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Thousands march in Washington for gay rights

Invoking Obama's campaign slogan, 'Yes, we can,' activists urge that the president not wait to fulfill his promises.

October 12, 2009|Katherine Skiba

WASHINGTON — Tens of thousands of gays, lesbians and supporters marched through the nation's capital Sunday in a festive, forceful call for equality, culminating in a boisterous rally at the Capitol.

The National Equality March took place one day after President Obama made sweeping pledges to the gay community, including a vow to end the military policy of "don't ask, don't tell" -- which bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the armed forces. Obama gave no timetable for repealing the policy.

Marchers waving rainbow-colored flags were in no mood to wait.

They came to a halt on Pennsylvania Avenue, in front of the White House, and chanted, "Hey, Obama, can't you see? We demand equality."

Echoing the president's campaign slogan, they shouted, "Yes, we can" and "Si, se puede."

Obama also said Saturday night, at a Human Rights Campaign gala, that he wanted Congress to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act. That legislation, passed in 1996 and signed by President Clinton, bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

Obama has made these pledges before, and whether he can keep them could hinge on sentiments in Congress and the military.

In any event, to some in Sunday's crowd, his promises held little weight.

"For this president to keep throwing us out of the military is unconscionable," Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, a gay man and Army veteran, said in an interview.

Later, at the Capitol rally, Rosendahl told the crowd that 36 states allow housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and 29 states permit firings on those grounds. Same-sex marriages are legal in only a handful of states -- including Massachusetts, Vermont, Iowa and Connecticut. Depriving gays of the right to wed, Rosendahl said, deprives them of 1,100 rights.

Organizers of Sunday's march said the LGBT community (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people) is not satisfied with a piecemeal approach to civil rights.

Forty years after the Stonewall riots in New York launched the gay rights movement, they are demanding "full federal equality" and singling out marriage, adoption, military service and workplace issues.

Some marchers wore purple T-shirts exhorting: "Legalize gay."

Alex Miller, 23, of Ashburn, Va., waved a sign supporting her sister, Sam, 20, a lesbian. "Same womb. Same rights," it said.

Another demonstrator held a sign that bore a swastika and the words: "You are not the first to hate us."

The U.S. Park Police does not provide crowd counts. Phil Siegel, a march spokesman, put the head count at "more than 150,000."

A few counter-protesters also joined the crowd.

The rally drew impassioned speakers, including NAACP Chairman Julian Bond; Army 1st Lt. Daniel Choi, an Iraq combat veteran facing discharge for disclosing his sexual orientation; Babs Siperstein, a transsexual member of the Democratic National Committee; glam rocker Lady Gaga; and Michael Huffington, a Republican and former congressman from California.

Bond linked gay rights to civil rights.

"Black people of all people should not oppose equality, and that is what marriage is all about," he said.

"We have a lot of real and serious problems in this country, and same-sex marriage is not one of them."

In California, black voters tended to support Proposition 8, the measure that passed last November and reversed a state Supreme Court decision permitting same-sex marriage.

Choi appeared at the rally in his Army uniform.

"Many of us have been discharged from the service because we told the truth," he said. "But I know that love is worth it."

One of the gay rights activists who took the stage said she had suffered personal and public heartbreak because of anti-gay violence.

"I'm here today because I lost my son to hate," Judy Shepard said. Matthew Shepard, 21, a gay college student from Wyoming, was tortured, tied to a fence post and left to die 11 years ago.

"We're all Americans," Judy Shepard said. "We're all equal Americans -- gay, straight or whatever."

Matthew Shepard is to be memorialized by legislation that would expand the definition of federal hate crimes to include sexual orientation. The House attached the provision to a defense bill that passed last week. The Senate is expected to pass it soon, and Obama has pledged to sign it.

At the rally, Lady Gaga raised her right fist and shouted, "Bless God and bless the gays."

She also took a shot at House Democrat Barney Frank of Massachusetts, an openly gay lawmaker who shunned the march, saying on Friday: "The only thing they're going to be putting pressure on is the grass."

Addressing Frank by name, Lady Gaga said: "Today this grass is ours. We will come away today and continue to do the work in our own backyards."

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kskiba@tribune.com

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