For the past 30 years, New York City’s Dyke March has kicked off from Bryant Square on the last Saturday of Pride Month, taking to the streets of Manhattan to show dyke visibility and call for equal rights.
Now, as the venerable march gets ready for its 30th procession on Saturday, June 25, what has changed since the original in 1993? “We have a different route from the very first,” march marshal and planning committee member Jaime Barak tells GO. The original ended in Union Square. Today’s march goes all the way to Washington Park.
But as it enters its third decade, more about the Dyke March remains the same than has changed, Barak and fellow planning committee member Myra Shapiro tell GO. Dyke March remains a protest march, an exercise in free speech. It’s neither asked for, nor acquired, corporate sponsorship. It’s unpermitted, with organizers operating the logistics without involving city officials or police. Order is provided by trained marshals like Barak, who are part of the community. A drumline leads the march.
The whole ethos of Dyke March can be summed up with a simple phrase: if it “ain’t broke,” Barak says, “don’t fix it.”
The lack of change is entirely in keeping with the Dyke March’s grassroots character, an spirit grounded in the right to free speech, political expression, the desire to highlight and celebrate dykes (however the term might be defined) and call out violence and discrimination.
The first Dyke March nationwide occurred in April 1993, the day before the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation, which remains one of the largest rallies in U.S. history. The political backdrop before which they gathered is eerily familiar. Conservative groups championed anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and policies, the country was still in the grip of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender persons, and other queer individuals were banned from serving in the military. In November of 1992, voters in Colorado passed Amendment 2, which nullified LGBTQ+ protection ordinances in the cities of Denver, Aspen, and Boulder, and which sparked copycat bills in other states, including Oregon, Michigan, and Florida. (The Amendment was later struck down in the U.S. Supreme Court.)
The Washington Dyke March, a grassroots effort that came together long before the days of social media, included organizations from around the country, who gathered to protest anti-LGBTQ+ policies, legislation, violence, and discrimination, and to draw visibility specifically to the dyke community. It drew an estimated 20,000 attendees, and its success led the New York Lesbian Avengers, who were among its organizers, to launch a second Dyke March in New York City that June. The first New York Dyke March was a relatively quiet affair, drawing between 600 to 1,000 attendees. The second march, in 1994, which coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, drew an estimated 20,000.
Today’s Dyke March keeps with this original grassroots vision. It’s run by a volunteer force, including a planning committee that relies on social media and outreach to recruit marchers, and marshals who are trained to maintain order along the processional route.
It’s “a protest march and it’s a visibility march,” says Shapiro. It’s also, she adds, an opportunity “to assemble a temporary community space every year.” Each march takes a theme in keeping with the political zeitgeist of the moment: this year, in response to anti-trans violence and legislation across the country, the theme is “Dykes for Trans Liberation.”
“It’s really important to highlight that the Dyke March is open to everyone who identifies as a dyke: trans dykes, non-binary dykes, bisexual dykes,” Barak says. With the themes, they add, “[we] try to highlight members of our community who might not get that spotlight in other places.”
“We are a community space and not a corporate space,” says Shapiro, who first joined the Dyke March planning committee in 2019. “If we were to bring in corporate sponsors, that would change the dynamic of what the community space is, and there would no longer be a community space.”
Instead, the organization raises money through other means, including through raffles, tee shirt sales, donations from marchers, even bake sales. Queer-friendly businesses might also donate a percentage of proceeds toward the march: this year, Shapiro says, both Cubbyhole and Harare are donating some of their profits.
The funds raised, Shapiro and Barak tell me, go toward maintaining the logistics and inclusivity of the march. Proceeds are used to purchase identifiable tee shirts for the marshals, who are responsible for maintaining order during the march, and toward securing transportation, including wheelchair access, for marchers in need. Anything left over is donated to an organization associated with the year’s theme. This year’s recipient is Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society (GLITS), a non-profit that provides support for trans individuals.
Since the march remains unpermitted, the planning committee doesn’t coordinate with city officials, including police. Police are present along the route, although not at the request of the organizers. “The cops show up because we’ve had the same route for, like, 29 years,” Barak says. “They know we’re coming. But we don’t really engage them. We just do what we have to do.”
The march does have a negotiator who can communicate with the police, but in general the policy is to stay clear. “We ask our folks, ‘Don’t speak to the police,’” Shapiro says. “We try to protect our marchers from the police as much as possible.”
Fortunately, Barak says, the march has inherited a great deal of knowledge from its progenitors that allow it to run efficiently without the involvement of official forces. “We basically have been handed down this amazing knowledge bank of protesting prep tips that we instruct our marshals with, to help us safely block traffic and keep everyone safe,” they say. “We do that in an efficient, effective manner while the march is on the street.”
Barak has been part of the Dyke March since 2011. They started as a marcher before becoming a marshal in 2013, along with a friend who has since moved out of the city. Now, in addition to being a marshal, they are now on the planning committee.
“It felt like a great way to both find community and still feel kind of close to [my friend] since it was our thing,” they say.
While Dyke March remains a protest march, Barak’s decade of experience has allowed them to see firsthand how the tone of each march changes with the political and cultural landscape, from “the joy the year that marriage equality happened” to “what I know is going to be the rage we [feel] this year.”
Shapiro, too, has noticed the shift since 2016. “I feel like from the transition from the Obama presidency to the Trump presidency, we took a huge step backward,” she says. “And so we continue to suffer from the presidency of Donald Trump and from the supporters that have become politically active, that continue to try to legislate away transgender people and oppress them and make life more difficult and suppress the rights of transgender people across the country.”
While members of the LGBTQ+ community have gained ground in the 30 years since the March on Washington, and the first Dyke March, true equality is not guaranteed. That’s why events like the Dyke March are as important now as they were in 1993 and why, despite the moments for celebration and joy, the March remains rooted to its activist origins.
“It’s important that [dykes] have a space, even if it’s an ethereal space once a year to come together and be a community with other dykes to be seen, be heard, have a venue in which to express what their thoughts are about the political climate of the year,” Shapiro says. “So that’s something that we try to uphold.”
The 30th annual Dyke March takes place Saturday, June 25 in Bryant Park at 5 pm. Hot Rabbit will host “Bad Habit Pride,” a Dyke March official after party at Brooklyn’s 3 Dollar Bill from 11pm to 5 am June 25 through 26.