May 27, 2015 at 12:00 pm EDT | by Joey DiGuglielmo
50 years of pioneers
LGBT50 Philadelphia, gay news, Washington Blade

Barbara Gittings at the 1966 Independence Day protest. (Photo by Kay Tobin Lahusen, courtesy LGBT50)

LGBT 50th Anniversary

 

Thursday, July 2

 

Wreath laying at gay pioneers marker, 2:15 p.m.

National legal panel, 6:30 p.m.

National politics panel (moderated by Blade editor Kevin Naff), 8:15 p.m.

50th anniversary party, 10 p.m.

 

Friday, July 3

 

National interfaith service, 4 p.m.

“Gay Pioneers” screening, 6 p.m.

 

Saturday, July 4

 

50th anniversary VIP lunch, 11:30 a.m.

50th anniversary ceremony, 2:30 p.m.

VIP cocktail reception, 4:30 p.m.

 

Several other tie-in events are planned. There is no registration fee and most events are free and are held on or near Independence Mall. For more information, visit lgbt50th.org.

Frank Kameny was always quick to point out to anyone misinformed that the legendary Stonewall Riots of 1969 were not the beginnings of the modern gay rights movement.

“When people say, as you so often hear, that the gay movement started with Stonewall, if I have a chance under the circumstances in which it’s said, I invariably correct them very insistently,” Kameny, who died in 2011 at age 86, told the Blade in a 2009 interview on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of those riots. “And point out that the movement was just sort of 20 years old already and there was a groundwork.”

Kameny, friends and colleagues say, would be pleased that some of the lesser-known early gay rights demonstrations he co-coordinated, are getting properly commemorated. On July 2-5, the 50th anniversary of the East Coast Homophile Organization’s (ECHO), first Independence Day demonstration at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1965, an event that was continued through 1969, will be commemorated with a lavish, three-day spate of activities. The Mattachine Society of Washington, founded by Kameny and the late Jack Nichols, was one of the main ECHO groups.

The National LGBT 50th Anniversary Celebration is being coordinated by an organizing committee within Equality Forum. Malcolm Lazin, Equality Forum’s executive director and event committee chair, says it’s important these “Gay Pioneers,” (also the name of a 2004 documentary short he helped make that told of the 1965 proceedings) are remembered. A 40th anniversary event was held 10 years ago and many of the pioneers were able to attend, but Lazin says this year’s event is on a much bigger scale.

Among the festivities are panel discussions, a screening of “Gay Pioneers,” fireworks, parties, LGBT history exhibits, concerts, an interfaith service, a wreath laying at the Gay Pioneers historic marker, a street festival and a one-hour anniversary ceremony in front of Independence Hall emceed by lesbian comedian Wanda Sykes. Prominent guests will include James Obergefell, a plaintiff in the current Supreme Court marriage case, along with activists Edith Windsor, Judy Shepard and more. There is no registration fee and most programs are free. Lazin says there’s no way to predict how many might attend but says because of the holiday weekend and Philadelphia’s proximity to Washington and New York, not to mention the historic nature of the proceedings, “we expect a very, very large crowd.”

Lazin says even though the Mattachine Society had held previous protests — perhaps most notably a White House picket in April 1965 — the Philadelphia demonstration deserves special commemoration. He says there were only about 200 people out to any public degree at the time. Kameny remembered it being even fewer.

“The ones before had always been based around a specific issue such as the one at the White House to protest Fidel Castro who rounded up Cuban homosexuals,” Lazin says. “There was another one around military discharges and another around the Civil Service Commission’s prohibition against the federal government employing gays and lesbians. This one was remarkably different. It was not just one city involved, but three. Also, it was the first time it was not based around a specific issue and … it was the first time it wasn’t a one-off. These continued every July 4th from 1965 to 1969 and it was organized by the truly seminal leaders of the movement.”

Lazin calls Kameny and his longtime co-conspirator, the late Barbara Gittings, who was involved with Kameny right from the beginning (though she lived in Philadelphia) and who died of breast cancer at age 74 in 2007, the “father and mother of the LGBT civil rights movement.” Others involved included Rev. Robert Wood, now a nonagenarian whom the Blade interviewed last year (Wood authored the seminal 1960 book “Christ and the Homosexual”) and Lilli Vincenz, who lives in the D.C. area and was involved with Kameny very early on.

“When Frank and Barbara and the other gay pioneers stepped forward,” Lazin says, “the federal government would not employ an openly gay person, the American Psychiatric Association classified us as mentally ill and virtually every state made it a crime for consenting adults to engage in same-sex intimacy in their own homes. Most states also made it either a crime or grounds for a loss of license for more than one homosexual to be in a bar, so homophobia was totally accepted and totally pervasive and totally toxic. It took huge courage for Frank and Barbara to step forward, knowing it would make them unemployable and personas non grata, so we all stand on their shoulders.”

Kate Kendell, director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, who says it will be a great honor to pay tribute to Gittings at the anniversary ceremony at Independence Hall on the anniversary, agrees.

“It’s so often the case that we sometimes neglect to fully appreciate the shoulders we stand on,” Kendell says. “Barbara Gittings demonstrated a kind of remarkable courage that for the time was unprecedented. To march in front of the White House with a sign demanding that homosexuals not be discriminated against by the government and then to pass out literature to passersby or to those who stopped to talk, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, demanded a sort of bravery that frankly, I would not have possessed. And we know that our visibility is the most important first step to our liberation. She, and of course Frank Kameny, created that visibility out of almost nothing. There was no existing infrastructure there, there were no role models, there were no headlines and every story or reference in pop culture or in the media was shaming, negative and depicted us as a threat and sick. Barbara Gittings with a handful of other people who stood up at that time are owed an un-repayable debt.”

Kay Tobin Lahusen, Gittings’ partner of 46 years, says Gittings would be pleased at the recognition.

“She would have felt like a little bit of heaven had come down to Earth,” Lahusen, 85, says during a phone interview with the Blade. “She would have loved to have seen her fellow picketers recognized for their role in helping launch the movement. She was for anything that advanced the cause.”

Lahusen, who met Gittings at a Daughters of Bilitis picnic in 1961, is in good spirits. Though she won’t attend the festivities next month (“I’ll get lots of reports, don’t worry,” she says), she takes delight in last weekend’s landslide vote in Ireland to legalize same-sex marriage, calling it a “landmark victory of the gay cause.” She quotes an observer who said it “puts us ‘on the vanguard of social change movements’ and I would agree.” She’s also thrilled that a biography of Gittings by Tracy Baim of Windy City Times will be released by the time of the Philadelphia commemoration.

“It’s chock-full of photographs of Barbara and her activities, most of which I took,” Lahusen says. “When I survey all that has happened in the last 50 years, there has been a tectonic shift in attitudes. It’s quite amazing and thrilling.”

Paul Kuntzler, who met Kameny one night at the Chicken Hut, a long-closed D.C. gay bar, in February 1962, is one of the few survivors of the 1965 Independence Hall demonstration who will be attending the 50th anniversary. He knew Gittings well and says she and Kameny were kindred spirits and close friends.

“She was basically the Frank Kameny of Philadelphia,” Kuntzler says. “Very brainy, a very fine mind. Very quick witted. Very smart. She was truly an intellectual and like Frank in many ways.”

He says she’d be honored by the commemoration.

“She was the principal person in Philly and among women in the U.S., she was the most important, the most influential.”

Kuntzler, who has amazing recall of dates and events, remembers some details of the first July 4th event but says some of the other early demonstrations in which he participated with the Mattachine Society, stand out more in his memory.

Kuntzler had spent the weekend in Rehoboth Beach, Del., with his partner, Stephen Brent Miller (who died in 2004).

“I left that morning from Rehoboth Beach in a suit and tie and drove to Philly for the event,” Kuntzler, 73, says. “I believe it was about an hour long. And then I drove back. … I don’t remember any reaction, not particularly. I think we just did it. The one at the White House stands out much more vividly because there were so many photographers there. I guess they were expecting us. I think there were some barricades we marched around. According to people today, there were 40 there but I would be surprised if it was that many. I didn’t remember there being quite that many. But we were all in suits and ties.”

Kuntzler says the mood was festive but he was eager to return to his partner at the beach.

“We had dinner that night at the Avenue Restaurant, which was a very popular place, very good food. There were several of us at the table for dinner and I met Richard Davison, who just died a couple years ago, but he was working for the federal government at the time and I remember he was very nervous as I was talking about what had gone on earlier in the day because in those days, if you were gay and they found out, you could get fired.”

Kuntzler says to his knowledge, only a handful who attended are still alive including Randy Wicker of New York, Vincenz and a few others whose names he does not recall.

Kameny long contended that the Stonewall Riots would never have happened had he and the other pioneers not laid the groundwork. It’s a theory Lazin and Kendell readily agree with.

“To say Stonewall started everything is like saying the Boston Tea Party started the American Revolution,” Lazin says. “And forgetting that Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and other seminal founding fathers had laid the groundwork. … What’s remarkable about Frank and Barbara is that not only did they lead the way prior, they continued leading the way after Stonewall as well.”

Kameny told the Blade in 2009 about the convergence of events around the time of Stonewall, which had happened less than a week before the final Independence Day protest in 1969. Kameny, who had been in Washington when Stonewall happened but heard about it immediately through fellow ECHO contacts, said he was elated. Kameny happily joined in the first Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day March on June 28, 1970 — the first Pride march — and said he was thrilled to realize the movement was at a major turning point.

“I remember … seeing this vast horde of people and I was absolutely speechless,” said Kameny, who was used to counting protest participants in the dozens rather than the thousands. “Flowing in like a river into the Sheep Meadow in Central Park, if nothing else, there it was in front of one’s eyes. It would have been impossible in terms of anything movement-wise prior to that. We had clearly overstepped a line. We had transitioned.”

As exciting as that was, Kendell says it would be a travesty if the earlier efforts of Kameny and Gittings and their comrades were forgotten.

“First you start to see the small tremors and people start to question the dominant patriarchy and they start to question the way power is structured and they start to question their own oppression,” Kendell says. “But then there’s a moment when the match just gets lit. … When Stonewall happened, the fury of it was ignited by that simmering sense of injustice, which was, I think, in large part ignited by the events in Philadelphia.”

Kendell also says, even with the enormous strides that have been made, LGBT people today can still be inspired by the examples of Kameny and Gittings.

“For me, the moral of the story is that you can resist wherever you are and whoever you are,” she says. “It’s not something that happens somewhere else. We’re agents in our own liberation.”

LGBT50, gay news, Washington Blade

Gay protesters at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1965. (Photo courtesy LGBT50)

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

2 Comments
  • BALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLDERDASH!!!! Of course, your author MEANS
    well, but when has that ever been enough from a journalist or his/her paper?Even if I weren’t a long-ago contributor to the “Blade” I would still
    be ineffably shocked and saddened that it has effectively become a
    co-conspirator in Malcolm Lazin’s latest and biggest SHAMELESS effort to erase and rewrite our history. Let’s start with the undeniable: Bill Kelley—not
    “Kelly”— who participated in a SINGLE Annual Reminder (1968) is NOT
    still alive. He died last week. WHATEVER HAPPENED TO “FACT CHECKING”? If it existed at the “Blade,” this article wouldn’t be a commercial for Lazin’s Folly but an exposé of its mountain ranges of self-serving nonsense.

    FACT: Lazin’s dismissal of some earlier organized protests as being somehow
    irrelevant because they were focused on just a “specific issue” is
    simultaneously inane (SEE ongoing, decades-old battles for “specific
    issues” military service—the subject of the very first organized protest
    in the U.S. in 1964— and marriage equality, singly and together affecting tens
    of millions of LGBs) and insulting to everyone involved. As IF that weren’t
    enough to reveal his total inadequacy as an “expert” on our history—the
    first protest at the White House in April 1965 was NOT about just one issue;
    the situation in Cuba was simply the stimulus which gave Frank, et al., an
    excuse to point to oppression IN AMERICA as vividly illustrated by the picket
    sign which read: ‘CUBA’S GOVERNMENT PERSECUTES HOMOSEXUALS—U.S. GOVERNMENT BEAT THEM TO IT.”

    That the U.S.government was the primary focus and the nature of its persecution were literally and clearly spelled out on other signs. In the most frequently used photo, Jack Nichols is shown carrying a sign that read “FIFTEEN MILLION U.S. HOMOSEXUALS PROTEST FEDERAL TREATMENT.” Behind him, Frank Kameny’s sign read: “WE WANT FEDERAL EMPLOYMENT – HONORABLE DISCHARGES – SECURITY CLEARANCES – CONFERENCES WITH OUR GOV’T OFFICIALS.” Behind Frank, the sign Lilli Vincenz carried read: “SEXUAL PREFERENCE IS IRRELEVANT TO EMPLOYMENT.”

    And opposite them, a woman carried a sign reading: “Demonstration sponsored by Mattachine Soc. of Wash. and E.C.H.O. East Coast Homophile Organizations”—DEMOLISHING Lazin’s claim that the Annual Reminder was the first demonstration involving multiple groups. [AND four different groups were involved in a march the day after the April White House protest from the Mattachine Society of New York/MSNY offices to the United Nations.]

    FURTHER, those signs created for the April 65 White House picket became the core of the signage used for the first and subsequent Annual Reminders. Put another way: the earlier protests in Washington ***GAVE BIRTH TO the Annual Reminders more than theAnnual Reminders gave birth to the LGBT rights movement.

    FURTHER, the April 65 White House demonstration was NOT just a “one-off.” There were THREE multiple issue gay rights protests at the White House led by Kameny, et al. that year (in May and October),and another in May of 1966 (though it was—DAMN THEM—focused on the ban on gays in the military). ***As Michael Long notes in his recent book, “Gay Is Good: The Life and Letters of Gay Rights Pioneer Franklin Kameny, “ Craig Rodwell, of MSNY, came down to DC for the second White House picked, and suggested the first protest in front of Philadephia’sIndependence hall. “We can call it the Annual Reminder.” AGAIN: the Annual Reminders were born of what had come before not the parent of all that came after.

    LAZIN CLAIM: “Barbara Gittings was involved with Kameny right from the
    beginning.”

    FACT: Though I’m sure she wished she had been, and taking nothing from her GIGANTIC contributions to the Movement, according to her lifelong partner, Kay Tobin Lahusen (SO quoted out of context in the article), Barbara did not meet Frank until 1963—two years after his first involvement in the Movement with the founding of the Mattachine Society of Washington with Jack Nichols.

    IN SHORT, were they still alive, Barbara in her own quiet yet forceful way and
    Frank with his famous rhetorical flaming sword would be flaying Lazin alive for
    his tireless efforts to minimize and obscure what happened before July 4th,
    1965. But as they aren’t, we’ll just quote a recent editorial by “Philadelphia
    Gay News” founder and publisher Mark Segal, who knew all these pioneers and was a certified pioneer himself decades before anyone in the Movement had heard of Malcolm “I Discovered Gay Liberation” Lazin:

    “There is a national spotlight on the 50th anniversary of the first LGBT demonstrations in front of Independence Hall that took place every July 4 from 1965-69. While it was a pivotal change in the struggle for equality, some are revising our history out of context by stating it is the 50th anniversary of the LGBT movement. That simply is not true.”

    DEAR “BLADE”—there’s still time to fix this, and, with respect, you owe it Frank and Barbara and Jack Nichols and Lilli Vincenz to do it. Thank you.

    • So we can read the article, and we can read your expansion on the article – both are useful.

      For young people who only hear the mythology about Stonewall, the article is a good stepping off point for learning more about earlier people who were pro-gay, pro-lesbian cultural influencers – including many early ones you left out too (like Edward Carpenter, and Djuna Barnes, and Walt Whitman) who helped prepare the way for the activists of the 50’s and 60’s.

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