Guest Blogger

46 Years Ago Today: First Lesbian & Gay Protest at the White House

Filed By Guest Blogger | April 17, 2011 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: Frank Kameny, Jack Nichols, Mattachine Society, Washington D.C., White House

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Will Kohler is a freelance writer and activist from Cincinnati, Ohio. Will blogs at Back2Stonewall.com.

How far we have not come.

1965-gay-Picket.PNGIn 1957, Dr. Frank Kameny, along with gay rights pioneer Jack Nichols, co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, one of the first gay rights organizations in the United States. The Mattachine Society fought for equal treatment of gay employees in the federal government, the repeal of sodomy laws, and the removal of homosexuality as a mental disorder in the American Psychiatric Association's manual of mental disorders.

On this day, 46 years ago, April 17, 1965, Kameny and Nichols, the Mattachine Society and along with members of the Daughters of Bilitis, launched the first gay and lesbian protest in front of the White House.

The Mattachine Society of Washington (MSW), the capital city's four year old militant gay civil rights organization, used public picketing by gays and lesbians to dramatize their demands and demonstrate their determination. Ten MSW members picketed in front of the White House against Cuban and US government repression of homosexuals: Gail Johnson, Dr. Franklin E. Kameny (head of MSW), Gene Kleeberg, Judith Kuch, Paul Kuntzler, Jack Nichols (instigator of the demonstration), Perrin Shaffer, Jon Swanson, Otto Ulrich, Lilli Vincenz (editor of MSW's quarterly). Of the first protest, Jack Nichols has written "Never before had gay people as an organized group paraded openly for our rights."

Nichols recalls:

The picket took place during mid-afternoon. It was the Saturday before Easter, and tourists walked the downtown streets. Lige [Clarke], driving the convertible, took me to the White House curb and helped me unload signs. Then he drove off to work the afternoon shift at the Pentagon. Gail arrived at the site on the back seat of Ray's motorcycle.

It was agreed I should lead the picket line. The reason for this was that I was tall and an all-American sort. Also, I suppose, because I'd conceived the event. Frank Kameny marched behind me and Lilli Vincenz behind him ...

As we marched, I looked about at our well-dressed little band. Kameny had insisted that we seven men must wear suits and ties, and the women, dresses and heels. New Yorkers later complained that we Washingtonians looked like a convention of undertakers, but given the temper of the times, Kameny's insistence was apropos. "If you're asking for equal employment rights," he intoned, "look employable!" In the staid nation's capital, dressing for the occasion was, in spite of New York critics, proper.

We paraded in a small circle. Behind lampposts stood unknown persons photographing us. Were they government agents? Perrin and Otto wore sunglasses so absolute identification would be difficult should they fall prey to security investigations. We walked for an hour that passed, as I'd predicted, without incident. A few tourists gawked and there were one or two snickers, more from confusion than from prejudice.

We'd hoped for more publicity than we got. Only The Afro-American carried a small item about what we'd done. But we'd done it, and that was what mattered. We'd stood up against the power structure, putting our bodies on the line. Nothing had happened except that we'd been galvanized, and, to a certain extent, immunized against fear."

The Mattachine Society protest was not welcomed by the mainstream gay movement of the time. More conservative leaders felt picketing would draw adverse publicity and greater hostility. (Which sounds very familiar to what we hear today from Gay Inc.)

The Mattachine Society's protest of the White House, along with the Stonewall Riots is one of the most significant events in LGBT History. But as I look at the pictures and read the the picket signs of these our LGBT activist forefathers I realize many of the slogans on these signs could still be carried in protest today 46 years later.

What have we done wrong?

In 2009 I wrote an article for Cincinnati's CityBeat alternative newspaper called "Reason To Rally" where I offered an explanation of why I believe the momentum of our fight for Equality has stalled to a snails pace.

Since then, (Stonewall) the cause for Equality has undertaken many different forms. An angry queer in a T-shirt and jeans might have symbolized the gay activism of the 1970s, but the AIDS epidemic of the '80s caused a significant change in approach. By the end of the '90s, gay advocacy was symbolized by well groomed people sitting on boards, issuing press releases, asking for contributions and hosting fabulous galas.

We now donate instead of protest. We sign countless petitions and then sit behind our computers and bitch and moan about our oppression instead of doing something about it ourselves.

Our cause has been splintered, fragmented and hijacked into piecemeal specific issues such as gay marriage, the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act and introducing hate crime laws instead of what we should be doing: standing together as one and fighting for and demanding federal recognition and protections in toto.

We all need to become activists once again.

We must become those angry queers, dykes, bisexuals, and trannies in t-shirts once again and we must stand up and stand together and fight the heinous hatred and bigotry that we deal with everyday and let them know that we'll no longer accept being treated as second-class citizens and let them spread lies and propaganda about us.

Too many years have passed and too many of our LGBT friends have left us without knowing what true equality is.

We must start to fight again. Not only for us, but also for the memory of those who bravely began this fight and are no longer here to see the end of it.


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Great piece. However let's be clear about Harry Hays role as the founder of Mattachine, in addition to
the subsequent DC chapter you discuss.

Thanks.

You are right. My bad for leaving out Harry.
Please check Wikipedia for info on Harry Hays and Mattachine.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Hay

Again my apologizes

Will
www.Back2Stonewall.com

The Mattachine Society of Washington was never a chapter of the Mattachine of California. By the time MSW formed in November of 1961, the earlier Mattachine had cut lose its chapters and they had either become independent or closed.

These militant reformers must be stopped. This is nothing but counter-productive. The key is education, not protest. Being angry is simply unhelpful. If we cheerfully continue to educate people about how nice and wonderful LGBT people are, they will stop hating us and embrace us as equals.

Sometime after this event, I heard on the radio as a kid, that this group, lead by Dr Franklin Kameny, was demonstrating at the Pentagon, and that they had previously demonstrated at the White House. I was riding to school with 2 friends, with one of their fathers driving. He hurriedly changed the station, trying to cover his unease about homosexuality being mentioned in public. I hope that he got over this, because one o his sons (not in the car then) turned out to be gay. I was driven with curiosity about the fact that this was ever so slightly in the open. Homosexuality was regularly in the print media, with nasty headlines that "suspected" homosexuals had been fired from their jobs in the federal government. These poor people were not even accused of any indecent conduct, or anything work-related.
Kanemy himself became a radical pioneer as the result of his own firing, as an astronomer for the federal government. Not too long after this, I talked two friends of mine whom I suspected to be gay (although the word was not in general use yet) of going with me to the Mattachine Society offices in downtown Washington. I fabricated some excuse about what I needed to do in that building, and we "had" to go into their office for directions. Kameny was great. he gave us some of their pamphlets, which we quickly read then left on a table in a library. Of course, my two friends later disclosed that they were gay, but many years later. These early days of gay liberation were incredible, for the courage of people like Kameny, and for the totally closeted conditions in society then.
That is the ugly reality that NOM and Maggie Gallagher want America to return to, along with the entire list of Republican politicians who are running for President this time. we all owe alot to kameny and his cohorts.

I used to like to run into Frank Kameny on Friday each week, when he would drop by Lambda Rising, Washington's gay bookstore. He would come in and get the latest edition of The Washington Blade newspaper, and everyone in the store would be asking each other if that was really him. He is an example top our current, somewhat non-political generation of gays who inherited a realtively comfy world, compared to the 1960's when he launched modern gay activism. We need to all re-energize ourselves and the movement.

This small march is an example that it is "better small, than not at all" as my grandmother used to say. We do not need for every march to be a million. A constant, ubiquitous presence is far stronger, I believe, than a flash that comes and goes. Each group (no matter how small ) from every town and city in every state should take turns demonstrating at their state capitals daily throughout legislative sessions on all the different matters that the gay rights communities are working for today.

I truly beg to differ with you.

Did women ask nicely "Dear may we please have the vote?" Did African Americans say "Please treat us as equals?" perhaps in the beginning but after years of frustration they protested, marched and in some cases fought and went to jail.

Since the late 80's when GAY INC was born we have been asking nicely and we get crumbs.

If we don;t truly fight those who are against us will always have the upper hand.

It;s very rare that you can change hate. And when it does happen it can take years and many resources to change just one persons mind.

But the simple fact is I don;t care if they hate me. I just want equal rights.