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  • The American Gay Rights Movement and Patriotic Protest
  • Simon Hall (bio)

This country claims a national basis of equality. It's about time we got it.

—Otto H. Ulrich, Jr., treasurer, Washington Mattachine, 19711

Ours is a noble cause because we are engaged in a fight for the very promise of America.

—Lorri L. Jean, executive director, Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, 20002

On 30 April 2000 several hundred thousand protesters assembled on the Mall in Washington, D.C., for the Millennium March, the fourth national gay rights demonstration to be hosted in the nation's capital. "For more than six hours, under a warm spring sun," the crowd heard speeches from activists, celebrities, and politicians; both President Clinton and Vice President Gore delivered videotaped remarks. The New York Times described the "festive" tone of the proceedings and emphasized the diversity of the marchers: "[They] were a long, ebullient parade of cops and veterans, drag queens and college students, gay parents with toddlers on their backs and heterosexual parents marching in support of gay children." [End Page 536] One of the featured speakers was the father of Matthew Shepard, the gay Wyoming teenager who had been brutally murdered in October 1998. Dennis Shepard told the crowd to "let people know that you are a part of America . . . and you deserve the same rights."3 Another speaker was the veteran activist Lorri L. Jean, executive director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center who explained that the "gay agenda" was the "very one upon which this nation was founded." In Jean's formulation the gay rights movement was a "fight for the very promise of America, . . . a patriotic battle of the highest order, a battle to secure the principle that forms the bedrock of our society: . . . life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."4 As this article will demonstrate, appeals to America's founding ideals have been at the heart of gay activists' strategy for half a century.

America's fate, according to historian Richard Hofstadter, is "not to have ideologies but to be one."5 While John Winthrop's exhortation to his fellow pilgrims in 1630 to "be as a city upon a hill" first articulated the notion of America as an idea, it was the nation's revolutionary birth that provided it with what Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal described as a national creed.6 Rooted in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, the ideals of self-government, liberty, equality, and justice lie at the heart of American national identity.7 Given the ideological diversity among the founding fathers themselves, it is not surprising that the precise nature of this national creed has always been fiercely contested.8 In some respects the long and continuing debate over just what Americanism actually is has characterized the Republic as much as the existence of the creed itself, and its malleability has enabled it to be claimed by forces from across the political spectrum. During the past two hundred years Americanism has been invoked by abolitionists, proslavery defenders, trades union organizers, corporate titans, champions of imperial expansion, and crusaders for women's rights, among many others.9 [End Page 537]

For progressives, appeals rooted in the national creed have proved an effective means of generating tangible pressure for social and political change. A model of patriotic dissent has emerged in which activists have sought to narrow the gap between America's lofty promise of liberty and justice for all and the actual experience of oppressed or marginalized Americans: the working classes, women, and African Americans, for example.10 Many of the protest movements that dominated the social and political landscape of the 1960s drew on this tradition. The drafters of the 1962 Port Huron Statement—a key manifesto of the early New Left—urged the building of a social movement that would re-energize the "American values" of "freedom and equality for each individual" and "government of, by, and for the people," values they believed had become tarnished.11 The movement against the war in Vietnam also made use of Americanism, particularly in its early years. In a speech delivered at a rally in Washington, D...


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