Thirty years ago this month, several Nebraskans traveled to our nation’s capital equipped with banners, signs and a need to be heard.
UNO’s Criss Library is celebrating LGBT history month by presenting mementos from one of the largest rallies in the District of Columbia’s history. On display in the Osborne Family Gallery, “For Love and For Life” provides a snapshot into what it was like to be at the 1987 Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
All material on display is from the Queer Omaha Archives, whose mission is to preserve Omaha’s LGBTQIA+ legacy through Criss Library’s Archives and Special Collections. Since 2016, the Queer Omaha Archives have collected photographs, posters, scrapbooks and other material documenting local LGBTQIA+ communities.
Located on the first floor of the library, the archives welcome opportunities to share their collected material in person and online. The archivists are always looking for new items,and anyone from the university community or general public may submit artifacts.
Amy Schindler is the director of Archives and Special Collections. She said the original focus was on UNO’s campus with the intention to ultimately document a wider scope of Omaha’s LGBTQIA+ communities.
“We started initially gathering things from students and student organizations, such as the Gender and Sexualities Resources Center and the Department of Sociology,” said Schindler. “We then started talking to faculty and staff at the university, eventually opening it up to community members,”she added.
All material in “For Love and For Life” is from an Omaha couple. Called the Terry Sweeney and Patrick Phelan papers, the collection contains newspaper clippings,pictures,information on historic organizations and a banner signed by proud Nebraskans who participated in the march. After returning to Omaha, the banner was displayed at The Max night club and other local businesses.
The march took place on Oct. 11, 1987. The event included several days of rallies, civil disobedience and other protest actions at multiple locations in the District of Columbia. Celebrity speakers included Cesar Chavez and Whoopi Goldberg. The goal of the march was to call for the recognition of LGBT relationships, a presidential order banning discrimination by the federal government and an end to discrimination against people with AIDS and HIV.
The first public display of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was on the National Mall during this time with 1,920 panels. The quilt now contains more than 48,000panels, celebrating the lives of those lost to AIDS.
The Wedding, where over 2,000 same-sex couples pledged their vows,on Oct. 10, 1987 was one of the many acts of civil disobedience during the march. The protest took place in front of the Internal Revenue Service because of their regulations preventing LGBT couples from filing jointly as a married couple. This event also drew attention to other legal protections denied to these couples including hospital visitation rights and inheritance. Several hundred people took part in this event including Patrick Phalen and Terry Sweeney of Omaha.
Sweeney said attending the march was a very affirming experience. “It was pretty exciting to be there,” he said.
“Being from the Midwest, rallies aren’t something that are often found. Local pride marches here had people wearing sacks over their heads for anonymity, for safety—not only personal but professional.”
The march is known as “The Great March” due to its size, scope and historical impact. Although attendance numbers have been heavily debated, the turnout was incredible with numbers reported anywhere between 200,000 and 650,000 people.
“The change after the march was dramatic –not just instantly, but a change that happened over time,” Sweeney said. “Not only did we have a national impact, we had a global impact, which was very satisfying,”she added.
Sweeney said there is no question that it’s not as hard to be gay today as it was in 1987. However, he knows there is still struggle—especially in the current political environment.
“A lot of things are being rescinded and negated,” Sweeney said. “We don’t like to see that happen when it comes to people living their lives freely, openly and with equality.We want things to move forward and not backward.”
To Sweeney, being open about sexualitymeans beingable to walk down the street just as anyone else with a partner and expressing yourself without ramification.
National Coming Out Day was founded in 1988 on the anniversary of the march. UNO has resources and support available for those who are working toward being more open through Queer and Trans Services.
“The advice that we gave to people in 1987 was to just come out,” Sweeney said. “It was very important to come out, be visible, be known. As we find out, the more we do that, the easier it becomes.”
“For Love and For Life” is on display until Nov. 9. The exhibit is free and open to the public during regular library hours.