The last time homosexual men and women came to Washington to press their claim for equal rights, Mike Myrick stayed home in Topeka, Kan., but followed the 1979 gathering with more than passing interest.
"I was married and raising a family -- I wasn't 'out' yet," said Myrick, a 39-year-old office manager who has long since stopped hiding his homosexuality. Yesterday, he, his "straight" friend Kathy Slawson-Schmidt, a librarian, and Chris Renner, an English professor in Italy who arranged for time off, made the rounds on Capitol Hill, visiting lawmakers on behalf of gay rights and AIDS legislation.
On Sunday, the three Kansas natives will join an estimated 100,000 gays and their supporters for the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The noon march past the White House, to be followed by a rally on the Mall, is the central focus of a week of lobbying, marches and protest activities that organizers say they hope will capture the attention -- and conscience -- of a seemingly hostile federal government.
Myrick and other gay rights activists say they felt compelled to participate: The Supreme Court, in a controversial 1986 decision, killed what they thought was their constitutional right to private homosexual conduct among adults. And AIDS, the acquired immune deficiency syndrome disease that attacks the body's immune system, is killing their family and friends.
"Lesbian and gay issues must be seen as civil rights issues -- too often they are not," said Kay Ostberg, one of three national coordinators for the march. "The same coalition that usually supports the rights of minorities, women and immigrants has stopped dead when it comes to gay and lesbian people."
In rekindling what Ostberg calls the "progressive community," march organizers have enlisted the participation of civil rights activist and Democratic presidential contender Jesse L. Jackson; Eleanor Smeal, former president of the National Organization for Women, and Cesar Chavez, president of the United Farm Workers of America, each of whom is expected to address the rally on the Mall. Celebrities such as actress/comedian Whoopi Goldberg, actor Robert Blake and writer/playwright Harvey Fierstein will lend a little glamor to the event, and musicians, comedians and other performers will help entertain the afternoon assembly.
The march theme -- "For Love and For Life, We're Not Going Back" -- is designed to counteract what organizers see as a reactionary wave of "hatred, fear and bigotry" against gays. To protect past gains, to make new ones, they say, homosexuals and their supporters will have to be more vociferous in defending gay rights.
"We're an invisible community in a lot of ways," said Ostberg. "But on Sunday, we're going to make a visible presence. This will be the largest demonstration for gay and lesbian rights in the history of the world."
The march, nearly a year in the planning stages, had adopted seven rallying points. These include congressional passage of the lesbian and gay rights bill; an end to discrimination against people with AIDS or those who test positive for the virus, and increased federal funding for research and AIDS education; repeal of all laws that make sodomy between consenting adults a crime; signing of a presidential order banning discrimination against homosexuals by the federal government; legal recognition of lesbian and gay relationships; reproductive freedom, and an end to racism in the United States and apartheid in South Africa.
Anticipating a much larger crowd than the 50,000 who showed up for the 1979 march, Metro officials have announced plans to open the subway system at 8 a.m. Sunday. U.S. Park Police say they will block traffic Sunday on streets along the march route, including portions of 17th Street, 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, and D.C. police have announced plans to close Third Street near the Mall staging area between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.
In addition to the march, organizers have planned two days of congressional lobbying, which began yesterday, a nonsectarian wedding ceremony on Saturday for hundreds of same-sex couples and a sunrise ceremony on the Mall Sunday, at which a quilt larger than a football field will be unfurled with the names of hundreds of those who have died of AIDS. On Tuesday, gay rights demonstrators are planning a civil disobedience protest at the Supreme Court Building.
Slawson-Schmidt, 30, the librarian who drives a bookmobile in Topeka, said she is especially concerned that society and the law are not as accepting of relationships among gay men and women couples as they are of her marriage to her husband.
"I can hold hands with my husband and we can go to the carnival and ride the rides and sit back and hug, but my gay friends aren't able to express that same kind of intimacy," said Slawson-Schmidt, who wore a "I'm Not Gay, I'm Angry" button during her visits with congressional members yesterday.
More than 70 smaller events, related to but not sponsored by march organizers, are planned over the next week, including political fund-raisers, church meetings, dramatic presentations and separate gatherings of blacks, women, Hispanics and the elderly who are gay.
"We have much more support for this march early on and up front," said Peri Jude, a lobbyist for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and a member of NOW's Maryland chapter.
Jude led a delegation of seven that called on Rep. Constance A. Morella (Md.), who represents Montgomery County, yesterday, meeting with her for 20 minutes in her office and thanking her as the first Republican woman to cosponsor the gay rights bill.
"I see this as a civil rights issue," Morella told the group. "Here it is the 200th anniversary of the Constitution, and we have these people who are left out. I think it all ties together."