The thousands who came from across the country for the Equality March for Pride and Unity in the District on Sunday waved rainbow pride flags and walked beneath posters that read simply “Remember Pulse.”
The mood at the march, organized as a demonstration to protect the rights of the broader gay community, was at times celebratory and at others somber as participants gathered to commemorate the anniversary of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at an Orlando nightclub that left 49 dead a year ago Monday.
Julian Cavazos, who led a group from Florida to join the march, said that he was taking part to remember “all 49 angels,” the “brothers and sisters who were massacred that night.”
Joel Johnson traveled from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to help carry a banner bearing the faces of the Orlando victims through the streets of the nation’s capital.
“I feel very much a part of something greater than I am,” Johnson said.
The march ended with survivors of the shooting standing on a stage in front of the U.S. Capitol to address the crowd who had rallied in front of the White House chanting “Love, not hate, makes America great.”
“Life means so much more now,” said Ashley Summers, who was at Pulse the night of the shooting. “There’s a lot of people that are being silenced. Since I finally found my voice in the last year, I decided to use it.”
Demetrius Naulings, who also was in the club that night, said he will never forget the hours-long wait victims endured as the police struggled to end the standoff with the shooter.
“It’s something that will haunt me for the rest of my life,” Naulings said.
Then Answai Bennett, who was wounded in the shooting, spoke softly into the microphone. Before that night, he said he had been quiet about his sexual orientation. Now he said he feels empowered. He acknowledges that it took a bullet to the hip and a long scar covering the titanium rod in his leg for him to overcome his past unease about living openly.
“Everyone is just themselves,” Bennett said. He remembers texting his mother from inside the nightclub, “I might not come home,” as he was held hostage for three hours.
“I still have nightmares about that conversation with her,” he said.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, described Sunday’s march as a resistance effort against policies of the Trump administration and as a demonstration of strength in the face of long-standing threats of violence against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Carey said the Pulse survivors embodied courage at the rally.
“The fact that they are standing here and telling their stories is the resilience of their community,” Carey said. “We have come a very, very long way since the Stonewall riots and at the same time we have a long, long way to go.”
Nicole Murray Ramirez, a member of the San Diego Human Relations Commission, wearing an American flag shirt, opened the rally in front of the Capitol with a rousing address.
“We are here to send a message,” Ramirez said. “We are proud Americans who are never going back into the closet.”
The marchers came from as far as New Mexico, California, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Texas. Chaz Antonelli, president of the Empire City Motorcycle Club, came from New York and marched in his leathers to show that “the backlash of hate needs to be shored up. . . . I’m getting flashbacks to the Reagan era, and we’re not going to let that happen again.”
Sam Dykeman and his partner, Giovanni DiPierro, came from Dallas in part to protest overreach by the Trump administration against gay rights.
“Nobody should be treated differently based on who they love,” DiPierro said.
KC Clark met her girlfriend, Lyman Lark, when they were students at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
Lark said that even falling in love was an act of resistance.
“In a lot of ways, our being together is a revolution,” Lark said.
Then as the march came to an end, Clark saw the dome of the Capitol building come into view and she got nervous. She had decided to propose to Lark during the Equality march and the setting had special meaning for her.
“My father proposed to my mother in front of the Capitol,” Clark said.
She stopped Lark on the grass with the crowd watching.
“I said, ‘May I kiss you one last time as my girlfriend before I ask you to be my wife?’ ” Clark said.
So she asked. And Lark said yes.