John O'Brien was standing under the multicolored disco lights of a popular gay bar in West Hollywood last week as he spoke about his high expectations for this month's National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
On his back was a black T-shirt with the logo from the 1979 March on Washington. In his eyes was a glimmer of hope that this one will be better.
"It could be big," O'Brien said excitedly. "It could be the biggest event in support of lesbian and gay rights in the history of the world!"
O'Brien may be guilty of hyperbole, but Los Angeles-area organizers who have spent more than a year preparing for the Oct. 11 demonstration say there is good reason to expect that the event will be a major success.
More than 2,000 people from the Westside, including West Hollywood City Councilman Stephen Schulte, reportedly have signed up for the march.
"It is rather expensive to go, but the response has been very good," said Bill Lake, corresponding secretary for the Los Angeles-area march committee and leader of a local gay veterans organization. "People call us all the time and say, 'I want to go. What can I do to make my flight plans?' "
The National March on Washington is being billed as a day of gay and lesbian solidarity, a chance for homosexuals throughout the nation to let their voices be heard on issues ranging from AIDS to gay marriages.
The marchers have an ambitious agenda. They will seek a presidential order banning discrimination against homosexuals, a Congressional gay rights bill and the repeal of all laws prohibiting sodomy between consulting adults.
A day of civil disobedience will follow the march. Lake said that protesters will gather at several sites where anti-gay discrimination allegedly occurs to stage sit-ins and block entrances. In preparation, organizers have been offering civil disobedience training.
"People have felt frustrated," Lake said. "And this gives them an opportunity to do something about the problems we are facing. The march provides a forum. . . . We have a chance to make a real statement."
Speakers at the event are scheduled to include the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a presidential aspirant who will be adding a "lavender stripe" to his Rainbow Coalition, according to the newsletter published by the march organizers.
Schulte said he will consider the march a success if it attracts more than 150,000 people. The West Hollywood councilman, who is an acknowledged homosexual, said that homosexuals have been united by the battle against acquired immune deficiency syndrome and by the conservative political trends that have threatened to reverse gay advances.
"In an internal sense, this event could say something very positive about the organizational capabilities of the gay and lesbian community," Schulte said. "If the numbers are there, it establishes that there is a great deal of concern and commitment on the part of gays and lesbians in this country to ensure civil rights for everybody and support for themselves nationally."
The issues that will be addressed at the march are relevant for all homosexuals, but organizers say that the topics have added weight in a city such as West Hollywood where more than a third of the population reportedly is gay.
The Los Angeles-area chapter of the March on Washington Committee in West Hollywood has held a series of fund-raisers in and around the community. Jim Kepner, co-chairman of the organizing committee, said the organization already has raised $40,000 to $50,000.
The money will help pay the travel and lodging expenses of low-income people and AIDS sufferers. The group has also made arrangements with airlines and hotels to offer special rates to people attending the march.
"We have people working in Riverside, Palm Springs, Pomona, Long Beach, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Bakersfield and other places," Kepner said. "We expect to get as many as 150 people from the Riverside area alone."
The last gay and lesbian march on Washington took place eight years ago, and fewer than 100,000 people participated.
Spirits ran high at the Tuesday night fund-raiser at the Studio One nightclub in West Hollywood. Sharon McNight, an entertainer from New York, flew in for the event and provided entertainment. There was also dancing under a mirrored ball that reflected the multicolored lights. And organizers spent the evening spreading their message to the hundreds of people who attended.
"What is happening to gay people these days made us decide that we have had enough," Lake said. "We need to show that the gay and lesbian people are willing to show up and demand that things be changed."