Image: Gay Rights March, 1979
AP file
Participants take part in the first national gay-rights march in Washington in 1979.
updated 10/6/2009 6:04:49 PM ET 2009-10-06T22:04:49

A Democrat in the White House. Demands for sweeping civil-rights protections. Religious opponents working to undo a string of state-based victories.

That was the backdrop in 1979 when gay-rights activists staged their first national march in Washington. Thirty years later, with the landscape looking much the same, thousands of advocates are preparing to rally again in the nation's capital this weekend.

And they are demanding many of the same things: a bill to outlaw job discrimination based on gender, a law that would treat attacks on gays as federal hate crimes, and a presidential order allowing gays to serve openly in the military.

"Thirty years ago was our introduction to the nation. It was 'These are the things we stand for and are about,'" said David Mixner, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton. "This march, more than any other, is a declaration that we are a full-fledged civil-rights movement, we are here to win our freedom now and we won't wait any longer."

Organizers of Sunday's National Equality March say that with President Barack Obama encouraging gay activists to keep pressure on him and Congress, it's time to make another show of visibility as they did at marches in 1987, 1993 and 2000.

They have high hopes of Obama, who promised during last year's campaign to work toward achieving their goals but has drawn criticism since he took office for not moving fast enough.

"We have to do it all. We have to march, we have to lobby. We have to work actively against candidates who do not support us, we have to give money to candidates who do," said Steve Hildebrand, a march supporter who has become the president's de facto gay-rights adviser since serving as Obama's deputy campaign manager.

"We need to fight every single battle we can get our hands on and not stop until we've done all the work," Hildebrand said.

Obama in the spotlight
On the eve of the march, Obama plans to deliver the keynote address at a dinner in Washington sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign , a national gay-rights group. Veteran activists hope the president will speak out against a pending ballot measure that would overturn the law legalizing same-sex marriage in Maine and offer specific commitments to make good on his campaign promises.

Mixner said the march's agenda is being framed as a single demand for equal rights. Organizers say they are no longer willing to quietly wait for Democratic office holders to come through on decades-old promises, believing that lawmakers' actions should catch up to the growing acceptance of gay relationships.

Mixner proposed the march in May as dissatisfaction mounted over a series of perceived slights and stalls by the Obama administration. He asked Cleve Jones, the creator of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, to plan it.

Jones set out to recruit participants from each of the nation's congressional districts and enlisted the help of young, Internet-savvy activists outraged by the passage last fall of Proposition 8, a ballot measure that eliminated the right of gays to get married in California.

Kip Williams, a 27-year-old San Francisco resident who is co-directing the event, said he expects the crowd in Washington to be made up largely of college-age activists, many of whom grew up without feeling discriminated against and were shocked by what happened in California.

"This is the first opportunity the new generation of leadership has had to march in the nation's capital. This is the first opportunity we have had to make this demand for full equality," Williams said. "This march is not an end point, it is a call to action."

Resistance and support
Some gay-rights veterans have openly criticized the march as a waste of money and energy that would be better spent having supporters working to persuade voters in Maine and Washington state, where a measure that would overturn a bill granting same-sex couples many of the benefits of marriage is on the ballot in November.

"I hope people have a great time because that's all that's going to come out of this," said Robin Tyler, a Los Angeles activist who spearheaded the earlier gay rights marches.

Compared to the earlier marches, which drew between 75,000 and 500,000 people and featured performances by Whoopi Goldberg and Melissa Etheridge among others, the quickly arranged Oct. 11 event was designed as a low-key grassroots affair.

In the hours before Obama speaks at the Human Rights Campaign dinner, participants can attend workshops and protests on "don't ask, don't tell," transgender rights and lobbying training. The cast of the Broadway musical "Hair," which canceled its Sunday matinee in solidarity with the cause, plans to perform at a rally after the 2.3-mile march ends at the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol.

Urvashi Vaid, who directs a private foundation that gave $50,000 to support the march, said the weekend would also showcase progress. Legally married same-sex couples, straight supporters and members of mainstream religious denominations that sanction gay clergy are among those planning to attend, alliances that would have been unimaginable 30 years ago.

"Today, there is greater support for lesbian, gay and transgender equality than at any time I've seen in my lifetime," Vaid said. "Of course there is resistance. Of course there is backlash. But let's not forget how much support there is."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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