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    Brochure for 1979 Pride Activities (Agenda)
    National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights
    Other St. Louis Lesbian Groups in the 1970s
    Women Take Back the Night (Gaylife article)
    Women Take Back the Night 1979
    Dykes Find a New Home
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Jim Andris, Facebook

National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, Oct. 14, 1979

National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights that occurred on Oct. 14, 1979, was one of the events that influenced the lesbian and gay community in St. Louis. There had been earlier attempts to organize such a march. In 1973, an attempt to coordinate such an effort among existing lesbian and gay organizations was met with resistance from local and national organizations. A second 1978 attempt to nationalize the gay movement nearly collapsed, but Harvey Milk continued to work for a D.C. march. The assassination of Harvey Milk on November 27, 1978 by Dan White served as "a catalyst and a touchstone for organizers who next planned a conference in Philadelphia February 23–25, 1979."

Jim Thomas—who went on to become the Chair of the Celebration Committee that oversaw the 1980 Pride activities and then found the Gay News Telegraph in 1981—was heavily involved in the planning and execution of the Oct. 14, 1979 from even before its inception. Jim's story has been told before, for example, in the Lisa Kohn interviews from 2003, but this is a piece of the story which has remained undocumented until now. Jim enrolled at Oberlin in the Fall of 1975 and had been very actively involved in organizing and leading the gay and lesbian student group there. He was in his senior year at Oberlin when the second attempt to organize a March on Washington was happening, and he went with a group of Oberlin students to the organizing conference that was held in Philadelphia. When the planning at that February, 1979 conference seemed limited to organizations on the east and west coast, Jim spoke up and actively lobbied for a more inclusive outreach to the midwest, and was asked by Paul Boneberg to organize that outreach during 1979:

I think I did something in Indiana, but it was primarily Missouri and Illinois outside of Chicago where I worked, and I would go to meetings of groups, I would ask to appear and talk about the March, try to get people interested in attending. Had a big meeting in Springfield, Illinois. I remember going over to Kansas City, and there were people there. I went and met with Lea Hopkins …. And of course, St. Louis. And so, there really was a very direct trail at that point from my doing that organizing work to the March to beginning to know and work with people in the St. Louis community at that time, which had evolved some, because of the collapse of Midcontinent Life Services.

It is actually quite fascinating that subsequent to the Stonewall Riots of June 28, 1969, there followed an exploding, essentially local and regional grassroots movement for gay rights and free expression that took nearly a decade to coalesce into a National March. Hundreds of local student and faculty gay university groups had spread across the country from the coasts into the most unlikely places in a couple of years. Specific legal battles were fought and won in progressive municipalities for several years after 1970.

The March itself was nothing less than a fully transformative experience for gays and lesbians at the conference and then across the country. There were approximately 100,000 people in attendance. The Rally itself ended up between the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool, after marching up Pennsylvania Avenue towards the White House. According to the Wikipedia article:

Speakers and artists who spoke at the main rally included Harry Britt, Charlotte Bunch, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, Flo Kennedy, Morris Kight, Audre Lorde, Leonard Matlovich, Kate Millett, Troy Perry, Eleanor Smeal, First PFLAG President Adele Starr, and Congressman Ted Weiss. Mayor Marion Barry, gave a welcome to the marchers on behalf of the city of Washington, DC.

In addition to the march itself, the organizers arranged three days of workshops featuring artistic events, strategy sessions, focus groups on specific issues of women and minorities within the LGBT community, consciousness raising, local organization, religion and other issues. The Monday after the march was organized as a "Constituent Lobbying Day" in which over 500 participants attempted to contact every member of Congress to express support for gay-rights legislation. The participants successfully met with fifty senators and more than 150 house members.

Jim Thomas was not the only St. Louis person who found the National March on Washington transformative. Bill Spicer, a key member of the Magnolia Committee, was also turned around by the event. Here in his own words is his answer to my question about how he got involved in organizing the Walk for Charity and Rally in St. Louis in April, 1980:

I had gone to [the March on] Washington D.C. in 1979. There was a gathering of gay men and women. I ended up hitching a ride with Rick Garcia, um, there was a seminary student, Eric, I can’t think of his last name, but he was part of Lutherans Concerned. We all decided to get in his car and drive to D.C., and we stayed with his aunt, outside of D.C., and then we took the train and went to the Sunday Pride Rally. Uh, I was really moved. I had never been to an event where there were so many people. It was so well organized; they had podiums, they had speakers, they had … and there was one of the few events where I came back and I was changed inside. Because of just looking at all these people, realizing that they had come from all over the country, and realizing that I was part of something, and it was bigger than me, and it was going to turn out as some kind of political movement. It was a political movement; I was just now introduced to it.

In addition, Jim Thomas spoke of his most vivid memory of the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights that he has:

We were on the Metro, and the car was crowded and heading down to the Mall, and somebody stood up on one of the Metro benches and said, “Raise your hand, if you’re not gay or lesbian.” And nobody raised their hands. And there was this big cheer that went up, because all of us in this car were going to the March. And, you know, it’s kind of a funny, silly little incident, and yet there’s something about it that encapsulated, for me, what it felt like to be there. Of really just being among your own, and no strangeness, no need to hide, no fear. It was totally safe, and celebratory. … That, that incident is what I remember most clearly about that march, unless it was the ’83 March, but you know, could serve for either one.

According to Jim Thomas, the St. Louis Organizing Committee (SLOC) was formed prior to the March on Washington as part of the organizing activities that he was involved in. After members of SLOC came back to St. Louis after the March on Washington, they were fully energized, and wanted to organize a similar event for the St. Louis gay and lesbian community. The membership of this committee is not exactly clear at this point, but there was group energy of some kind that continued to seek to organize a Pride event, perhaps more modeled on the National March. The date that Jim and some others had in mind for this local demonstration would have been a June event, which was more in line with celebrating a June anniversary of the Stonewall event. Jim has said that this group eventually morphed into a group called IRIS. The entire story of how these forces interacted with other St. Louis groups is told in the general article about the 1980 Celebration of Lesbian and Gay Pride.


Program for the March on Washingon for Lesbian and Gay Rights, (originally found at Rainbow History website).

National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, Wikipedia article

Thomas, Jim, Interview by Jim Andris on 7/17/2012.

Spicer, Bill, Interview by Jim Andris on 10/30/2011.