The braless women were marching along 17th Street, near Dupont Circle, shouting, "What do you want? Dyke rights! When do you want it? Now!" Onlookers seemed nonchalant about it all.
"It's very, very important that if you live here," said resident Patrick Kealy, "you let people be as they are."
This was just the walkup to yesterday's gay pride parade, a precursor to today's Capital Pride Street Festival. Today, on Pennsylvania Avenue -- America's Main Street -- organizers say some 100,000 gays and their friends are expected to gather along the same route that Ronald Reagan's funeral procession took last week.
The irony is not lost on many who recall the 40th president's legacy differently from its portrayal in many of last week's events. In 1981, the first year of the Reagan presidency, the District hosted its first gay pride parade and AIDS, then known as the "gay cancer," entered the American consciousness.
For many who celebrated gay pride week here, the president eulogized as someone who "never made an adversary into an enemy" was invisible when they needed him.
"Where was he?! Where was he during AIDS?!" Wayne Wilson is yelling in Cobalt, a bar at 17th and R that is kicking off a gay pride party Friday with balloons, $2 sour apple puckers in test tubes, and Beyonce blaring. Wilson, sipping on vodka and Red Bull, ticks off the friends he lost in the early and mid-'80s.
"There was John! Then David!"
Wilson doesn't think Reagan was homophobic. He just thinks the president "was too much of a good ol' cowboy," to be worried, to get alarmed.
The 49-year-old physical therapist leans forward, whispers, "I think it's kind of fitting. He gets buried on the night we're all here."
Many gays who grew up in the Reagan era don't remember "Reagan, the Great Communicator," "Reagan, the Optimist," or "Reagan, the Idealist." What they remember is an administration that cracked wise the first time it was asked about AIDS.
The exchange is making the rounds on the Internet, e-mailed from friend to friend. In the White House Briefing Room transcript dated October 15, 1982, White House press secretary Larry Speakes is asked:
Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement -- the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
Speakes: What's AIDS?
Q: Over a third of them have died. It's known as "gay plague." (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it's a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?
Speakes: I don't have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
Q: No, I don't.
Speakes: You didn't answer my question.
Q: Well, I just wondered, does the President --
Speakes: How do you know? (Laughter.)
Q: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?
Speakes: No, I don't know anything about it, Lester.
Q: Does the President, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?
Speakes: I don't think so. I don't think there's been any --
Q: Nobody knows?
After Reagan died, Jay Brennan, 53, a registered nurse from Cheverly, wondered how others in the gay community remembered him. Did anyone talk to the homeless? To blacks?
"The oversimplification and glorification of this man," says Brennan, shaking his head. He grips a rainbow flag bought from Lambda Rising bookstore in Dupont Circle -- "a comfort zone," he says of the neighborhood, a place where gays can kiss, hold hands. Not worry about the looks, the stares, the judgments.
But even now, he says, some people feel uneasy holding hands or kissing beyond Dupont Circle, beyond 17th Street, closer to the White House.
Larry Kramer -- the polemicist, playwright and author -- remembers in a telephone interview Reagan's first major speech on AIDS. It was on May 31, 1987, under a tent near the banks of the Potomac River.
"I want to talk tonight about the disease that has brought us all together," the president told those gathered for the fundraising dinner sponsored by the American Foundation for AIDS Research. "The poet W.H. Auden said that the true men of action in our times are not the politicians and statesmen, but the scientists. I believe that's especially true when it comes to the AIDS epidemic."
Kramer had been writing about AIDS for some time, warning gay men in his essay, "1,112 and Counting." And toward the end of the speech, as Reagan called for routine AIDS testing for prisoners, for immigrants, for applicants for marriage licenses, Kramer started booing.
"Not once in that speech -- not once in his presidency -- did he ever say gays and AIDS and crisis in the same sentence," recalls Kramer, who co-founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis in 1982, and ACT UP in 1987, the same year he tested positive for HIV.
"Reagan always talked about 'the American people,' " Kramer says. But the gay community, "we were dying left and right," did not feel it was included.
In a telephone interview, Tony Kushner -- the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of "Angels in America," about AIDS in the '80s -- declines to join the remembrances, at least for now.
"I'm sitting shiva," is all Kushner would say.
Today, on Pennsylvania Avenue, between Third and Seventh streets, revelers will join the street festival, the finale of gay pride week. There will be corporate sponsors, entertainment, fitness and health booths and voter registration information. The theme of the week: Pride + Vote = Power.