Remembering the March on Washington, 1979: A Filmmaker Captures LGBTQ History

After 40 years as a documentary filmmaker in the Bay Area, a career that gave me access to remarkable people, moving encounters, and extraordinary places, I decided it was time to write about those experiences and how they taught me to see and understand the world. Last year after a dear friend, Annie Hershey, died, I was reminded of one of those moments, when I was just a fledgling filmmaker and covering the first-ever March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The book of which this memory is a part will one day exist.

OCT. 14, 1979. GREETINGS FROM WASHINGTON, D.C. We all sleep on the floor of the young journalist that night. Or don’t sleep — our sleeping bags jumbled here and there in hasty disarray, few of us in them, too excited, some of us meeting for the first time, too much to discuss, too much heady importance, too much needing to prep our gear and to plan our production strategy in the few hours before dawn.

We are an ad hoc, thrown together, ragtag group of lesbian and gay fledgling filmmakers who, realizing the historic importance of the event we’re about to film, scrounge cameras and tripods and sound gear from wherever we can (I, as the proud owner of a new 16 mm camera, am perhaps valued as much for my gear as for my skills). We fly from San Francisco, take trains from New York, five of us — Lucy, Greta, Terry, Rob, and me; Rob being the only one I already know — and we form a loose production collective in order to capture the march. We recruit whatever friends we can to help.

Frances Reid 1979
A 1984 portrait of Frances. Photo by Irene Young.

I’m surprised to find Annie there in the kitchen, just flown in from California with a friend. She is an already accomplished filmmaker whom I know and respect. She’s not part of our crew. She apparently knows the same young journalist and has found herself a spot on the floor too, or maybe, being a significant five years older, a coveted bed upstairs. I approach her with enthusiasm and shyness and ask her if she would like to join our production team and do some shooting with us the next day, flattering her with my admiration for her work. I am not offering her a job. None of us are getting paid. Our expenses so far are out of our own meager pockets. Annie sweetly turns me down; she really just wants to experience and be part of the march without the mediating scrim of the camera between her and the moment.

This is the eternal dilemma of the filmmaker, the documentarian, the journalist: our compelling urgency to record the moment denies us the moment. But for me in this moment there is no dilemma. For me this moment, my way of experiencing it, is all about filming it. Is all about this tight cadre of new friends and our sense of mission. I am terrified and thrilled. I have made a film of my own already, but this is the first time I am doing something like this, where we need to be spontaneous and fast, not fumbling, not making learner’s mistakes. I am nervous and eager to prove myself to this newfound group of instant colleagues.

We leave the house before dawn, gear prepped, assignments clear. Some of us are interviewing marchers; others are capturing the broad sweep of the crowd from high vantage points. We have assistants lugging heavy tripods, and precious cans of celluloid film that we stop to load into emptied camera magazines periodically. We film judiciously, sparely — the film is gold and not to be squandered. We split up to our assigned posts, with a few spotty walkie-talkies as our only means of communication in this pre-cellphone era.

Frances Reid filming 1979
Filming in 1979.

The day cements my identity as a filmmaker — being seen as a filmmaker at a large public event of my community. I relish my assignment to be on the stage filming the speakers and performers, a spot where I am very visible. My ego soars. When not onstage I am atop the press platform, high above the sea of a quarter million queers, getting my shot, feeling important. Only later do I find myself wishing I had spent more time down in the crowd, framing the faces and the feeling of emerging newfound power and sense of political significance of 250,000 lesbians, gay men, nellie queens and bull dykes, in feather boas and business suits, in clown costumes and leather, in sequins and flannel shirts, all demanding our rights.

But in the moment I am ecstatic to be above the fray, to be seen, a powerful Amazon woman, 20-pound camera on my shoulder, striding the stage, playing my part in telling our story. For some 12 hours, from dawn until dusk on that autumn day in Washington, D.C., I ply the streets and the stages, never stopping to eat or to drink or to pee, only taking the camera from my shoulder long enough to load a fresh magazine of film or to let my assistant carry as we run through the crowds to a new location. I am 35 years old and I am doing exactly what I want to be doing, being exactly who I want to be. It is an exhausting, exhilarating glorious day. I am home.

From that day, we untangle back to into our separate lives. Lucy takes our unruly footage and crafts it into a delightful postcard of a film that gives the world a glimpse of what happened that day when queers from across the country came to Washington, D.C., for the first time as openly proud lesbians and gay men to demand our  due. Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official, a San Francisco supervisor, had been assassinated the year before. His rallying cry had been for all of us to come out, to just come out. And so here we were, in our nation’s capital, as out as we could be, and euphorically showing ourselves to each other and the world on film and television.

We are there that day in Washington. D.C., full of innocence and exuberance, not knowing the wave that is about to engulf us. AIDS is about to wash over us, taking out many of the best and the brightest and the most marginal, the most vulnerable. Ronald Reagan is about to become our president.

The wave hits. We watch a disease erode our community and I am no longer working on films about our vitality, our nascent political power and our future, but now it is about a terrifying illness and death. Camera in hand, I witness vibrant young men turn into old men in a matter of weeks. Friends at the prime of life, at the height of careers, wither and die.

Washington LGBT poster
A poster for the film on Castro Street.

1987. Once again I am in Washington, D.C., behind a camera. I am 40 feet in the air in the tiny basket of a cherry-picker crane, filming a quilt spread out across the mall filling the space that eight years earlier was animated with people. Now each panel of the quilt signifies someone who has died. I am working that day for the film Common Threads, documenting the first display of the full (at that time) Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Once again, I am there with Rob, but now he is a filmmaker with an Oscar to his name and a co-director. He has a budget for things like cherry-picker cranes, a professional crew and hotel rooms. I am one small element of a big production.

From my vantage point above the crowd, each patch of the quilt we are filming is a fragment of a grief-stricken whole that stretches on and on across the entirety of the mall. The individual patches are as colorful, creative and unique as the individuals they represent, sewn in love and in sorrow, distinct and collective, a feeling intensified by a callous President Reagan who chose to look the other way.

I wonder how many who were there on that glorious fall day eight years before, pumping fists and laughing and holding hands and kissing and chanting and feeling defiant, or perhaps venturing out of the closet for the first time and feeling terrified and safe all at once — how many are now reduced to a patch on the ground below me, the satin and boas, the sequins and denim, the leather and lace that they wore that day now sewn into the cloth of individual and collective grieving.

Standing behind my camera high on the precarious, chilly little platform of the cherry picker that day, experiencing the color and the sadness spread below me, hearing the endless list of names being read of those represented by each panel of the vast quilt, I feel starkly alone, yet still very much at home.

 

Francis Reid produced Long Night’s Journey Into Day: South Africa’s search for Truth & Reconciliation with Deborah Hoffmann, which won the Grand Jury Award for best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2001 and a DGA award in 2002, and has been exhibited at festivals worldwide, including the Jerusalem Film Festival in 2000 where it won the “In the Spirit of Freedom” award. She also received an Academy Award nomination for her documentary short Straight from the Heart, in addition to producing and directing  films as the groundbreaking documentary on Lesbian mothers and child custody, In the Best Interests of the Children (1977), a Blue Ribbon Winner at the American Film Festival. Her film The Faces of AIDS (1992) won a First Place at the Black Filmmakers‚ Hall of Fame. Most recently she served on the Grand Jury for the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. Frances is one of the original members of Iris Films, founded in 1975.

History by Joan Biren.

 

This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition.