The Dead Marched on Washington, Too


by Gabriel Rotello

Newsday - April 28, 1993

THE WASHINGTON POLICE counted over a million gays and lesbians on the Mall last Sunday, marching for our right to pursue happiness. The Park Service estimated the crowd at a mere 300,000. They both got it wrong. They were trying to count only those they could actually see, and they couldn't see those who had lost the right and ability to pursue life itself.

It was the insistent dead who drove the living down to Washington last weekend to turn the Capitol's lawn into a mall of memory. Over the last decade, almost every marcher has sent a best friend, a best lover, a best someone, off to die too soon. Many of Sunday's multitude will have been silenced themselves the next time such a march rolls by. That knowledge, lodged more in the marrow than the mind, pushed the procession forward. It pushes the whole movement forward. It pushes me.

I had never been to a gay march on Washington before. The first one, in 1979, occurred when gay politics seemed unimportant to me. My best friend, the person who taught me what it means to be gay, was 10 years older and wiser to the ways of the world than I, and he wasn't political at all. He convinced me, if I needed convincing, that being gay was about discretion and desire and love, not confrontation. And so I discreetly desired and loved and left the confrontation to the gay politicians, who were almost powerless without us.

The second march occurred in 1987, during my friend's final illness. I didn't march then because I was too busy fighting for his life. In the process we were both forced to face the gay-hating reality of the world, which was now the AIDS-mocking reality as well. Our denial was denied us, replaced with hospitals that wouldn't hospice, doctors who wouldn't treat, insurance agents who wouldn't insure, a world that sneered and said, I told you so.

As my bewildered friend saw death approach he made a single request: that his obituary in his little hometown newspaper down South reveal that he — a popular local boy who had made good as an author in New York — had died of AIDS. He hoped that would cause at least some folks back home to realize they had loved and admired a gay person, and perhaps thus treat some other gay person better. That obituary was the only thing he could think of to give meaning to his otherwise meaningless death.

The day he died, his family directed that the paper omit any mention of AIDS. Their shame, which had stripped his life of dignity, stripped his death of meaning. I fought them, as he would have wanted me to, but I lost.

Last Sunday I finally marched on Washington. He marched beside me. Invisible to the cops and the rangers, he held my hand and pushed me along, and as I looked out over the army of lovers, I saw that he and I were multiplied by multitudes.

There's something in all of us, straight and gay, that moves us to want to make a meaning out of death. It's why Lincoln resolved that the fallen at Gettysburg should not have died in vain. It's why Churchill, as bombs rained death on the British, proclaimed it their finest hour. They knew that it's not death that has meaning, really — it's what the living make of it.

AIDS, like some misguided cavalry charge, may have begun as an accident. But that accident is now our finest hour. It is forcing, first on our reluctant selves and now on a reluctant nation, a new birth of freedom. And I have no doubt that that unfinished work to which we are now dedicated will long endure, and will bind us to our posterity, gay and straight, just as, last Sunday in Washington, it bound the living to the dead.