LGBT History: The National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights

| By Hannah Woulfe

The large-scale national demonstrations for the LGBT community began with the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights on October 14, 1979. Although there is no record of how many people demonstrated on that day, it's estimated 200,000 people attended.

Before this, groups advocating for LGBT rights had been scattered across the country and focused largely on local issues. Inspired by the March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom led by Martin Luther King in 1963 and galvanized by the assassination of the country’s first gay elected official Harvey Milk in 1978, organizers of the march connected smaller LGBT groups and encouraged them to show their support for the rights of the community by demonstrating as a unified voice in Washington.

The march aimed to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, urging current Pres. Jimmy Carter to sign a bill to stop all discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military and federal jobs and demanding Congress include sexual orientation in the Civil Rights Act of 1954. Marchers also insisted on a repeal of anti-gay legislation and the addition of family protection laws that would allow gay and lesbian parents to receive fair custody trials.

Nearly all the goals of the march went unfulfilled and remain unfulfilled to this day. Although LGBT people can now serve openly in the military and federal government, LGBT people still regularly experience discrimination in the workplace and the federal government has not passed sweeping nationwide protections of LGBT people in the workplace, instead relying on states to pass such legislation on a case-by-case basis.

However, the National March on Washington For Lesbian and Gay Rights was not seen as a failure. The LGBT community established a large network of members across the country, unified around a single set of priorities. Additionally, the public display of the LGBT community’s size and support forced the country to recognize how many people identified as LGBT or an ally.  In short, the National March on Washington For Lesbian and Gay Rights provided much of the framework from which 21st-century national LGBT advocacy and activism was built.

This post is part of a series of posts highlighting LGBT history in the workplace and in the government in celebration of LGBT History Month 2017.