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US gays march to demand equal rights: Hundreds of thousands in weekend of politics and fun

IF THEY had come in protest and in mourning, the hundreds of thousands of homosexuals who marched on Washington yesterday hardly showed it. As they teemed through the capital's streets, chanting at the White House and chatting among themselves, they seemed instead to be enjoying a giant celebration.

The march - from the Washington Memorial obelisk towards Capitol Hill - was billed by the organisers as the biggest civil rights protest ever seen by the United States. But it was only the culmination of a long weekend of reunion, earnest political agitation and, also, joyful partying.

'This is kind of like a release of tension,' said Shastine, who with a handful of lesbian friends had come from San Francisco. 'For once we are all here together and, just for one weekend, there is no need for fear. So many of us have died, you need to have some joy.'

The message being delivered was a serious one, however. It was a demand for equal rights for homosexuals in all regards - whether serving in the military or adopting children - and for increased awareness of Aids, the disease that has taken so many.

From President Bill Clinton, who stayed away from the demonstration and chose to have a surrogate from Congress who read out a letter of support, they specifically wanted more money for Aids research and patient care for those suffering the illness. And they wanted to stop what many see as backsliding by the President in his avowed support for gay rights.

Made up of mostly thirtysomethings, the throng - estimated by some to number up to 1 million - gathered under the obelisk, writhing to rock music and cheering a succession of speakers. Giving the signal to take to the route, the Rev Jesse Jackson ended a speech of characteristically rousing oratory on the principle of tolerance with a brief invocation: 'Love you.' They roared, waved their banners and hugged.

It was definitely not an occasion for sexual coyness. Some exposed a little more skin than might be normal on the Washington Mall, but most made their statements through their T- shirts with slogans like 'I can't even march straight, life's a butch'. Marshals distributed pink stickers saying 'I was counted]'

The numbers question was all-pervasive. For the organisers this had to be the biggest march in history, to demonstrate that gays are a constituency to be reckoned with. Over and over, a survey published last week suggesting that only 1 per cent of Americans are gay - as against the 10 per cent cited in previous reports - was reviled. 'That 1 per cent scares me,' one speaker declared. 'That means I must have slept with all the available lesbians in the country.'

Just showing up was important to Todd Holland, 34, a television director from Los Angeles. 'We just want to say that we're here and that we're more than 1 per cent,' he said, his gay brother beside him. 'And we wanted to show the diversity of the thing.'

Before the march, Mr Holland had spent the weekend at a human rights conference in his hotel on the status of gays and lesbians. But there were other diversions, including a mass 'wedding' ceremony outside the Natural History Museum on Saturday, when 1,500 gay couples took their 'vows of commitment' to the accompaniment of organ music, a choir and a massive, whooping crowd.

Others visited the S/M Fetish Conference, where wares for pleasure-enhancement were on sale, including dildos and slapsticks (for spanking).

For some straight Washington residents and tourists in town caught unawares by the march, it may have been all a bit much. Some, like Leslie and Mary, two old women waiting for a bus on Connecticut Avenue as the gays surged by, homosexuality will never be acceptable. 'After all, they were born of their parents, weren't they,' said Leslie. 'What happened to them? I think it's plain disgusting.'

(Photograph omitted)

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