by Lani Ka’ahumanu
This is a reflection on the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation.
It was published in Anything That Moves
So there I was in the 1993 March on Washington media office in Washington DC six days before the big event working the phones and lending a bisexual presence. The five phones rang non-stop, “March on Washington media office. Hello my name is Lani.” The publisher of a small local DC paper called. He wanted to do a story paralleling the Martin Luther King March and this one. He wanted to make the connections clear so his community would come and join the march. “It’s the same for all of us,” he said, “basic civil rights.” “Yep, that’s right,” I said, “30 years later we have the same dream.” There were two to four of us at any one point fielding questions from local, national and international television and radio stations, the print media, as well as reporters of all stripes wanting interviews, press passes and faxing us their credentials. The NAACP and the White House called a few times too.
The pace was fast and furious, the mood was campy and cooperative, the setting was cramped, lacking air and windows. There was a sense of history being made. The Today Show, Good Morning America, Tokyo Television, Italian TV, the New York Times, Miami Herald Tribune, LA Times, SF Examiner, USA TODAY, and the Village Voice to name just a few who called. Everyone was looking for an angle on this civil rights march. This was not being covered as a parade or celebration. The tone was more serious.
A national gay writer who was working for a big city paper was interested in interviewing one of the speakers. “Well guess what,” I said, “I just happen to be on the main stage.” “Perfect.” he said. So I tell him I’m the token bisexual speaker and the last one of the day. He laughs when I tell him the name of my speech, “It ain’t over til the bisexual speaks.” And is hooked by the Farajaje-Jones term “gayristocracy.” He asks great questions, we talked and then there was a long pause. “This is really interesting. Maybe I should do a story for the Village Voice on bisexuality.” He asks for my home number and there is another long silence. Then says, “Well, I’d like to talk with you sometime. I’ve been having sex with all my lesbian friends and I don’t know who to talk to about it.” I encouraged him to call.
Everyday that week as new people arrived someone would introduce me as Lani Ka’ahumanu the bisexual speaker. I wasn’t being “shown off” exactly but sometimes the tokenism grated my nerves. Being the only visible one of anything is taxing and isolating. By the end of each day I wanted good ol’ bisexual company. Thank goodness there were so many bisexuals around and a BiNET USA meeting and a National Conference on Bisexuality and dance on Saturday. I was well nourished.
By the time Sunday arrived I was ready. I had worked hard and thought about this day for two months. When I pictured myself talking in front of TV cameras and a million people I rode the adrenaline rushes like a surfer catches a wave. My biggest and most surprising breakthrough came while working on my speech. I cranked up some “writing” music — Simon and Garfunkel’s Concert in Central Park. As I went to my desk thinking about being on stage the speakers filled my office with thousands of people cheering and clapping at the Central Park Concert. At that moment I experienced a level of terror that made my body shiver. I stopped in my tracks and began to cry. I cried for a very long time and then started laughing. What a perfect way to get over the fear of being in front of so many people! I played the crowd noise over and over until the adrenaline subsided.
I thought about the first National Bisexual Conference in 1990. How we applauded loudly when BiPOL’s Autumn Courtney proclaimed the nineties as the “decade of the bisexual.” The vision of our bisexual community and movement becoming a viable and respected player at the larger queer community table was within our reach. Who would have guessed that we would have secured national recognition less than two years later? But there we were in January, 1992, demanding that bisexual rights be recognized in the title of the 1993 March on Washington. Our time had definitely arrived. Many of us took leadership positions on the national, regional, and local levels for organizing the March.
A quiet sense of pride filled me the morning of April 25th. We made it. There we were in the front of the March carrying the banner, performing on the morning stage, and marching loud, proud and visible with almost every group. And there we were over 1,000 strong in the bisexual contingent! And there we were visible on the gigantic trinitron screens projecting the afternoon stage activities with the “1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation” title emblazoned across the top. And yes, there we were on the afternoon stage.
I say “we” were on the afternoon stage because we were. I did not feel alone up there for a minute. I can’t quite explain it, but you all were with me. For the entire day I felt I was speaking for more than myself. There was a definite sense of bistory in the making as I networked and challenged the biphobia, and reminded forgetful MCs and speakers that it was the lesbian gay and bisexual March on Wahsington, and appreciated those who said bisexual through out their speeches. I was very conscious of wanting to represent “us” as best as one person possibly could. Whenever I felt intimidated I just remembered how many strong and proud bisexual people I have had the opportunity of meeting here in the USA and in Europe in the last few years. I also knew there were thousands of bisexuals out there marching in huge numbers making a different kind of statement to the world. I felt proud and honored to be representing the bisexual community and movement and didn’t want to waste a moment of the precious time spent backstage. Loraine Hutchins with her bisexual pride t-shirt flashing stood out in this crowd. We consulted, commiserated and strategized all afternoon about how best to use the time accessing the media and the lesbian and gay leaders who were backstage. We worked that crowd for all it was worth.
Because unscheduled speakers were given time throughout the day, the stage ran an hour late. As the last speaker of the day my 5:30 p.m. slot came up around 6:45 p.m. Quite honestly by the end of the day I was emotionally exhausted and bruised from the general lack of respect, the tokenism, the invisibility of bisexual people and our issues and the division(ary) speeches given by many if not most of the lesbian and gay leaders. I was in no mood to be told 10 minutes before I was to go on that time was running out and the park service was threatening to turn off the sound at 7 p.m. One of the Co-Chairs told me that they were asking everyone to shorten their time to two minutes in order to get everyone who was scheduled onto the stage.
Something inside of me snapped when I heard this. I have always been willing to compromise, see both sides of an issue, build alliances, work things out. I have never been a very pushy, or disruptive in-your-face type of an activist/organizer. But honey did I turn a corner that day! I made it crystal clear that if there hadn’t been blatant biphobia coming from the stage, as well as from behind the stage all day, and if everyone would have done their homework and remembered that it was indeed the lesbian, gay and bisexual March on Washington, and if I wasn’t the only bisexual speaker out of the 18 chosen I would consider it in a heartbeat. After all I had been a producer and I understood the situation they were in, however editing my speech to two minutes was completely out of the question. A very brief discussion ensued regarding quality and quantity which I felt was ridiculous when we were talking five minutes vs. two minutes. In the end I agreed to look over my speech and edit, but not to two minutes. I knew my speech was a little more than five minutes so it seemed only fair to do this. As I walked out of the trailer the look on my face was not lost on Nadine Smith one of the other Co-Chairs who had been a consistent bisexual ally. She asked what had happened. I told her the situation. Her immediate reply was, “That isn’t right. Let me see what I can do.” A sense of injustice filled me with a focused fierceness in way I had never experienced before in my life. I would not be stopped, period. Loraine and Dannielle [my daughter] and Katherin came over to see what was wrong. “How dare they pull this on us!,” I said.
Less than a minute later someone said, “You’re on.” I hadn’t looked over my speech to begin the edit, but it didn’t matter. This was it. I felt strong and clear and angry as I walked through the security check points before the long ascent to the stage. “Lani Ka’ahumanu?” “Yes,” I said, “Lani Ka’ahumanu.” With each step my determination grew stronger. “Lani Ka’ahumanu?” “Lani Ka’ahumanu.” With each step I was filled with a powerful sense of love for bisexual people, for our courage and bravery, for the visible and viable bisexual community we have built, and for the strong bisexual pride movement we have organized. Oh no, I did not feel alone up there at all.
By the time I got to the top of the stairs and walked to edge of the backstage I was over it. Nothing was going to stop me, nothing, not even the stage co-producer Robin Tyler who literally got on her knees and asked me to make my speech two minutes. (What a lost photo opportunity!) I looked around and unexpectedly saw two familiar and friendly faces. Robin and I went over the two sentence introduction I had written earlier in the day. I had to edit one out. She liked one, but I wanted the other because it was more radical. It mentioned I had been a housewife and activist in the 60s, a public lesbian mother in the 70s and an out of the closet bisexual since 1980.
The very instant the group Menage finished singing, I walked to the podium as Robin introduced me. What a moment, there were hundreds of thousands of people as far as I could see to the Washington Monument and television cameras too numerous to count set up on a platform. I took a deep breath and said… [Read the speech here]