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.
In 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."
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.