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DC Gays Celebrate Progress, Demand Equal Rights

June is Gay Pride month in many cities around the world. This year the celebrations mark the 40th anniversary of an event that sparked the modern homosexual rights movement in the United States. In Washington D.C. on Saturday and Sunday, people celebrated the progress of the movement so far, but also demonstrated for the rights of gay people to legally marry.

A marching band called DC's Different Drummers turned Washington's streets into a dance party as thousands of people packed the sidewalks for the Capital Pride parade.

Steven Miller and his partner Richie Farmer traveled from West Virginia, a politically and religiously conservative state a five-hour drive away. Miller says the drive was worth it.

"It is great to see just the huge variety of people in our community," said Steven Miller. "You know we are not just one type of stereotype. It is everyone."

Gay pride parades take place every year in June to celebrate the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.

Pride origin

The celebrations, which began in 1970, commemorate the Stonewall riots of 1969. That is when patrons of a homosexual bar in New York's Greenwich Village fought back against a police raid. The demonstrations marked the start of the modern gay-rights movement in the United States, and around the world.

At this year's parade in Washington, spectators watched as flatbed trucks carrying dancing, shirtless men drove through a downtown neighborhood.

Diverse crowd

Further down the parade route, conservatively-dressed gray-haired men and women waved and tossed candy to cheering spectators.

Nearby, mothers and fathers walked side by side with their sons and daughters. They held posters saying, "I love my gay son," and "You are all our children."

Being homosexual, bi-sexual and transgender has become increasingly accepted in U.S. society. But it was not always that way.

History of harassment

In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, gay Americans were the targets of police harassment and many were barred from government jobs.

A pioneer in the gay rights movement, Frank Kameny, says in those days, gays and lesbians were faced with a relentless onslaught of negativism.

"The government and the law said we were criminals," said Frank Kameny. "The psychiatrists said we were psychologically sick, that we were 'loonies.' The religious people, as they still are, said we were sinners. There was absolutely nothing one heard at all to offset that."

Kameny, now 84-years-old, helped end that discrimination by founding the gay rights movement in Washington. He stumbled into activism when he was fired from his government job in 1957 for being gay.

"I was being hit by something," he said. "You fight back! How could I possibly sit back and let them do this to me?"

Kameny and another gay rights pioneer, Lilli Vincenz, led the Capital Pride parade in silver convertible automobiles.

Behind them, gay couples waved placards calling for the right to marry. Six states have legalized same-sex marriage, a major victory for the gay-rights movement.

Obstacles remain

But gay rights activists and their supporters still face many obstacles in their fight to legalize same-sex marriage around the country.

Justice Department lawyers from the Obama administration recently went to court to uphold the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The law prevents homosexual couples from enjoying the legal benefits that married heterosexual couples enjoy.

Parade spectator Steven Miller says activists like Kameny and Vincenz have made it easier to be gay in the United States. They say now the next step in their struggle is achieving equal marriage rights.

"Because we are no different than anyone else," he said. "And we should have the rights to do everything that everyone else does."

Divisive issue

Gay marriage is a deeply divisive issue in the United States, where many conservatives say it degrades what they call the natural institution of marriage between a man and a woman.

The debate will play out in churches and courthouses around the nation, as activists on both sides fight to uphold their way of life.