National Equality March To Underscore Fight For Gay Rights

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Thousands are expected to gather in the nation's capital this weekend for a national gay rights march. Host Miche Martin talks to the organizer of the "National Equality March," longtime gay rights and AIDS activist Cleve Jones. Jones discusses the agenda of this Sunday's march and how the movement has changed since the country's first gay rights march 30 years ago.


Now, we want to tell you about a march on Washington. This weekend thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans are expected to converge here in Washington, D.C. to demand action on a number of key Gay Rights issues. It's called the National Equality March and will mark the 30th anniversary of the nations first gay rights march on October 11th, 1979.

Mr. CLEVE JONES (Activist): The first national march on Washington for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights through tens of thousands of our people and our allies to march on the Capitol. It is time to march again.

(Soundbite of cheer)

MARTIN: That's long time gay rights and AIDS activist Cleve Jones announcing the march last June. He's also the founder of the NAMES Project Aids Memorial Quilt and here's with us on our Washington, D.C. studio along with philanthropist Bruce Bastian, who's provided significant funding for the equality march this weekend, who's also a staunch advocate of gay rights. Welcome to both of you, thank you for joining us.

Mr. JONES: Thank you.

Mr. BRUCE BASTIAN (Philanthropist): Thank you.

MARTIN: I want to talk about this weekends march. But first, I want to talk a little bit about each of you. Each of you has a back story, if you will, that kind of captures the modern movement. Cleve, I think a lot of people - and I hope you don't mind my bringing up the movie - a lot of people will know something about you from the Oscar winning film "Milk."

And you were a character in the film as a real person. But a little more than 30 years ago, you were working as an intern in the office of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, who was just elected the nation's first openly gay elected official. He, at that time, was calling for a gay rights march in Washington. What was on the agenda at that time? What was the purpose of the march?

Mr. JONES: Well, back then I think, you know, the main focus was just on visibility really and letting people know that we exist, letting other young people know that they weren't alone, just getting on the radar screen. And it's interesting. Also I think we were much more of a liberation movement back then. We didn't have corporate sponsors of pride parades and things like that. So, it was a very different time. And I think it's exciting to see how far we've come in 30 years. But we've got a long way to go still.

MARTIN: I remember hearing Coretta Scott King talk about the civil rights movement once. And she said look at the very beginning, we couldn't even envision of full equality. It was more like we just wanted a more humane version of…

Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …segregation. Was it kind of like that for you?

Mr. JONES: Yeah. And, you know, I'm glad that you brought up Ms. King because I think it's in a documentary "Eyes on the Prize," there's a very interesting segment where she talks about the civil rights leaders at that time and their decision to abandon what they called gradualism, which we today call incrementalism. And I think there are some interesting parallels between what's happening in the LGBT movement right now and what happened in the civil rights movement in 1963, '64. In my speeches, I say to people, you know, I'm glad you saw the film "Milk," and are inspired by what we did in California in 1978. But for strategy, look back to '63 and '64 and the decisions that the great heroes of that time made.

MARTIN: Bruce Bastian, you're a philanthropist, you earned quite a bit of money, if you don't mind my mentioning it, as co-founder of the WordPerfect software company. You went to Brigham Young. You went on mission. You're married. You had a family. How did gay rights become your cause?

Mr. BASTIAN: It's just - it became a cause to just be able to be who you are. It's, you know, we all have our own individual struggles, but we all have a potential. And to be able to reach that potential, you have to have the freedom to be who you are. And that's where it came from me.

MARTIN: What does it mean to you to be here for the march? Why is this important?

Mr. BASTIAN: I view the march as being important because we need to get people involved. You go back to Harvey Milk, and one of the things he - I never knew him, but from the film, I gather that he wanted people to be honest and open about who they are. There's great power and strength in just being us. And when people know us and our families and our friends and our co-workers, then our power, if you want to consider it that, grows.

MARTIN: Cleve, on your Web site you talk about three events that changed your life. Could you just briefly tell us about those?

Mr. JONES: Well, when I moved to San Francisco, it was a very exciting and wonderful time to be gay in San Francisco in the '70s, before the epidemic. But I would say the three most significant things that happened to me during that time was learning that was infected, and that was a full 10 years before any treatment was available. So, I actually lived for 10 years with the virus before there was any hope. Losing my best friend and all of my friends, essentially in the '80s, almost everybody I knew was dead or dying by 1985. And then I was attacked by skinheads and severely beaten and stabbed.

And, you know, at the time, it filled me with hate and fear and despair, but that was quickly replaced, I think largely due to the quilt. The quilt connected me to so many good people out there. But at that time, I was pretty much shutting down with overload. So I'm incredibly grateful to be alive and to be here in D.C. And I think we're going to get a great turnout this Sunday.

MARTIN: But thinking about the whole question of violence and how it attends to being gay or lesbian, you know, Harvey Milk called for the first march. That march happened on October 11, 1979, but Harvey Milk wasn't there. And the reason he wasn't there is that he was assassinated by someone under circumstances that people are now remembering. And I wanted to, you know, ask you when you think about that and you think about what effects that had on the movement, what do you think?

Mr. JONES: Well, mostly what I think about is the effect that being second-class citizens in this country has on individual human beings and the appalling level of violence that continues to be directed against our people.

Some of the cases are famous. Matthew Shepard, we're coming up on the anniversary of his brutal murder. His mom, Judy, will be speaking at both the HRC dinner and the march on Sunday.

MARTIN: The Human Rights Campaign, for those who don't know.

Mr. JONES: Yes.

MARTIN: And I just want to mention that we'll be talking about the Laramie Project on our Monday program which is a play, later made into a film, which explores the circumstances around Matthew Shepard's death.

Mr. JONES: So, you know, when the politicians and the preachers go on and on about what they happen to think about gay folk, the reality is that our status as second-class citizens in this country contributes to the level of violence. And in my travels, especially since the film came out, I've been able to visit countries in Europe and in Canada where we've pretty much achieved the legislative legal agenda. And it's interesting to see how the activist community now have resources to put into play to create safe schools and to address homophobia in the larger society and provide crucial services for seniors and for young people.

I look forward to that day. I am tired of the debate. I am tired of settling for crumbs. I am tired of the compromises. I think a free and equal people would not tolerate the kinds of delays. This has been going on for 40 years. And, again, other movements in the past have had to reach this decision, and I also feel and, you know, I don't want to overstate it, but I think that every time we go along with another compromise, another delay, we are contributing and undermining our own humanity.

MARTIN: To that point, President Obama - and Bruce, we haven't forgotten about you. I want to hear from you also. But President Obama has been criticized for moving too slowly on gay rights. He is speaking at the annual dinner of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights organization. He's the key note speaker. What is your take on that? Do you think that that's true?

Mr. JONES: Yes, I support the president. I worked hard to get him elected, and I'd like to see him keep the promises that he made to us. We are not here to bash the president, that's for darn sure. We are not a bunch of tea-baggers from the left. But I think that it's always healthy to hold elected officials accountable for the promises they've made. So I intend to do this with as much respect and dignity as possible. But he made us some promises, and we would very much like him to keep them.

MARTIN: Bruce, and also your take on this?

Mr. BASTIAN: I think we have to remember that he's a president, not a king. I think, I agree with Cleve, I think we need to hold him accountable for what he's done. But he can't do it alone. And the people who really need to pass the laws are in the Capitol building. And he's got a lot on his plate.

I think we see the battles. Anytime he wants anything done, we see a real strong battle on the right. They just want him to fail on anything. But I think - I'm really happy that he's going to speak tomorrow night at the Human Rights Campaign dinner. I think it's a bold step, and it shows great leadership on his part to do that.

MARTIN: And finally, Bruce, I wanted to ask you this because you've invested quite a lot of time and energy in this march. There are those who say that the era of the big march is over, that they don't really mean what they used to mean. Why do you think this march is important?

Mr. BASTIAN: There's two things about this march. One is to show the nation that we mean business. Like Cleve said, we're tired of being second-class citizens. The other thing is to get these people together. The people at the march are going to be big beneficiaries, I believe, in what happens on Sunday. We want them to go back with new energy and new understanding of what they can do on a local scene by working with the members of Congress in their own districts and constantly bringing these changes about.

MARTIN: And, Cleve, finally, you've been marching a long time.

Mr. JONES: Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah. You were at the first march. You're going to be at this march.

Mr. JONES: That's right.

MARTIN: Why does it still matter?

Mr. JONES: We've got a new generation. You know, when the film came out, I was just deluged with emails, young people saying how outraged they were that they've never been told this story before. They didn't know their own history, the history of their own people. And we're going to send them home energized. But also we've managed to keep all the partying down to a minimum.

I didn't like some of the later marches. They turned into Lollapalooza or something. You know, I didn't come here to disco. I came here to try to change the country. And so, this weekend with HRC, with many of the other national LGBT organizations, we're focusing on trainings, on workshops and seminars, and we're going to send people home to win.

MARTIN: Cleve Jones, he's the lead organizer of the National Equality March, which will take place this Sunday in Washington, D.C. We were also joined by Bruce Bastian, philanthropist and gay rights activist. He's a major supporter of this weekend's march. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BASTIAN: Thank you very much.

Mr. JONES: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up, the Barbershop guys are next. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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