Second March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights

The Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights brought more than one-half-million marchers and protesters to the nation’s capital and signaled major shifts in both strategy and visibility for the strengthening lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights movement not only in the United States but also around the world.

Summary of Event

The Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights was only the second national lesbian and gay march on the nation’s capital (the first, in 1979, attracted about eighty thousand people), but the October 11, 1987, event situated lesbian and gay civil rights as part of the long tradition of protest marches on Washington. Marches on Washington reach back to at least the 1890’s. The marches have been particularly resonant since the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and organized by gay African American Bayard Rustin. [kw]Second March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights (Oct. 11, 1987)
[kw]March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, Second (Oct. 11, 1987)
[kw]Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, Second March on (Oct. 11, 1987)
[kw]Lesbian and Gay Rights, Second March on Washington for (Oct. 11, 1987)
[kw]Gay Rights, Second March on Washington for Lesbian and (Oct. 11, 1987)
[kw]Rights, Second March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay (Oct. 11, 1987)
March on Washington (1987)
Political activism;marches
[c]Marches, protests, and riots;Oct. 11, 1987: Second March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights[1790]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Oct. 11, 1987: Second March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights[1790]
[c]Civil rights;Oct. 11, 1987: Second March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights[1790]
Jones, Cleve
Perry, Troy
Thompson, Karen
Kowalski, Sharon

The AIDS Memorial Quilt was first unveiled in 1987 in front of the Washington Monument.

(National Institutes of Health)

The 1987 lesbian and gay march emerged as a grassroots organization overseen by a national steering committee of approximately fifty members. This steering committee was made up of four members from eleven national districts, each reflecting gender parity and including at least one person of color, in addition to a national board of seven members representing specific constituencies (for example, the disabled, seniors, college students, and so forth). The 1987 steering committee crafted a bold mission statement demanding such things as the legal recognition of lesbian and gay relationships, the repeal of all laws criminalizing homosexuality, a federal ban on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and on HIV-AIDS status, the right to reproductive freedom and the end of racism in the United States, and the expansion of funding for HIV-AIDS education, treatment, research, and patient care.

This broad mandate by the national committee inspired an elaborate catalog of events affiliated with the march across the entirety of the Columbus Day holiday weekend. These events included a morning rally sponsored by the People of Color caucus, a concert by fourteen Lesbian/Gay Bands of America, and a conference hosted by the National Leather Association (which was held in the U.S. Treasury Department building).

At “The Wedding” on the afternoon of Saturday, October 10, several thousand committed, same-gender couples arrived on the steps of the Internal Revenue Service building singing “we’re going to the chapel and we’re gonna get married.” The crowd heard Karen Thompson speak about her custody battle over her disabled partner, Sharon Kowalski, before Reverend Troy Perry conducted a commitment ceremony for thousands of couples.

The NAMES Project Foundation’s NAMES Project Foundation AIDS Memorial Quilt AIDS Memorial Quilt;first unveiling was unveiled on the morning of October 11. Founded by Cleve Jones and other San Francisco community activists in June of 1987, NAMES gathered quilt panels from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York and, using donated materials, equipment, and labor, crafted the 1,920 panels memorializing people whose deaths were AIDS-related. Displayed on the National Mall, the quilt was laid out on a space greater than that of a football field.

Hundreds of thousands of LGBT individuals marched from the Ellipse (south of the White House) to the Lincoln Memorial, where they were addressed by Jesse Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Ginny Appuzzo, United Farm Workers (UFW) president César Chávez, and National Organization for Women (NOW) president Eleanor Smeal, among others. Event organizers anticipated somewhere between 100,000 and 250,000 marchers, but the more than 500,000 marchers who were there (most later estimates put the crowd somewhere near 650,000) defied all expectations, especially those of the National Park Service, which had released its pre-event estimate of 200,000 marchers to the media, unrevised. There were contingents from all fifty states and a host of foreign nations as well.

The largest act of civil disobedience since the Vietnam era took place on Tuesday, October 13. Protesting the spate of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that refused to decriminalize homosexuality, more than three thousand protesters “sat in” on the steps of the Supreme Court. In turn, groups of twenty or so people would stand, circle hands, be arrested, and be led off by capitol police wearing riot gear and rubber gloves. More than six hundred individual protesters were arrested that morning, even as LGBT people called upon their elected representatives.


Many groups point to the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights as the event that inspired their sustained engagement and involvement in grassroots activism throughout the later 1980’s and early 1990’s. The NAMES Project expanded immediately, literally tripling in size during the four-month national tour of twenty cities that followed its unveiling at the march. National Coming Out Day National Coming Out Day (October 11) was founded as an annual testament to the power of the march and its visibility. Civil disobedience, especially as practiced by ACT UP ACT UP;radicalism of (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), emerged as a crucial activist strategy during the years following the march. A host of national professional associations of teachers, lawyers, journalists, and others had been organized after the march as well. Likewise, at colleges and universities, and even in small towns, grassroots organizations and publications began to flourish.

However, the 1987 march provided an organizing impetus for conservative Antigay movement
Christian Right;and political activism[political activism] anti-GLBT groups, too, including activists at the American Family Association American Family Association;and March on Washington[March on Washington] (AFA), who interpreted the march’s mission statement as an articulation of the overriding agenda of the LGBT movement. In the early 1990’s, the AFA elaborated on its interpretation of the mission statement in The Gay Agenda, Gay Agenda, The (videotape) a series of videos, and through public information events targeting religious and conservative voters across the United States.

The march affirmed the national viability of gay and lesbian culture and community, and the seriousness of its political activism. The strategies of civil disobedience, affirmation of same-gender relationships, and advocacy for federal action regarding HIV-AIDS would emerge as the defining features of LGBT activism in the years to follow. March on Washington (1987)
Political activism;marches

Further Reading

  • Bernstein, Mary. “Celebration and Suppression: The Strategic Uses of Identity by the Lesbian and Gay Movement.” American Journal of Sociology 103 (1997): 531-565.
  • Jones, Cleve, with Jeff Dawson. Stitching a Revolution: The Making of An Activist. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.
  • Marcus, Eric. Making Gay History: The Half Century Fight for Lesbian and Gay Equal Rights. New York: Harper Perennial, 2002.
  • Pope, Lisa, et al. One Million Strong: The 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights. New York: Alyson, 1993.
  • Rimmerman, Craig. From Identity to Politics: The Lesbian and Gay Movements in the United States. Philadelphia: Temple 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

July 31, 1969: Gay Liberation Front Is Formed

May 1, 1970: Lavender Menace Protests Homophobia in Women’s Movement

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

October 12-15, 1979: First March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights

March, 1987: Radical AIDS Activist Group ACT UP Is Founded

October 11, 1988: First National Coming Out Day Is Celebrated

December 10, 1989: ACT UP Protests at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

March 20, 1990: Queer Nation Is Founded

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