One week after the pope visits Washington, the Mall will be the site of the first national march in support of gay rights.
But while national organizers are gearing up for the Oct. 14 march and rally -- and planning for a crowd as large as 100,000 persons -- leaders of Washington's gay community have kept their distance.
"Although many in the gay community here generally support the idea of a national march, we didn't feel that there was time enough to prepare properly to draw a large crowd," said Franklin Kameny, one of the local leaders. He added that they felt that "if the organizers were not careful, a small segment of people who don't represent the [mainstream of the gay movement] would give a false impression -- ideologically and politically -- of where the movement is."
But one of the march's coordinators, Steve Ault, countered that the Washington leaders are displaying "a parochial attitude."
"There is no doubt that this will be a big crowd," Ault said. "Every day we get calls from people from areas we never expected to hear from, asking for information and saying they are coming. Most coming here are making their own individual arrangements, but many are chartering buses, and some are coming in carpools."
Charles Brydon, a spokesman for the National Gay Task Force, an organization that supports the march, said, "There is a great deal of awareness about the march throughout the country, especially in those areas where the gay community has not been successful in its goals. But we don't have any idea how many will show up."
Plans call for the demonstrators to march down Pennsylvania Avenue from Capitol Hill to a rally on the grounds of the Washington Monument. Besides giving homosexuals national visibility, march organizers hope to push for congressional passage of a bill to prohibit discimination the basis of sexual preference.
Organizers also hope to persuade President Carter to sign an executive order prohibiting such discrimination in the military and within the federal government. In addition, the plan to protest discrimination against homosexual parents in child custody cases.
While there had been talk of staging a national march for some time, plans did not begin until after the slaying of San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk last November. Milk, a gay rights advocate, had long dreamt of holding a national march, according to organizers.
The march will mark the 10th anniversary of a police raid on a gay bar in New York City, which homosexuals consider to be the start of the gay rights movement.
But Washington gay leaders are concerned because they feel that the march lacks a theme. They have been wondering "why have this march now?" said Bob Davis, head of the local Gay Activist Alliance.
"We were concerned that the march not interfere with a lot of the kinds of things we had done here. We have a progay [city] administration and we didn't want to see ourselves straining our own resources for something that we didn't think there was a reason for."
Washington gay leaders say that they have achieved most of their agenda, including city laws prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals in housing and employment and appointments of homosexuals to city commissions. In addition, gays are actively involved in politics, enjoying the support of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and most of the D.C. City Council.
Consequently, Davis said, his group has endorsed the march, but has not committed any people, time or money.
"There is not much evidence that the Washington community is opening up its doors to these people [who will attend the march]," Davis said. "There is a potential for a large number of people, but whether it will be 100,000 or 5,000, we have no reading on it at all. Frankly, that makes me nervous."
With some of the fund raising, housing and transportation arrangements being handled by regional gay organizations, march leaders admitted that they don't have a good handle on the numbers that are expected and the logistics involved.
Even now, 2 1/2 weeks before the march date, organizers have not lined up all their speakers and entertainers for the rally, nor they have raised the money to pay for the necessary sound equipment.
That lack of planning is precisely what bothers Washington's gay leaders. They characterize the march organizers as young and enthusiastic, but short on experience.
"My reservations have been centered around an uncertainty of how much discipline and follow-through they have to make this a success," said Paul Kuntzler, a nationally known gay leader and a member of the D.C. Democratic State Committee. "The reaction here has been cool [to the march] but it's warming up."
"Most [gay] organizations here have now endorsed the march," Kameny said. "No one here will obstruct it or otherwise interefere with it. We wouldn't do that to fellow gays."