WASHINGTON (AFP) – Tens of thousands of gay activists marched on Washington to demand civil rights, a day after President Barack Obama vowed to repeal a ban on gays serving openly in the US military.
Demonstrators from across the United States crowded the Mall, the green space near the US Capitol and White House, many waving rainbow flags and signs calling for equality under the law and the right to marry.
|Activists carry a rainbow flag over people on the West Lawn of the US Capitol Building during a protest in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)|
"We're hoping for change, we're hoping for equality, we're hoping for recognition, we're hoping for freedom," said Bo Fillion, who traveled from Massachusetts for the march.
Among the marchers was a man sporting a blue T-shirt reading "Two dads are better than one." A female protestor wore a top that said "Kiss more girls," while a bare-chested man sported the words "Gay is good" painted on his back.
Organizers said the crowd at the National Equality March numbered more than 150,000 people, but park police declined to give an estimate, saying it was against policy.
Lieutenant Dan Choi, a US soldier and Arabic language specialist who was discharged after he publicly announced he was gay, was one of the speakers who addressed the crowd.
Speaking first in Arabic, then in English, he quoted poet Kahlil Gibran and said: "You are free. You are free before the sun, you are free before the moon.
"We love our country, even when our country refuses to love us."
Choi is among more than 12,000 US military personnel discharged under the so-called "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which prevents service members from being asked about their sexuality, but makes "homosexual conduct" a dischargeable offense.
Saturday night, Obama renewed a promise to end the policy at a gala organized by the biggest gay rights group in the United States.
"I will end 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' That's my commitment to you," Obama said to cheers from some three thousand activists.
"We should not be punishing patriotic Americans who have stepped forward to serve this country. We should be celebrating their willingness to show such courage and selflessness on behalf of their fellow citizens, especially when we're fighting two wars."
But repealing the policy, which was introduced in 1993, will require the support of US lawmakers, many of whom must answer to conservative constituents and are wary of forcing a major change on the military.
Democratic Senator Carl Levin, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, voiced support for a repeal, but warned that military support would be key.
"It has to be done in the right way," he told NBC. "We can do it successfully, but it ought to be done with thoughtfulness and care, and with buy-in from the military."
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has served as a military judge, expressed more caution.
"I am open-minded as to what the military might suggest, but I can tell you I'm not going to make policy based on a campaign rally," he told NBC.
"If this policy about 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' changes, it should be done based not on politics but on reason."
Retired General Richard Myers, a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that the current policy has not served as a blanket prohibition on gay service members.
"Gays can serve in the military, they just can't serve openly, and they do, and there's lots of them, and we are the beneficiary of all that," he said.
The issue has returned to center stage over a year after Obama pledged during his election campaign to repeal the policy, introduced by former president Bill Clinton.
The activists gathered in Washington hoped to pressure Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress to keep long-standing promises to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community.
Many are also looking to Obama and Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage at the federal level as between a man and a woman.
But even many Democrats who support the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and legislation banning hate crimes against homosexuals are reluctant to repeal the act.
"I've said in the past I don't think that's the way to go," said Democratic Senator Robert Casey.
"We can move forward on a lot of measures, but I'm not sure there's the support yet for that," he said on CNN.