Frank Kameny remembers seeing Paul Kuntzler, his campaign manager on a 1971 bid for Congress, walk into Temple Sinai on Military Road in Washington with large reams of paper rolled under each arm and an elated look on his face.
Kameny, who founded the gay liberation movement in D.C. after being fired from the federal government in 1957, needed 5,000 signatures to get on the ballot. With the late February deadline looming, the group only had about 1,300. Realizing outside help was needed, Kameny and Kuntzler thought a gay group in New York whom they found to be one of the few “getting much of anything done,” as Kameny puts it, might be able to help. The group — Gay Activists Alliance of New York — sent two busloads of people to blanket the District one Sunday afternoon to secure signatures.
A dance was held that night at the Temple and when Kuntzler arrived, the group knew it was home free. They had about 7,700 signatures — plenty to get Kameny on the ballot. The “Kameny for Congress” campaign ended with the candidate coming in fourth in a six-way race. Though he lost, the 1,900 votes he secured while running as a then-unheard-of openly gay candidate, galvanized local activists.
Kameny’s own Mattachine Society was fading as members began to find its formality anachronistic in the Vietnam era. And the D.C. Gay Liberation Front was too radical for some others. The Kameny campaign activists were so impressed with the GAA New York group, they used about $400 left in their coffers after the election to visit the Big Apple and find out how the group operated.
By about the third week in April, a D.C. chapter was formed in the apartment of Jim McClard, the local group’s first president. While the New York group folded about a decade later, Washington’s Gay Activist Alliance is celebrating its 40th anniversary this month (in 1986 then-president Lorri Jean — now head of Los Angeles’ mammoth LGBT Community Center — insisted on changing the name to Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, or GLAA as it is commonly known). It’s the oldest continuously active gay organization in the country.
The group celebrates Wednesday at the Washington Plaza Hotel in Thomas Circle. Kameny, now 85, will give his founder’s Champagne toast, as has become GLAA tradition. And the group will bestow its annual Distinguished Service Awards to six local activists. Minimum donations are $50. Visit glaa.org for more information.
Kameny says the group — which lists pages of political gains on its website — has thrived under strong leadership.
“Some of it has been sheer good luck,” he said. “Throughout the ’70s, ’80s and beyond, the group had a string of presidents who were absolutely superb. I said that frequently back then and I still say it. One after another, there were just a lot of great people. There may have been one or two duds, but they really had good people, good officers who kept the organization going. They kept it effective and were very dedicated.”
The group’s first effort was also its only formal collaboration with Mattachine and the local Gay Liberation Front — a protest of the 1971 American Psychiatric Association’s convention held that year in Washington. Though GLAA disavowed the use of force and worked to “act within the existing order,” that first effort involved storming the conference and seizing the microphone in an effort to convince APA brass that gays were not mentally ill.
“We couldn’t possibly be trusted with government secrets and security clearances if we were mentally disturbed,” Kameny said.
He chuckles at the tactics now and says the groups soon went in their own direction — GLAA with Robert’s Rules of Order for its meetings, a gay-specific focus and a strong commitment to non-partisanship.
“I used to attend the GLF meetings,” Kameny said. “They seemed to just drone on endlessly and you had the impression there was a small group meeting in the attic who really ran things. And they tried to tie in all the issues of the day. My feeling has always been if you try to do everything you end up doing nothing very well.”
Former president Craig Howell, who joined in 1973 and has been active ever since, admits the heavily political nature of the group’s work limits its appeal, but said its track record over 40 years speaks for itself.
“There’s always been a small number doing most of the work,” Howell said. “Many times we’d just be sitting there in the living room on [former president] Bob Carpenter’s couch. If we had four or five at a meeting, that was considered good. It’s always been very wonky, so that makes for limited people, but the devil is in the details and you have to go through that trivia to get what you want. But it’s worth paying the price.”
The group counts among its victories:
• Council’s 1973 passage of Title 34, which made Washington the first major U.S. city to outlaw discrimination against gays in housing, employment and public accommodations.
• Kameny’s 1975 appointment to the city’s Human Rights Commission, a first
• A 1978 gay rights rally, the largest of its kind to that time, to protest anti-gay singer Anita Bryant
• A 1979 public service campaign that required a court fight to allow “Someone you know is gay” posters to be placed at Metro stations
• Former president Mel Boozer’s 1980 speech at the Democratic National Convention
• Repeal of D.C.’s sodomy law in 1981
• A 1982 commitment from D.C. police for fair treatment of gays
• A 1986 Council bill that prohibited insurance companies from denying coverage to HIV-positive residents
• 1990 hate crimes legislation
• A 1992 domestic partnership bill
• A 1999 settlement in the Tyra Hunter case, a trans resident who was shunned and ridiculed by EMS workers following a car accident. She died in 1995.
• Part of a broad coalition that opposed an exception from the D.C. Department of Corrections from requirements in the D.C. Human Rights Act in 2008
• Marriage for same-sex couples in 2009
Current president Mitch Wood says the group is “really a labor of love” and that its non-partisan nature “allows us to build bridges across the political spectrum.”
It’s all volunteer and operates on a small budget of about $10,000 per year, most of which goes to maintain its website and blog and stage its annual awards reception. Money comes from nominal member dues — $25 per year — and ticket sales and donations. The group meets twice monthly for about 90 minutes, mostly at the Charles Sumner School but sometimes at the Wilson building. Meetings are usually followed by dinner and drinks, often at Dupont Italian Kitchen. New members are always welcome.
Among GLAA’s signature work is its candidate ratings. Members always point out the ratings should not be seen as endorsements, but they rank those running for local office based on questionnaire responses and members’ knowledge of the candidates’ records on gay issues, to rank them on a scale that runs from -10 to +10.
“Usually in every election cycle somebody working with one of the candidates or another gets unhappy that so-and-so didn’t get a high enough rating,” Rick Rosendall, the group’s vice president for political affairs and a former president, says. “So they’ll make some snarky comments, but because we back up so thoroughly how we arrive at our ratings, we can show the point breakdowns and their responses to the questions, so they know what went into the ratings. It’s a very open process, not some beauty contest score with us up in some ivory tower.”
Over the years, the group’s ratings gained heft. Though he notoriously voted against the marriage bill, Council member Marion Barry initially scored a -10 during his run for mayor in the early ’80s. The low score led him to work with the local gay community and for years he was seen as a supportive public official.
Rosendall said the group’s decades of groundwork pays off even in unlikely places. He cites the two Council members — Barry and Yvette Alexander — who voted against marriage, and also Council member Harry Thomas Jr., who opposed the infamous club relocation bill for gay bars in 2007.
“They’ve all at various times emphasized their pro-gay credentials,” Rosendall said. “Even though Barry did speak at one of Bishop [Harry] Jackson’s rallies in Freedom Plaza, it was a far cry from the hateful rhetoric you hear from state legislators. … And GLAA can take some of the credit for that, but the community has played a key role in this as well. … It’s not just a handful of policy wonks, it’s our community who has been active in this city since before home rule.”
Gay D.C. Council member Jim Graham, who’s received many perfect scores from the group, said he respects GLAA even when he occasionally disagrees with members.
“They put an enormous amount of sincere effort into it,” Graham said. “I mean they really do. It’s not anything they do in a casual way. And most recently I’ve been getting pretty much 10s, so you’re always happy with a perfect score.”
Rosendall says one big change over the years has been what he calls “street versus suite” activism. The group has moved away from demonstrations largely because it’s usually given a seat at the discussion table.
“As you get more power and influence, there’s less need to be standing outside,” he said. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for groups like GetEqual. Different groups are good at different things. I like to say we’re working different parts of the vineyard.”
The group has, at times, faced criticism. Within the last four years or so, some activists, including Michael Crawford, said the group wasn’t moving fast enough on the marriage issue.
Rosendall said GLAA prides itself on avoiding excessive intramural fighting among other local activist groups.
“We really try not to let things deteriorate too much into personality and battles we don’t need,” he said. “We’ve tried to keep our collective eyes on the prize and the marriage victory demonstrated that. There’s no way we would have been doing all this policy work and building coalitions if we weren’t wanting it to happen. We just wanted to make sure it stuck.”
Graham said the group deserves praise for its tenacity, especially considering the era in which it launched.
“It’s difficult to imagine how very important and pioneering they were back in 1971,” Graham said. “In this day and age when we’ve made such progress, it’s important that we pause and acknowledge those who were there 40 years ago at a time when things were so very different. … The young men and women in our community really need to stop and realize this. We’re here because of these folks.”