The 1987 March on Washington weekend

Posted: August 15, 2011 in Uncategorized

No I am not blogging from Glacier National Park. I didn’t want to leave the blog empty the whole week though, so I am posting another installment in the ‘celebrating 25 years of being an out dyke’ series.

When I came out in college in 1986, I quickly became involved in the lesbian and gay rights group on campus, so most of my friends were activists and of course they were heading to D.C. in October of 1987 for the second March on Washington. They had a car arranged and a place to sleep and they invited me to go along. All I needed to do was show up and chip in for food and gas. It was a chance to be part of something historic. It was a chance to feel connected to a huge community. It was a chance to maybe get laid.*

But it was the weekend of my parents’ 40th Anniversary party — my conservative parents, to whom I was most definitely not out. So I glumly resigned myself to spending that fine fall weekend in my miserable hometown** instead of Washington D.C., doing my familial duty. I thought I was missing out on the chance for a transformative experience. I was wrong.

Almost as soon as I arrived home, my mother directed me to a small stack of newspapers from the previous several days. They were folded open to a series of articles about a controversy over the existence of a gay bar in town. I had a moment of panic, wondering why she was saving these and showing them to me. It turned out the bar was a few blocks from my aunt’s house. She was away on vacation and my mother was collecting the papers so my aunt could catch up on the hubbub when she returned.

I tried to seem nonchalant as I began reading the articles, though my stomach was tying itself into such tight knots that I felt like I would vomit. The bar was owned by an older woman and her son and it had been a typical neighborhood bar struggling to get by. When the owners saw two men dancing together there one evening, they told the pair they were welcome at the bar and suggested they tell their friends the same. Business boomed as more and more gay men came to the bar, along with a few lesbians.

 Neighbors were outraged. The “reasonable” ones wanted to shut the bar down. The less reasonable ones wanted patrons arrested. Or dead. The sheriff apologized to the community because being homosexual was “unfortunately not illegal” so he had no grounds to make arrests. He accepted as inevitable that the bar would be firebombed and said that he would “even feel bad for those who were trapped inside” when it was. He said that as though he was being magnanimous. As though the queers who were injured or killed would have had it coming. The flood of vitriol, venom and insults stood basically unchallenged. The only person who was publicly defending the bar or its patrons (besides the bar owners) was someone the ACLU sent in from out-of-town.***

I wanted to yell obscenities. I wanted to cry. I wanted to be able to acknowledge how personal it was for me, that it wasn’t just this odd thing that was happening in town. Hell, I wanted to go to the bar. Instead I returned the newspapers to their neat pile and muttered something about how ridiculous people were being. I didn’t say another word about it, but my head buzzed and my guts churned all weekend. My friends were marching in D.C. with hundreds of thousands of other gay people as I sat alone in an angry, pained silence.

But after that weekend, I understood that I had to come out to my parents sooner rather than later. I understood that it was important to me to feel like I could always choose to be out. It was important to me not to feel afraid or ashamed. Maybe going to the march**** would have had the same effect on me, I don’t know. But I do know that I came out to my parents on December 27, 1987. I do know that I have been out at every place where I have worked longer than a few months. I do know that in that October weekend, I was transformed.


* What? I was an activist, not the Dali Lama.
** It’s an auto industry town that has been dying a slow death economically over the last several decades. There’s nothing to do and nowhere to go. It has a regular spot at or near the top of the FBI’s list of cities with high rates of violent crime.
*** The bar owners eventually shut down in fear of their safety and the safety of anyone who patronized the bar.
**** When the third March on Washington happened in 1993, I was the editor of a lesbian community paper and I did attend the march. It was an amazing, joyous experience that I will never forget. I did not, however, get laid.


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