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From Gay Pilot to Gay Activist

By Ron Swanda

Little did I suspect that the 1993 March on Washington would not only mold the National Gay Pilots Association (NGPA), but become a life-changing event for me as well.

In 1993, NGPA had just evolved from a loose-knit "club," known as the Gay Pi-lots Association (GPA), into a legal corporation with officers and bylaws. In those days, it was not unusual for some of the "club’s" leaders to use false names when writing correspondence on behalf of the organization. At the time, it seemed appropriate and necessary.

In preparing for the 1993 March on Washingon, we thought we were really being ambitious to assume that 40 members would attend the NGPA’s meeting, planned for the same weekend as the March. After all, 40 people represented over a fourth of the national membership at that time. We registered NGPA’s events with the March on Washington organizers, and they listed NGPA’s events in promotional materials that were widely distributed across the country. My name and number was listed as the contact for NGPA. As NGPA’s first executive director, I didn’t think I had agreed to quite that much notoriety!

I was not really an "openly" gay person. While I had certainly known I was gay for many years, neither my family nor my employer was aware of this fact. For weeks, debate raged within me about how likely it was that my mother or my boss would get one of those March on Washington fliers in the mail. Of course, nothing like that ever happened, and now it all seems rather silly. I have since come out to both of them.

In hindsight, I realize that the 1993 March on Washington was the first time I was really out to everybody and anybody. Being "out" like that wiped away a lot of unfounded and internalized fear. It was liberating. The result was that I was even more open to the amazing power of this event. It stands as of the most affirming things I have ever experienced.

When we were about three weeks away from the ’93 March, all of our available NGPA banquet tickets had been purchased. When I tried to get the hotel to give us a larger banquet room, only to be told that all of their rooms were booked by other March activities, I began to sense the enormity of the event. Every hotel in Washington was already fully booked, and people were literally begging for sleeping space on the floor.

At our opening reception that year, NGPA was literally overwhelmed. Many of today’s NGPA members can trace their history to the ’93 March on Washington. There is no doubt that the NGPA itself was energized by this event at least as much as I was.

Predictably, there was great controversy surrounding the size of the crowd during the March. The National Park Service was notorious for underestimating crowd sizes, but because of one of NGPA’s members, this event was different.

Roger, an NGPA member, took a gay reporter and photographer up in a general aviation airplane to take aerial photos of the March. It’s not easy navigating in the Class B airspace, and still stay close enough to take meaningful photographs, but Roger did it legally. When the Parks Service issued its very conservative estimate of crowd size, the Washington Blade was able to counter with an authoritative estimate of its own–close to one million. Not many of the March organizers knew it at the time, but thanks to one of our members, NGPA provided a unique service to our nation’s gay/lesbian community.

A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting sponsored by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. The speaker began by asking all those who considered themselves to be gay/lesbian activists to raise their hand. I was a little dumbfounded by the question. I had never been asked that question before. What did it mean to be an activist? I sat on my hands.

But by the time the conference concluded, and I had conversed with activists from just about every gay/lesbian organization in the country, I realized that, yes, I was an activist. I also realized that my start as an activist really had its genesis at the ’93 March on Washington.

Neither the NGPA nor I planned to become activists. Nothing was forced on us. We just showed up, and the spirit and energy of the ’93 March empowered us. Both the NGPA and I first glimpsed what was possible during the ’93 March. I can’t wait to see what the Millennium March on Washington will reveal. Prepare to be blown away.

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Ron Swanda is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Gay Pilots Association.


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