WASHINGTON — Rainbow flags fluttered above the crowds near the White House as tens of thousands of gay rights supporters rallied to demand that President Barack Obama keep his promises to end discrimination against gays and also let them serve openly in the military.
“Hey, Obama, let mama marry mama” some chanted Sunday. Others cried out, “We’re out, we’re proud, we won’t back down.”
Some taking part in the National Equality March woke up energized by Obama’s promise to end the ban on gays serving openly in the military. He made that pledge in a speech Saturday night to the Human Rights Campaign, nation’s largest gay rights group.
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said 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, D-Mich.
Joining the march were 20 cast members from the musical, “Hair.” They chose to let a Broadway matinee show go dark to come march and were led by the show’s star, Gavin Creel.
“I take him at his word,” the 33-year-old Creel said of Obama afterward. “This is just the beginning.”
Those marching listened to activists such as Cynthia Nixon, a cast member from HBO’s “Sex and the City,” who hopes to marry partner Christine Marinoni next year; and Judy Shepard, whose son Matthew was killed because he was gay.
During a rally at the Capitol, keynote speaker Julian Bond — chairman of the NAACP — 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.
For Lt. Dan Choi, the day began with a jog around Washington’s memorials, calling cadence at 8 a.m. with fellow veterans and supporters before joining the march. A West Point graduate and Iraq war veteran, Choi is facing discharge under the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for revealing in March that he is gay.
He appeared later at a rally in his Army uniform, a piece of black tape over his mouth.
“Many of us have been discharged from the service because we told the truth,” he said.
Pop singer Lady Gaga, who is bisexual, got some of the biggest cheers Sunday. 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.
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.
Some activists doubted the march would accomplish much. They said the time and money would have been better spent working to persuade voters in Maine and Washington state, where the November ballot will include a measure that would overturn a bill granting same-sex couples many of the benefits of marriage.
A bill introducing same-sex marriage was introduced last week by the District of Columbia Council and is expected to pass.
March organizer 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 this 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.”