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‘Pride and protest’: Dyke March returns to Washington after a 12-year hiatus

Volunteers Mary Claire, 23, left, Ashley Burnside, 23, center, and Amelia Foley, right, practice a deescalation exercise ahead of this year's Dyke March.
Volunteers Mary Claire, 23, left, Ashley Burnside, 23, center, and Amelia Foley, right, practice a deescalation exercise ahead of this year's Dyke March. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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On the eve of the Capital Pride parade, a group of self-described dykes will march through the District’s streets for the first time in 12 years, blocking traffic, waving banners and demanding to be seen.

Organizers say it’s a long-awaited return for the D.C. Dyke March, which vanished after 2007 despite a deep history in Washington. The march bills itself as a more radical, inclusive and ­social-justice-oriented protest than the glitter-soaked pageantry of Saturday’s Pride celebration.

Friday’s march seeks to celebrate groups of people who organizers said typically are excluded from messaging around Pride, including those of various races, religions, socioeconomic classes and gender identities.

The march’s revival begins amid a percolating controversy, as members of the District’s Jewish community accuse organizers of hypocrisy over a decision to ban “nationalist symbols” that include Israeli or Jewish Pride flags, although organizers say the goal is create a welcoming space for attendees.

“All people should have a space to celebrate themselves, but I feel like at this moment in D.C. there is definitely a demand for a more inclusive way to display pride and protest,” said organizer Laila Makled. “We really wanted to bring the Dyke March back as that act of protest to show there are a lot of different issues that involve the LGBTQ community that may or may not be the queer-specific issues you see being addressed at other Pride events.”

One of the oldest lesbian bars on the East Coast is to be demolished. The city wants to put in a dog park.

March organizers said bringing the march back was needed as services, legal protections and establishments that cater to ­LGBTQ people have eroded.

And in rapidly gentrifying D.C. neighborhoods, organizers said, ­LGBTQ people are increasingly at risk of being pushed out.

This year’s march will focus on a theme that organizers said is not exclusive to the LGBTQ community: displacement.

“We wanted this event to ring true to everyone — even people who might be walking around unsure of why there are so many interesting-looking women and other folks blocking traffic during rush hour on a Friday,” said lead organizer Mary Quintero-Wright. “Displacement is a queer issue. Everything is intersectional.”

Dyke Marches have served as a prelude to Pride since the 1990s in cities around the country, including Chicago, New York and San Francisco. But the first was in the nation’s capital.

On April 26, 1993, about 20,000 self-identifying dykes flooded the streets of the District and set off on a march from Dupont Circle to the White House. They waved rainbow flags and handmade signs, chanting, “We’re dykes! We’re out! We’re out for power!”

There were fire-eaters, topless dance parties, provocative slogans and posters from the Lesbian Avengers activist group that declared, “We recruit!”

Back then, participants said, making a scene was the point.

“In some ways, the Dyke March today has the same purpose now as it did then, which is to claim public space and be heard,” said Kelly Cogswell, 53, a former member of the Lesbian Avengers and author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger.” “It’s also an important place to raise issues that still concern us.”

Using the word “dyke,” which has commonly been used as a slur for lesbians, was an intentional choice, participants said, adding that reclaiming the word felt empowering and radical.

“Even if you were bisexual or trans, you could still be a dyke,” said Jessica Xavier, 67, a transgender activist and former Lesbian Avenger. “Dyke is political. It’s an identity queer women could use as a means of our own empowerment, and having the march was this way to share in our queer sisterhood together.”

But days before Friday’s march, its message of inclusiveness came under fire from some members of the District’s Jewish community.

Lesbian bars are vanishing all over the country. In D.C., two just opened their doors.

A.J. Campbell, 50, said she wanted to be sure a Jewish Pride flag would be welcome at the march, following a 2017 incident in which several Jewish women were asked to leave the Chicago Dyke March for carrying similar flags. Organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign and Anti-Defamation League condemned the decision.

Chicago organizers have said the flag too closely resembled the Israeli flag — and sporting an Israeli flag flew in the face of the Chicago march’s anti-Zionist beliefs.

Yael Horowitz, a Jewish organizer of the D.C. march, said this year’s organizers considered what happened in Chicago before crafting their own policy on flags and symbolism.

Ultimately, she said, they decided to ban all “nationalist symbols,” including flags and banners that represent “nations that have specific oppressive tendencies.”

“If someone would show up with an American flag but with the stripes as a rainbow, we would treat it the same way,” Horowitz said. “I think what’s getting erased here is pro-Israel and pro-Jewish are very different things.”

Some flags, including the Palestinian flag, will be permitted, she said.

In a Facebook message to Campbell, Horowitz wrote, “Jewish stars and other identifications and celebrations of Jewishness (yarmulkes, talit, other expressions of Judaism or Jewishness) are welcome and encouraged. We do ask that participants not bring pro-Israel paraphernalia in solidarity with our queer Palestinian friends.”

Campbell found the response unsettling.

“I just thought, the Chicago Dyke March is happening all over again — here,” she said, adding she has participated in Dyke Marches in New York and the District while toting her flag. “I’ve been a Jewish lesbian for a long time, and it’s never been a problem. . . . They seem to have very specific ideas about what kind of Jew I’m supposed to be, and I don’t feel like they get to say that.”

About 730 people have indicated on Facebook they will attend the march, which begins at 5 p.m. at McPherson Square. More than 2,000 others have listed themselves as “interested.”

Protest organizers, many of whom had never put on a demonstration before, said the activism started by the march won’t end when the rainbow flags are put away until next year.

“We have made a promise to see this theme through until the next Dyke March,” Quintero-Wright said. “If they need our time, our money, our support, we’ll be there.”

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