The Dead Marched on
by Gabriel Rotello
NY Newsday, April 28, 1993
POLICE counted over a million gays and lesbians on the Mall last
Sunday, marching for our right to pursue happiness. The Park
Service estimated the crowd at a mere 300,000. They both got it
wrong. They were trying to count only those they could actually
see, and they couldn't see those who had lost the right and
ability to pursue life itself.
It was the
insistent dead who drove the living down to Washington last
weekend to turn the Capitol's lawn into a mall of memory. Over
the last decade, almost every marcher has sent a best friend, a
best lover, a best someone, off to die too soon. Many of
Sunday's multitude will have been silenced themselves the next
time such a march rolls by. That knowledge, lodged more in the
marrow than the mind, pushed the procession forward. It pushes
the whole movement forward. It pushes me.
I had never been
to a gay march on Washington before. The first one, in 1979,
occurred when gay politics seemed unimportant to me. My best
friend, the person who taught me what it means to be gay, was 10
years older and wiser to the ways of the world than I, and he
wasn't political at all. He convinced me, if I needed
convincing, that being gay was about discretion and desire and
love, not confrontation. And so I discreetly desired and loved
and left the confrontation to the gay politicians, who were
almost powerless without us.
The second march
occurred in 1987, during my friend's final illness. I didn't
inarch then because I was too busy fighting for his life. In the
process we were both forced to face the gay-hating reality of
the world, which was now the AIDS-mocking reality as well. Our
denial was denied us, replaced with hospitals that wouldn't
hospice, doctors who wouldn't treat, insurance agents who
wouldn't insure, a world that sneered and said, I told you so.
As my bewildered
friend saw death approach he made a single request: that his
obituary in his little hometown newspaper down South reveal that
he — a popular local boy who had made good as an author in New
York — had died of AIDS. He hoped that would cause at least some
folks back home to realize they had loved and admired a gay
person, and perhaps thus treat some other gay person better.
That obituary was the only thing he could think of to give
meaning to his otherwise meaningless death.
The day he died,
his family directed that the paper omit any mention of AIDS.
Their shame, which had stripped his life of dignity, stripped
his death of meaning. I fought them, as he would have wanted me
to, but I lost.
Last Sunday I
finally marched on Washington. He marched beside me. Invisible
to the cops and the rangers, he held my hand and pushed me
along, and as I looked out over the army of lovers, I saw that
he and I were multiplied by multitudes.
in all of us, straight and gay, that moves us to want to make a
meaning out of death. It's why Lincoln resolved that the fallen
at Gettysburg should not have died in vain. It's why Churchill,
as bombs rained death on the British, proclaimed it their finest
hour. They knew that it's not death that has meaning, really —
it's what the living make of it.
AIDS, like some
misguided cavalry charge, may have begun as an accident. But
that accident is now our finest hour. It is forcing, first on
our reluctant selves and now on a reluctant nation, a new birth
of freedom. And I have no doubt that that unfinished work to
which we are now dedicated will long endure, and will bind us to
our posterity, gay and straight, just as, last Sunday in
Washington, it bound the living to the dead.