such an event in 1974 would attract participants fearing reprisal by their employers, especially the federal government. Along with Barbara Gittings, founder of the American Library Association’s Gay Task Force, Kameny was a longtime protester of official discrimination and harassment against homosexuals traditionally practiced by the U.S. civil service and armed services during the 1950’s-1970’s.

Kameny argued that the Mobilizing Committee might have better success by delaying a national demonstration to coincide with the American bicentennial of 1976. He also urged that any organized march in the nation’s capital not conflict with the growing number of local gay pride celebrations held annually in June to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion. Similarly, the New York City chapter of the Mattachine Society, a homophile organization first convened in 1950 to oppose the entrapment practices of law enforcement agencies against gay men, argued that a national march should have clearly defined goals tied to specific civil rights legislation ending discrimination against gay Americans. Consequently, the 1973 organizing convention concluded without planning a 1974 event, but six years would make all the difference.

During this interim, former Miss America runner-up and singer Anita Bryant, with significant financial support from fundamentalist Christian political organizations, led a successful effort to overturn a Dade County, Florida, ordinance outlawing housing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Her organization, Save Our Children, Save Our Children also succeeded in helping to pass a Florida statute prohibiting the adoption of children by gays and lesbians. Her outspoken bigotry galvanized a spirited, national boycott by gay Americans and their supporters against Florida orange juice, a product visibly marketed by Bryant through a nationally televised advertising campaign.

Coincidentally, on November 27, 1978, openly gay supervisor Harvey Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone were assassinated in their respective civic center offices by antigay supervisor and former San Francisco policeman Dan White. Outraged by White’s lenient sentence of manslaughter and prison term of seven years, on May 21, 1979, an angry crowd gathered in San Francisco’s Castro District. The march down Market Street ended in violence between some protesters and police at the civic center and other Market Street locations. On the following day, a street fair in honor of Harvey Milk’s birthday eased civil tensions and reunified the Castro District in a festive, nonviolent demonstration of gay pride.

These events catapulted Supervisor Dianne Feinstein into national prominence as San Francisco’s temporary mayor following Moscone’s death. Feinstein was later elected to that municipal post and eventually became a California representative to the U.S. Senate in 1992. Consequently, the tragedy in San Francisco precipitated a large presence of San Franciscans and other urban, gay activists at the upcoming national demonstration in October, 1979. The protest was guaranteed large representation and significant media coverage.

Galvanized by preceding events, the highly publicized demonstration on October 14, 1979, capped a three-day gay rights program in Washington, D.C. Attended by an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 vocal, placard-bearing supporters, the demonstration successfully began the nationalized movement to end discrimination against and persecution of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans. The peaceful march proceeded along Pennsylvania Avenue and terminated at the Washington Monument on the National Mall, where the congregation listened to numerous gay speakers and artists, including poet Allen Ginsberg. Additionally, activists paid tribute to the fallen “mayor of Castro Street” Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone.


No longer subsumed by the heterosexual majority, American homosexuals had finally succeeded in creating a politically viable, recognizable subculture within the diverse tapestry of American cultures. Spectacularly demonstrated by the 1979 march, their unity of purpose established the creation of many national and international gay rights organizations. With specific goals and legislation, demonstrators demanded equal rights for GLBT Americans. Demonstrators supported the passing of a bill (H.R. 2074) that would amend existing federal civil rights legislation to eliminate housing, workplace, and military discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Despite reforms, military police from the U.S. armed services continued monitoring and raiding gay nightclubs in cities with large military populations. Discretely attending these businesses, such as the historic, gay-owned Bonham Exchange in downtown San Antonio, Texas, adjacent to the Alamo, many gay soldiers were harassed and targeted by military police during the 1980’s and 1990’s. Politically, the local and national pursuit of equal rights for GLBT Americans was vociferously obstructed by the well-financed Christian Right since the landmark 1979 gay rights march on Washington.

Although GLBT demonstrators gained national and international attention and established various local, state, and federal regulations outlawing housing and employment discrimination, other goals established by 1979 event planners—such as legal recognition of lesbian and gay relationships—were not fully attained by the end of the twentieth century. According to the National Park police, 300,000 demonstrators (D.C. police estimated more than one million) attended a similar civil rights march in Washington on April 25, 1993, renewing demands of equal rights for GLBT Americans. Gay rights;demonstrations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Legg, W. Dorr. Homophile Studies in Theory and Practice. San Francisco: GLB Publishers, 1994. Discusses the rise of homophile organizations, such as the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, during the 1950’s and 1960’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGarry, Molly. Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth Century America. New York: Penguin Studio, 1998. Illustrated review of twentieth century people and events relevant to gay culture and politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Diane Helene. Freedom to Differ: The Shaping of the Gay and Lesbian Struggle for Civil Rights. New York: New York University Press, 1998. Examines the political movement supporting gay rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shilts, Randy. The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. New York: Stonewall Inn Editions, 1982. Examination of Milk’s rise to prominence in San Francisco and the integration of events in that city with the national gay rights movement.

American Psychiatric Association Delists Homosexuality as a Psychiatric Disorder

Civil Service Decides That Gays Are Fit for Public Service

U.S. Court of Appeals Upholds the Navy’s Ban on Homosexuality

U.S. Government Authorizes Collection of Data on Crime Against Gays

U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Colorado Antigay Law

Vermont’s Civil Union Law Takes Effect

Categories: History