Washington – Tens of thousands of gay rights supporters marched from the White House to the Capitol on Sunday, demanding that President Barack Obama keep his promises to allow gays to serve openly in the military and work to end discrimination against them.
Rainbow flags and homemade signs dotted the crowds filling Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House as people chanted "Hey, Obama, let mama marry mama" and "We’re out, we’re proud, we won’t back down." Many children and a few counter-protesters were among the crowd, which stretched several blocks.
Jason Yanowitz, a 37-year-old computer programmer from Chicago, held his daughter, 5-year-old Amira, on his shoulders. His partner, Annie, had their 2-year-old son, Isiah, in a stroller. Yanowitz said more straight people were turning out to show their support for gay rights.
"If somebody doesn’t have equal rights, then none of us are free," he said.
"For all I know, she’s gay or he’s gay," he added, pointing to his children.
During a rally at the Capitol, keynote speaker Julian Bond, chairperson of the NAACP, firmly linked the gay rights struggle to the Civil Rights movement, saying gays and lesbians should be free from discrimination.
"Black people of all people should not oppose equality, and that is what marriage is all about," he said. "We have a lot of real and serious problems in this country, and same-sex marriage is not one of them.
"Good things don’t come to those who wait, but they come to those who agitate."
Some participants in the National Equality March woke up energised by Obama’s blunt pledge to end the ban on gays serving openly in the military during a speech on Saturday night to the Human Rights Campaign, nation’s largest gay rights group.
The chairperson of the Senate Armed Services Committee said on Sunday that Congress will need to muster the resolve to change the "don’t ask, don’t tell policy" – a change that the military may be ready for.
"I think it has to be done in the right way, which is to get a buy-in from the military, which I think is now possible," said Sen Carl Levin.
For Lt Dan Choi joined fellow veterans and supporters at the march. A West Point graduate, Arabic speaker and Iraq war veteran, Choi is facing discharge under the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell", the policy, which allows gay men and women to serve in the military as long as they keep their sexual orientation hidden.
He appeared later at a rally in his Army uniform and a piece of black tape over his mouth.
‘We’re not settling’
"Many of us have been discharged from the service because we told the truth," he said. "But I know that love is worth it."
Obama’s political energies have been focused on two wars, the economic crisis and health care reform, though he pledged "unwavering" commitment for gay rights, even as he wrestled with those problems.
March organiser Cleve Jones, creator of the Aids Memorial Quilt and a protege of gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk, said he had initially discouraged a rally earlier in the year. But he and others began to worry Obama was backing away from his campaign promises.
"Since we’ve seen that so many times before, I didn’t want it to happen again," he said. "We’re not settling. There’s no such thing as a fraction of equality."
Pop singer Lady Gaga, who is bisexual, got the biggest cheers on stage. She didn’t perform but pledged to reject homophobia in the music industry and support her "most beautiful gay fans in the world".
Unlike the first march in 1979 and others in 1987, 1993 and 2000 that included many celebrity performances and drew as many as 500 000 people, Sunday’s event was driven by grassroots efforts and was expected to be more low-key. Washington authorities don’t disclose crowd estimates at rallies, though the crowd appeared to number in the tens of thousands, overflowing from the Capitol lawn.