COVID-19 Updates: The Wisconsin Historical Society hours have changed. See a full list of COVID-19 Closures and Events HERE.

Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

T-shirt worn to the National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights T-shirt | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeT-shirt National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights

T-shirt National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights, 1979

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1980.70.2

T-shirt worn to the National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights, Washington, DC, 1979
(Museum object 1980.70.2)

This shirt is from the first nationwide demonstration for gay rights, which was held in Washington, DC on October 14, 1979. Kathleen Nichols and Barbara Constans, activists and organizers of the Madison Committee for Gay Rights, donated it to the Wisconsin Historical Society the following year.

Before the 1979 march, gay rights groups were scattered, and focused primarily on local issues and concerns. Although a march on Washington was discussed as early as 1973, it failed to generate enthusiasm among the still substantially closeted gay and lesbian community. Subsequent discussions foundered over issues of racism and classism. The issue was effectively revived in 1978 by San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, whose insights into coalition building were instrumental. When Milk was assassinated, the need for a national response became clear. Organizers selected a 1979 march date to commemorate the tenth anniversary of New York’s Stonewall Riots.

March organizers put forward five demands, including passage of comprehensive lesbian/gay legislation, banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in the federal government and the military, and ending anti-gay discrimination in child custody cases.

The march drew between 75,000 and 125,000 gay men, lesbians, and their supporters. Boston’s Gay Community News published this firsthand account after the march: “Everywhere, as far as the eye could see, were lesbian sisters and gay brothers—from all over, from all walks of life, gay human beings in numbers unanticipated, in a mood of exultant expectation like nothing ever before. This was our day; this was our Declaration of Independence. We were in the capital of our country. We were suddenly, as a mass of humanity, not as isolated individuals, free and dignified.”

Although most of the 1979 demands have still not been met forty years later (as of 2020), the march remains a milestone. It was the symbolic coming out party for a national movement for lesbian and gay rights. It inspired activism, community, and a sense of identity that, despite ongoing internal divisions, has supported LGBT people in the decades since.