Tuesday, August 5, 2008

October 15, 1987

Here's some history that Ron saved, a letter to my parents written twenty years ago after a gay civil rights march in Washington DC

Dear Mom & Dad,

This is the third day I've stayed home this week with the October yukkies. I should have stayed home yesterday, but didn't, so today I feel like a piece of brain dead cupcake. Ron and I pushed too hard on the weekend, and I just got too strung out.

And what a weekend! We had seven houseguests - two from Oregon (Kim and Ron), two from California (Bob & Kat), and one each from Florida (Howie), Massachusetts (Zev), and New York (Michael). Bob and Kat arrived a week ago, stayed with us over the weekend, then went on to New York City. All of the guests then descended on us last Friday, and the last of them left on Tuesday.

The occasion was the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The event was like a very large family gathering, all 500,000 of us. We participated in activities all weekend long. Friday evening was spent getting people settled, and just talking. It was the first time in 4-1/2 years that Kim, Bob, and I had been together. So we shared a lot of dumb Hanford stories, and probably bored everyone else to tears.

Saturday started out early for Kim (and Michael, too), Kat, and me. We went to Arlington National Cemetery to be part of a national Frontrunners group escorting Brent Nicolson-Earle in to Washington, D.C. There was a short press conference at the cemetery, then we ran across Memorial Bridge up the Mall in front of the Capitol, and ended at the Ellipse behind the White House. Brent said a few words at a brief memorial service for those who have died with AIDS. He is running around the country, raising funds for local AIDS caregiving groups. He has already run through 38 state capitals, and he's still running. He averages a run of 22 miles each day.

After the run, we came home to change. Ron, Kim, and I went to lunch. Kat and Bob left for downtown, and Kim was supposed to join his Ron after lunch. (Ron was downtown sightseeing. There aren't many museums in Eugene, Oregon, so Ron was in Heaven, "And they're all free!")

Ron and I hadn't made any particular plans for the afternoon, but he wanted to go see the "wedding." A group had organized a wedding for Gay couples Saturday afternoon. I was leery of it, thinking that it could be really awful - visions of inappropriate heterosexual and patriarchal models (no offense intended) - everything that Ron's and my relationship isn't. Furthermore, the ceremony was publicized as non-sectarian, and again, I had visions of a ceremony full of sentimental mish-mash, and robbed of its sacred promise to bless a relationship. Needless to say, I had misgivings about even being in the same state, much less attending. But Ron really wanted to go.

So we hopped in the car at 1:40 (it began at 2 o'clock) and raced down to the Mall. Parking was awful, but we arrived at 2:10, and hadn't missed anything. Immediately, I knew that this wasn't an ordinary wedding. 3 blocks of Constitution Avenue were jammed with couples, many in wedding outfits, many in "good" clothes, and some in jeans. Karen Thompson spoke to us. Her partner, Sharon Kowalski, was injured in an auto accident several years ago, and after a bitter custody battle with Sharon's parents, Karen has not been allowed to see Sharon for three years. Other stories were told about lovers who could not visit a sick partner in the hospital, and parents who refused to respect a partner's wishes regarding funeral arrangements - those kinds of activities that are never questioned for straight, married couples. What I want in my partnership with Ron is respect - respect for our wishes, respect for our life together.

At first, I thought the wedding ceremony might be a mockery of what I consider to be a sacred and holy act - two people committing their lives to each other. But in the events of the afternoon I came more clearly to see other things. First of all, society makes a mockery of our relationships by refusing to recognize them. Worse than that it despises our relationships by having sodomy laws on the books, by refusing custody and visitation to Gay couples, by denying us in a hundred little ways the right to be a family. I mean, I love Ron, and he's more than a friend or a roommate. He's my partner and lover.

So when the invitation to participate in the wedding was made, Ron and I moved into the crowd. We held each other's hands, and we made promises to each other, promises that will strengthen our relationship, but more than that, promises to reaffirm our love and our family. I realize that no society, no institution, no person or power can set apart our relationship; Ron and I have to do that together. Even though church and state withhold their sacraments and recognition, none of that makes our promises to each other less binding. We made holy promises because we made them holy.

We stood in the midst of thousands of other couples who were doing the same thing. There were not many dry eyes. All of us realized the solemnity and the joy of the day. At the end of the ceremony, hundreds of balloons were set free, rising into the sky with our own hopes and dreams. We congratulated the couples around us and they congratulated us. Several couples broke out champagne to toast their wedding. Lots of rice was thrown (I still have some in my shirt and pants). So I think that October 10 will be a special date and anniversary for us.

But that isn't all! After the wedding, we went to an open house that a couple from St. Margaret's were hosting. We also invited our out-of-town guests to go (the hosts said the more, the merrier). We had an enjoyable time meeting many other people from around town and around the country.

Washington was really amazing over the weekend. As one of our guests said, "It's like someone waved a magic wand and turned the city into fairyland." It's a wonderful feeling, seeing and being among so many Lesbians and Gay man. I felt very, very happy.

Back to the story, When we left the open house, Ron went home to help Howie with dinner (Howie wanted to cook us a big meal). I went on to a Fronrunners reception being held at one of the downtown bars. The Onyx is an old bank building, and the bar has incorporated all of the bank furnishings. Lots of marble. The reception was very nice. About 300 Frontrunners came from around the country. I talked at some length with an FR from San Francisco. He's a former priest, and he had an interesting story. I stayed until about 7:30, then I headed back to Silver Spring.

Well, dinner was supposed to be at 8, but we started eating at 10:30. However, Howie did prepare a wonderful and tasty meal, even if he did destroy every single dish, bowl, and utensil in the kitchen. One of his dishes was bulgar burgers, and we still have enough in the freezer to feed the Austrian army. Howie made a mite too much.

In a way, I was glad we ate so late, because we had an opportunity to do lots of talking. Ron's friend, Joey, from New York City came to dinner, and brought another guest as well. So we had lots of good talk, good food, and dirty dishes. (I did a lot of the dishes after dinner, but we were still finding survivors in the rubble on Tuesday.)

Sunday dawned too early. Nine sleepy guys had to get ready for the biggest event we'd ever been in. Most of us (not me, though) had breakfast, but Howie and I decided to go for a run, which we did. I took him around parts of Sligo Creek Parkway, and we did about 5 miles. After ablutions, we took the Metro downtown, in several different groups (Howie took his car). The march was stepping off from the Ellipse, which was crowded with hundreds of thousands of people. We found the Pacific Northwest contingent (including Idaho). Meanwhile, Ron and I got press passes (he's covering it for the upcoming AIDS issue of C&EN). I was his assistant and helped carry his bag, etc. I also asked people, a couple of times, to hold their banner this way or that way so that Ron could get a better picture. The press pass earned me some instant, if undeserved, respect.

When the march stepped off, Ron and I stepped out in front to get pictures of a group of Persons with AIDS (PWAs) in wheel chairs. Many of them were badly ravaged by the disease. Ron got lots of pictures, trying to work in the White House and other public buildings as backdrops to the march.

We continued taking pictures, but eventually joined the march itself, on Pennsylvania Avenue, near the Old Post Office. We marched with the Washington, Oregon, and Idaho contingents (we met Kim and Ron with the Oregon group). The Idaho group had a clever little shout that spelled out "IDAHOMO" (they also sang the state song), and the Oregon people were singing to the tune of Row Row, Row Your Boat: "We're from Oregon / Lesbians and Queers / Gaily, Gaily, Gaily, Gaily / We've been there for years." The Oregon people were rather shy and retiring, like Garrison Keilor's Prairie Home Companions, - granola in flannel shirts. Washington, on the other hand, was a band of organized activists. But my heart was truly with Idaho - most of whom were transplanted compatriots. Like true Idahoans, they were out for a good cowboy time on a Saturday night. Their cheer brought lots of laughter, and their (I should say our - I mean I shouted myself hoarse) rendition of "Here We Have Idaho" was quite good.

Other groups of note included the Gay Mormons with a few bent elders, some corn fed Iowa Queers (as they called themselves), and a large contingent from the Show Me State. Every state except South Dakota had a contingent.

And people everywhere. The march stepped off at noon, and the end of the march reached the Mall at 5:15. Official estimates of the crowd were over 200,000, but unofficial counts indicated about a half million people. It was the second largest demonstration in D.C.

Also on the Mall was a large quilt composed of panels memorializing persons who had died from AIDS. The quilt covered the area of two football fields. People could walk on walkways on the quilt - it was a very somber memorial, lots of tears. I walked along the edge, and a woman came up to me and we hugged each other. The quilt brings home the enormity of the human suffering caused by this awful disease. It also serves as a reminder about the negligence of this administration that has done next to nothing to help the sufferers and educate the public. These people need love but are shunned by a hysterical public. They need shelter, but are turned out of their homes. They need work but are fired by their employers. They need medical care but are made destitute and dependent by the enormous cost of the disease.

Kim came up to me after he saw the quilt. He fell on my shoulder and wept. I held him for a long time.

That's enough for now. I'm going back to bed. Love, John & Ron.

P.S. Mom and Dad in the polemic about marriage, I want to reassure you just how much Ron and I appreciate your support for our relationship. Your love, prayers and concerns have been a strength for me in the years Ron and I have been together. You have blessed our family in your words, and in your deeds.