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Thousands of gay and lesbian activists were expected to converge Sunday in a march from the White House to the Capitol, demanding that President Barack Obama keep his promises to push for civil rights protections from the federal government.
Some participants in the National Equality March woke up energized by Obama's blunt pledge to end the ban on gays serving openly in the military during a speech to the nation's largest gay rights group Saturday night. The president also said he would work to ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and to give same-sex couples the same civil rights as straight couples.
"I'm here with you in that fight," Obama said. He acknowledged some had grown impatient that he wasn't pushing for changes faster but urged advocates to continue pressing him and Congress to act.
Obama's political energies have been focused on two wars, the economic crisis and health care reform, though he pledged "unwavering" commitment even as he wrestled with those problems.
March organizer Cleve Jones, creator of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and a protege of gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk, said he had initially discouraged a rally earlier in the year. But he and others began to worry Obama was backing away from his campaign promises.
"Since we've seen that so many times before, I didn't want it to happen again," he said. "We're not settling. There's no such thing as a fraction of equality."
Jones noted that the debate over how to achieve progress has at times been bitter, but said people should look to the civil rights debates of 1963.
"There should be heat. There should be controversy because ... we're trying to change the strategy" to pursue full equality rather than a piecemeal approach, he said.
Organizers were expecting at least 75 busloads of people for the march at noon near the White House. Unlike the first march in 1979 and others in 1987, 1993 and 2000 that included celebrity performances and drew as many as 500,000 people, Sunday's event was driven by grassroots efforts and was expected to be more low-key.
Many organizers were outraged after the passage of California's Proposition 8, which canceled the right of gays to get married in the state, and over perceived slights by the Obama administration.
Kipp Williams, a 27-year-old San Francisco resident, said he moved to California from the South seeking equality but realized after Proposition 8 that gay people are second-class citizens everywhere.
Contrary to the California Supreme Court's decision on the legality of the referendum, he said "there is no exception to the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution."
For Lt. Dan Choi, the day began with a jog around Washington's memorials, calling cadence at 8 a.m. with fellow veterans and supporters before joining the march. Choi, a West Point graduate, Arabic speaker and Iraq war veteran, is facing discharge under the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy for revealing in March that he is gay.
"We have fought in battles to protect our country, and now we are fighting at home for equal and full protection under the law," he said.
On Saturday, he led a group of gay veterans in laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery to honor gay and lesbian soldiers who have died in the line of duty.
The weekend also included political training at several D.C. universities for young activists to learn how to build support and lobby lawmakers at home.
Other veteran activists doubted the march would accomplish much. They said the time and money would have been better spent working to persuade voters in Maine and Washington state, where the November ballot will include a measure that would overturn a bill granting same-sex couples many of the benefits of marriage.
A bill introducing same-sex marriage in the nation's capital also was introduced last week by the District of Columbia Council and is expected to easily pass.
Rep. Barney Frank, an openly gay member of Congress, said the marchers should be lobbying their lawmakers. He said the demonstrations are simply "an emotional release" that do little to pressure Congress.
"The only thing they're going to be putting pressure on is the grass," the Massachusetts Democrat said Friday.
This program aired on October 11, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.
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