On Monday, Oct. 16, 1995, one million black men gathered as a sign of unity and reconciliation. Among them were several hundred black gay men, along with a number of lesbians, who marched openly as a contingent in the Million Man March through the streets of downtown to the National Mall.
Our pre-march rally started at the Carnegie Library (Now the City Museum) at 9th and New York Avenue, N.W. We started with about 150 marchers. There were rally speeches from such local and national black gay leaders as Keith Boykins (National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum) and Ken Reeves, the openly gay mayor of Cambridge, Mass. I marched with my best friend Jeffrey Mason and his straight brother, who attended with us as a sign of support for his brother. Also in attendance were black gay people from around the country who came to the March at their own expense to be part of the historic event.
Earlier, we were not sure what would happen if we marched. The speeches inspired us to go forward. We began our march down 9th Street, Pennsylvania Avenue and 7th Street into the Mall area. We proudly displayed our poster board signs and T-shirts – “Gay by God,” “I am a man,” “As Proud as our blackness as well as our gayness,” “Born this way,” “Proud by choice,” “I support my gay brother.” We chanted, “We’re black! We’re gay! We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
A few passers-by hurriedly moved out of the way, people driving their cars along the adjoining streets honked their horns in support and a number of pedestrians stopped and stared. Sensing no negative reaction and feeling safe, some of those on the sidewalks jumped in and joined our group. By the time we got to the Mall, our group had more than doubled.
When we approached the Mall, we made our way to the center of the gathering. The mass of brothers opened like the parting of the Red Sea to allow us to enter among the many hundreds of thousands already on the Mall.
Rev. Bishop Rainey Cheeks gathered us into a circle to pray for the day and unity. Some of those in the crowd not with our group joined us in prayer. At the moment of Rev. Cheek’s prayer calling our ancestors to help us to be unified in brotherhood, the sun came out and shined so brightly.
What we wanted is for our peers to see black gay men as an important part of the community and that we are here to stay. We wanted our black brothers and sisters to see us believing in ourselves enough to come out of the closet and be open about who we are as black gay men – and to respect us more. I’m sure for many March participants, this was the first time they had ever seen black single-gender-loving men openly, visibly and unabashedly acknowledging themselves as a part of the black community. What I will always treasure most is walking hand-in-hand in unity with my gay brothers: Donald, Bryan, Keith, Barry, Russell, Tony, Carlton, Steve, Phil, Jeffrey, Gary, Adrian, Derek, Bradley, Rainey, Billy, Chris, Gregory, Dennis and others.
For that moment in time, there was a safe place for all black men to gather with brotherly love for each other in peace and unity. Much is still to be done in our community to address violence, discrimination, homophobia and the other forces of oppression and division affecting our community. That is why we need to remember that day when we were not strangers but brothers, when the social, political, religious and economic groups we identified with were forgotten as we all hugged.
“Justice or Else,” a 20th anniversary observance of the Million Man March, open to people of all races, ethnic backgrounds and sexual preferences is slated for Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015 from 5 a.m.-7 p.m. on the National Mall.
Courtney Williams is a longtime D.C.-based LGBT rights activist.