WASHINGTON — Tens of thousands of gay rights supporters marched Sunday from the White House to the Capitol, demanding that President Barack Obama keep his promises to allow gays to serve openly in the military and work to end discrimination against gays.
Rainbow flags and homemade signs dotted the crowds filling Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House as people chanted, "Hey, Obama, let Mama marry Mama," and, "We're out, we're proud, we won't back down." Many children were also among the protesters. A few counterprotesters had also joined the crowd, which stretched several blocks by the afternoon.
Jason Yanowitz, a 37-year-old computer programmer from Chicago, held his daughter, 5-year-old Amira, on his shoulders. His partner, Annie, had their 2-year-old son, Isiah, in a stroller. Yanowitz said more straight people were turning out to show their support for gay rights.
"If somebody doesn't have equal rights, then none of us are free," he said.
"For all I know, she's gay or he's gay," he added, pointing to his children.
Keynote speaker Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, firmly 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. Good things don't come to those who wait, but they come to those who agitate."
Some participants in the National Equality March woke up energized by Obama's blunt pledge to end the ban on gays serving openly in the military during a speech to the nation's largest gay rights group Saturday night.
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.
Obama's political energies have been focused on two wars, the economic crisis and health care reform, though he pledged "unwavering" commitment even as he wrestled with those problems.
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 in the 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."
Pop singer Lady Gaga got the biggest cheers on stage. She didn't perform but pledged to reject homophobia in the music industry for her "most beautiful gay fans in the world."
Unlike the first march in 1979 and others in 1987, 1993 and 2000 that included celebrity performances and drew as many as 500,000 people, Sunday's event was driven by grass roots efforts and was expected to be more low-key. Washington authorities don't disclose crowd estimates at rallies, though at least several thousand appeared to be in attendance.
A bill introducing same-sex marriage was introduced last week by the District of Columbia Council and is expected to easily pass.