Gay and Lesbian March on Washington

Speech by Reggie Williams on April 25, 1993

Good afternoon, all of you beautiful people! This is incredible, isn’t it? Just look at you! Latina lesbians. Gay Filipinos. Black folk. Native Americans. White men and women. Drag queens. Transgenders. Bisexuals. And, well, just queens!

My name is Reggie Williams and I’m the Executive Director of the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention. We advocate for gay men of color. We also provide services for African American and Latino gay and bisexual men.

As I stand here and think about the March’s theme—a simple matter of justice—within the context of my talking about HIV, I find myself wrapped in so many emotions. I feel anger, frustration, hope, joy, grief, pride, empowerment and love. I feel all of these and more because I can’t talk about HIV without talking about a whole host of other issues like racism, homophobia, sexism, poverty and others.

I feel joy, my friends, because so many individuals have helped shape my life. I cannot forget those who are no longer here, leaders in this movement whose contributions may never be fully realized. Men like Phil Tlngley, Bayard Rustin, Joseph Beam, Donald Woods, Calu Lester, Rodrigo Reyes, James Baldwin, Jose Perez, Craig Harris. I must never forget them, nor those friends and colleagues such as Marlon Riggs, John Teamer, Sabrina Sojourner, Steve Lew, Phill Wilson, Maya Angelou, Belinda Rochelle, Kevin Brooks, Maxine Waters, all of whom shape my life now. My mother and my family gave me incredible gifts of love, loyalty and pride. I appreciate each and every incredibly talented staff person In the Task Force office. And, thank you, Wolfgang, for loving me. Of course, there are many, many more.

I am joyous because I can celebrate my own history with you. I grew up in the projects of Cincinnati, Ohio. It was poor housing, poor education, and poor health care. My mother struggled to raise nine kids by herself. Her eldest son was murdered. Another was imprisoned. And her own life was shortened by cancer. My family’s story illustrates how HIV adds additional problems to an already overburdened community. And mine is not the only one. I now live In San Francisco. Seven years ago, news shocked my life like many of yours. I am one of over 200,000 gay men of color in the U.S. living with HIV.

I am joyful because a great history and herstory is being created today. We may not agree on everything, but I believe what we all share is commitment. The diversity of our individual movements has empowered us with the ability to stand in opposition to all forms of oppression and exploitation. I truly believe we will press on and fight against oppression until the word and the act is but a memory to us all.

I also feel joyful because I think we all believe In this. So let’s start right here. Right now. Look to someone near you who you don’t know. Reach out and hug him or her. Go on! Like Nike says, just do It! Reach out to a person of color. Reach out to a physically challenged person. Reach out to someone of the opposite sex. While you embrace, remember how different that person probably is from yourself. But let’s also affirm for ourselves how our commonality has brought us together.

I feel grief, my brothers, because so many of us are dying. If it isn’t from violence, then it’s from drugs and hate and neglect. It used to be that individuals were dying from AIDS. That is still true. But now, whole communities are dying, especially communities of color. I’m frightened about this. And you should be, too. So much of this is avoidable.

I feel grief from the weight of so much loss. The number of men and women in my life who have died from AIDS is difficult to even talk about. I don’t allow myself to even think about it for very long for fear of becoming immobilized. The numbers are too great to imagine. But they are real numbers, real women and real men. They were people who had become a part of my life, my community both locally and nationally.

And I grieve because our needs continue to be ignored. We must be silently screaming because our health is neglected. Our communities are burning at the center of this epidemic. We must demand and receive a fully funded AIDS agenda that includes universal access to care and treatment for everyone! It must happen within a national health care system that serves us impartially and without barriers!

It’s a simple matter of justice.

I feel frustrated, my sisters, because we are being overwhelmed by so many issues which fill our already full plates. Communities are besieged by too many health issues. Hate crimes are rising. Discrimination and oppression are imprisoning us all.

I am frustrated by what we do to ourselves. It’s not healthy for me to internalize the homophobia and racism exhibited by others. Those behaviors are the perpetrators’ sicknesses, and the object of their will is to reduce who I am until I become, in their eyes, in-human. I will continue to fight for my place in society until small- and big-town America view us and all people of color as viable citizens in all communities who are protected by the very same rights and privileges that they enjoy. I campaign every day of my life for a fairness to treat diverse populations with equality. And I will continue to fight for my rights until I no longer experience that which keeps me from getting adequate health care or even sitting down in a restaurant to eat dinner with my lover.

I am also frustrated because we’re back here yet again to seek the very same thing for which we were here six years ago. Equality continues to escape us. It’s obvious we cannot blindly seek it from a system which doesn’t understand the concept. Freedom is not lip service. You know, I can stand here as an AIDS activist and talk about being a Black gay man living with HIV, but I can’t use my own tax dollars to implement targeted programs which would have prevented me from being infected in the first place. Freedom is not a double-edged sword which slices our fronts as we are protecting our backs. The Civil Rights Act didn’t guarantee my people and other people of color equal treatment or equal opportunity. The March in I987 didn’t grant us equal privileges. When will we stop viewing society as some snake oil salesman baiting us with the Holy Grail.

It’s a simple matter of justice.

I feel hopeful, my brothers and my sisters, because of this, our spirit of community. We have to take care of ourselves because indifference will watch us die. How many of you have been playing safe this weekend? Well, good, give yourselves a round of applause and keep it up. In the words of Martin Luther King, “We are all clothed in a single garment of destiny, trapped in a web of mutuality.” No single issue demonstrates this more clearly than AIDS, as it sweeps across our communities, across the country and across the world, without regard to age, race, gender or sexual preference. And no single issue offers a greater chance to thread our communities together under this single banner of unity.

I am hopeful because a window of opportunity has opened for us. We have identified our advocates and our allies. We have built our institutions. We have some political clout. The Clinton administration has, for the first time ever, openly met with gay and lesbian leaders in the White House. Congress people Pelosi, Frank, Waters, Studds and others are meeting with gay and lesbian leaders on issues of health care, AIDS programs and discrimination. We cannot afford to let this window close.

And I am hopeful because I believe we can challenge ourselves with this call to action and this call to arms. We must take advantage of this opportunity. I challenge you to arm yourselves with the foresight to affirm and continue to view AIDS as a crisis. And I challenge you to be the leaders in this movement.

It’s a simple matter of justice.

I feel angry, my bristers, because of the sicknesses of injustice. There has been a holocaust of over I25,000 lives from HIV. There is violence, ignorance and fear, murder, incarceration, and a history and herstory written by the victors.

I am angered by 12 long, ugly years of neglect and indifference. African Americans make up less than 13 percent of the U.S. population, but we are 29 percent of the total AIDS cases. For Latinos, they represent 6 to 7 percent of the U.S. population but are 14 percent of the total cases. AIDS is disproportionately killing Black gay men, gay men of color and people of color across the country. Grandparents are caring for their children’s children. White gay men have experienced tens of thousands of their brothers die. And people must apologize for their health conditions. I say again, we must be silently screaming! This is the first disease that imposes a long, souring legacy upon whole communities of people. AIDS has been perverted into a tool of social and political oppression which may last decades.

I’m angry that there isn’t a comprehensive plan of action to this epidemic. The government’s own National Commission on AIDS recommendations have failen on deaf ears. Whole areas of the government’s response to AIDS are pitted against the others, robbing Peter to pay Paul. Know this: Desert Shield was funded, as was Desert Storm; the Savings and Loan bailout was funded; the Cold War was intricately mapped out and funded. The truth is that every transmission of HIV was preventable. The response to the AIDS crisis can be fully funded and implemented.

I am also very angry that we’re standing in front of the front door at the end of the first 100 days of the Clinton administration. And guess what? Knock, knock? Where is the AIDS czar? Knock, knock? Where is the lift on the ban on gays in the military? Knock, knock? Why are HIV-infected immigrants still locked out at our borders. When President Clinton is here to listen to us; when your local Congressperson is standing among us; when your neighbors and families are all sitting at our tables; it’s then we will know that we’re breaking barriers. It’s true that we cannot proceed into the future as we have done in the past. So why are we still standing here talking only to ourselves?

It’s a simple matter of justice.

I feel empowered, everyone, because—as a Black man—I came into this world with a 50/50 chance to survive Into adulthood. I have fought like hell to get to my 42nd birthday. It’s a miracle that I am speaking here today. And so, I know I will not be silent. I also believe from deep in my heart of hearts, we will not be silent. My own death will not be a quiet one. I am fighting for the time when we will all be counted, acknowledged and treated as equals. I will fight until my oppressors are free! I’ve chosen the direction of my future. You, too, can choose your own direction in these epidemics of HIV, racism, homophobia and sexism. I challenge you to fully participate In changing the spread of these and other oppressions.

It’s a simple matter of justice.

My friends, my sisters, my brothers, my bristers, we have all come here to justly seek freedom. But we can’t always say they and point fingers away from ourselves. We cannot expect equality until we look within. You cannot be free until you free yourself. And I challenge you on this task as well. As my New York bristers would say, if you talk the talk, then you better walk the walk.

So, at what cost is freedom? At what cost is my freedom? You should all ask yourselves this question. I measure my costs every single day of my life. That is what propels me into tomorrow to fight like I haven’t another day left. Rodney King knows the cost. The man who stopped army tanks in Tiananmen Square knows the cost. The Haitian refugees interred in Guantanamo Bay know the cost. Our friends and lovers know the cost. We know the cost. Although our experiences may not be similar, we all have felt the anger, the frustration, the hope, the joy, the grief, the pride, the empowerment, the love.

I challenge you to take our passions back to our local communities. Stretch our blanket of change across this country. If the actions of one can make a difference, then imagine the power of the united! Or the power of the thousands! Or, yes, the power of millions of us changing the course toward justice for everyone!

It’s a simple matter of justice! Thank you!