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Cliff Witt, early D.C. gay rights strategist, dies at 77

Co-founder of GAA was manager at Ziegfeld’s-Secrets

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Cliff Witt, gay news, Washington Blade

Clifton R. Witt was one of six founders of D.C.’s Gay Activists Alliance in 1971. He died Sept. 9.

Clifton R. “Cliff” Witt, who was one of six founders of D.C.’s Gay Activists Alliance in 1971 and worked for more than 20 years as a director of film and video for a company that makes industrial training movies before becoming a manager at the D.C. gay nightclub Ziegfeld’s-Secrets, died Sept. 9 at George Washington University Hospital. He was 77.

Friends and co-workers at Ziegfeld’s-Secrets said he lost consciousness at the club just after its 3 a.m. closing time on Saturday and was taken by ambulance to the hospital where he died later that morning. His brother, Clyde Witt, said the D.C. Medical Examiner’s office informed him the cause of death was chronic pulmonary lung disease.

His friend and former roommate Glenn Berkheimer said Witt had been suffering from a lung ailment in recent years due to his long history as a heavy smoker.

Clyde Witt said Cliff Witt began his career as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1960s in Latin America, where he served for at least two years in Columbia and became fluent in Spanish.

He entered the Peace Corps shortly after receiving a bachelor’s and master’s degree in film production and direction at Northwestern University in Illinois, according to Clyde Witt. Clyde Witt said his brother was born in Cleveland and raised in nearby Maple Heights, Ohio. He graduated from Maple Heights High School in 1958.

Clyde Witt and others who knew Cliff Witt said he devoted most of his working career as a filmmaker for the communications division of the Bureau of National Affairs, or BNA, a D.C.-based news organization that specializes in business-related news and produces educational and training movies.

A BNA official said Witt worked for the company as Director of Film & Video from January 1973 until December 1995.

Roberta Hantgun and Mark Daniels were hired by Witt in the late 1970s as freelance camera operators and worked on many of the film projects directed by Witt.

“We did safety training films,” Daniels told the Washington Blade. “Some showed industrial accidents. We did a sexual harassment training series about sexual harassment in the workplace,” he said. “They were very creative.”

Hantgun said Witt had a “great sense of humor” as he led his production crew on locations throughout the country, including industrial waste sites.

“Cliff was a good man and great to work with,” Daniels said. “He always pushed himself and his crew to do better in a very compassionate way.”

Longtime D.C. gay activist Paul Kuntzler said Witt played an active role in the groundbreaking 1971 election campaign of gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny, who became a candidate for the newly created D.C. Congressional Delegate seat in Congress. It was the first time an openly gay person had run for a federal office.

Kuntzler, who served as manager of the Kameny campaign, said Witt served as assistant manager. Among other things, Witt used what Kuntzler said was his “remarkable” organizational skills to arrange for several busloads of volunteer campaign workers to travel from New York City to D.C. to help gather several thousand signatures needed to get Kameny’s name on the ballot.

Kameny finished in fourth place in a six-candidate race, receiving just under 1,900 votes, a few hundred more than a candidate who expressed anti-gay views during the campaign. Although Kuntzler, Witt and the others working on Kameny’s campaign didn’t expect Kameny to win, they considered the effort a success in achieving their goal of drawing attention to the gay issues that Kameny raised during the campaign.

Shortly after the campaign ended Witt joined Kuntzler and four others involved in the campaign in launching the D.C. Gay Activists Alliance, which they modeled after a group by the same name in New York City.

Witt has been credited with playing a key role in one of the group’s first major protest actions – a “zap” or “invasion” of the annual national conference of the American Psychiatric Association, which took place at D.C.’s then Shoreham Hotel.

Details of Witt’s role in the action appear in the 1999 book “Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America” by New York Times writers Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney.

The book notes that GAA targeted the psychiatrists because of their refusal at that time to remove homosexuality from the APA’s official manual listing it as a mental disorder. Kameny, who held a Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University and had been a practicing scientist, was among the first to speak out against the APA listing of gays as “sick,” saying it was based on “junk” science.

With advance planning and direction by Witt, a group of mostly GAA members along with members of the then-D.C. Gay Liberation Front stormed the stage in a large ballroom at the hotel where more than 1,000 of the psychiatrists were assembled, the book reports. Kameny, who was already on stage as a panelist, grabbed a microphone from one of the speakers and “lectured” the psychiatrists on their wrongful beliefs on homosexuality, according to Kameny’s own account in later writings.

In December 1973, about two years after the GAA zap, the APA announced that its board of trustees had voted to remove homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a mental disorder. It was a development considered a stunning victory for the newly emerging modern gay rights movement.

Gay activist Richard Maulsby credits Witt with getting him involved in gay activism in D.C. shortly after the two became roommates. Maulsby, who went on to become one of the founders and the first president of the D.C. Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, said Witt also became involved in the 1970s as an avid bird collector and breeder as a hobby.

“But in that early period of time, especially during the Kameny campaign, he was very instrumental in the gay movement,” Maulsby said. “He made substantial contributions early on in a very important period and that provided the foundation for everything that’s happened since then.”

Witt’s brother Clyde said he believes Witt retired from his filmmaking career at the BNA, which later became known as Bloomberg BNA, in the late 1990s. “And then after that he just sort of did whatever he wanted to do,” Clyde Witt said.

According to friends and co-workers at Ziegfeld’s-Secrets, it was around that time that Witt redirected his energy in “retirement” into a new career as a manager at Secrets, where, among other things, he supervised and arranged the scheduling of the club’s nude male dance performers. He also served as the graphic designer for the club’s promotional advertising.

His fluency in Spanish became especially helpful, friends said, in supervising and mentoring the club’s many immigrant Latino dancers whose English speaking abilities were limited before becoming themselves fluent in English.

“He made us feel like we were part of a team,” one of the Secrets dancers told the Blade on Sunday. “He treated us with respect.”

Those familiar with the club said Witt often performed his scheduling duties, with his laptop or iPad in his hands, while sitting on a stool reserved for him at Secrets’ front bar and while sipping black coffee from a beer mug.

“I’ll always remember him sitting on that stool talking to customers and fellow staff members,” said one of the club’s regular customers.

On Sunday night, just one day after Witt passed away, employees placed a beer mug filled with coffee on the bar in front of the empty stool where Witt used to sit. They placed a small vase with flowers next to the mug and a cookie on a napkin along with a note that said, “For Cliff: May you always have hot coffee.”

Clyde Witt said plans for a memorial service would be announced at a later date. Ziegfeld’s-Secrets co-owner Steven Delurba said the club plans to organize its own memorial gathering for Witt in the near future.

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Arts & Entertainment

Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight dazzle at AIDS Healthcare Foundation World AIDS Day Concert at Kennedy Center

Renowned vocalists delivered show-stopping performances

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Patti LaBelle performs onstage during World AIDS Day 2022 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on November 30, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) hosted its 2022 World AIDS Day Concert on Wednesday, Nov. 30, at the concert hall of The Kennedy Center in D.C. Renowned multi-Grammy Award-winning vocalists Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight delivered show-stopping performances to the packed crowd, which included supporters, dignitaries such as: Harold Phillips, Director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy; White House Senior Advisor for Public Engagement, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, and New Orleans Mayor, Mayor LaToya Cantrell, and more, in a night of hope and celebration.

The legendary Gladys Knight performs at the Kennedy Center during a free concert hosted by AHF to commemorate World AIDS Day on December 1, 2022, in Washington. (Joy Asico/AP Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)

AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), is the world’s largest HIV/AIDS care provider, currently operating in 45 countries. The concert is held every year to commemorate World AIDS Day, observed internationally each year on Dec. 1. This year also marked the global organization’s 35th anniversary. 

At the event, longtime humanitarian and AIDS advocate, Princess Diana was honored, posthumously, with AHF’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Under its “Keep the Promise!” banner, AHF also acknowledged progress made in the global fight against HIV and AIDS and continues to raise awareness about “The Other Pandemic” as a reminder of the significant work still to be done on HIV/AIDS, as well as remembering the lives that have been lost over the years.  

Legendary entertainers Patti LaBelle (L) Gladys Knight (C) and AHF President Michael Weinstein, together at The Kennedy Center during a free concert hosted by AHF to commemorate World AIDS Day on December 1, 2022, in Washington. (Joy Asico/AP Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)

Michael Weinstein, President of AHF, said, “As millions remain affected by HIV/AIDS around the globe, World AIDS Day annually provides an opportunity to honor those we’ve lost and those living with HIV/AIDS today, as well as reminding leaders and the community of the work that still remains to address this epidemic. From providing compassionate AIDS hospice care in those darkest early days to growing to become the largest global AIDS organization today, now providing lifesaving care and treatment to more than 1.7 million people around the globe, we also celebrate the tireless work of all those who help make today’s AHF possible: our staff, Board, affiliate organizations and affinity groups, friends, family and elected officials and community partners across the globe, but most of all, our clients and patients—with our annual 2022 World AIDS Day event. It was a momentous night to host our World AIDS Day concert at The Kennedy Center for the first time, and welcome back the legendary Patti LaBelle, and have another great American icon, Gladys Knight join us, while also being able to honor the legacy and humanitarian work of the late Princess Diana.”

President of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Michael Weinstein and Director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, Harold Phillips attend World AIDS Day 2022 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on November 30, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)
Congresswoman, Sheila Jackson Lee and Patti LaBelle attend World AIDS Day 2022 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on November 30, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)
Derek J. attends World AIDS Day 2022 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on November 30, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)
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District of Columbia

Matthew Shepard portrait dedicated at National Cathedral

Gay Wyoming student killed in 1998 hate crime honored in daylong ceremony

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Judy and Dennis Shepard stand in front of a portrait of their son, Matthew. Matthew Shepard was honored at a ceremony on Dec. 1, at Washington National Cathedral. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student who was murdered in a 1998 anti-gay hate crime while tied to a fence outside Laramie, Wyo., was to be honored at a ceremony on Thursday, Dec. 1, at Washington National Cathedral dedicating a newly commissioned portrait of Shepard.

Officials at the cathedral said the portrait by artist Kelly Latimore and commissioned by LGBTQ members of the Cathedral staff, is the only artistic image of Matthew Shepard created in collaboration with Shepard’s parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, who were present during the ceremony.

Matthew Shepard’s ashes were interred at the Washington National Cathedral in 2018, 20 years after his death. The Cathedral announced in a statement this week that the Dec. 1 dedication of the Shepard portrait would also take place on what would have been Shepard’s 46th birthday.

A Thanksgiving and Celebration of Matthew Shepard service was held on October 26, 2018 at the Washington National Cathedral. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

“The horrific murders at Club Q in Colorado Springs are a tragic reminder that our LGBTQ friends and family continue to be targeted for who they love, and Matthew Shepard’s legacy reminds us of the urgency to confront bigotry and embrace people of all backgrounds, gender identities and sexual orientations,” said The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral, in a statement.

Events surrounding the portrait dedication began with a 7 a.m. online prayer service “to celebrate and recall Matthew Shepard’s life,” the statement released by the Cathedral says. The service was led by Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay priest to be consecrated as a bishop in the Episcopal Church.

The Cathedral next hosted a preview of the portrait for the news media at 10:30 a.m., where Dennis and Judy Shepard talked about the portrait and their son’s life and the impact his death had on the nation’s understanding of hate crimes.

“It’s amazing how similar and what a great job that Kelly [Latimore] has done to make it look like Matt and showing the essence of Matt,” Dennis Shepard told the Washington Blade while viewing the portrait in the Cathedral’s St. Joseph’s Chapel, where the portrait was on display.

Artist Latimore, who also spoke to reporters during the morning briefing at the chapel, said he was moved in his discussions with Judy and Dennis Shepard while getting ready to begin work on the painting by copies of dozens of letters they sent him that had been sent to the Shepards by people across the country after their son’s death.

Latimore included written excerpts from dozens of those letters as the background to his portrait of Matthew Shepard, which can be seen and read when standing close to the portrait.

Artist Kelly Latimore (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

“Matthew will not be forgotten,” an excerpt from one of the letters on the portrait says.
Dennis and Judy Shepard created the Matthew Shepard Foundation shortly after Matthew’s death, which has been credited with playing a lead role in advocating for the passage by Congress in 2009 of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The measure was the first federal hate crime statute that expanded the coverage of the federal hate crimes law to include a victim’s sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected class.

President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act on Oct. 22, 2009. (Washington Blade archive photo by Michael Key)

The Cathedral was to open its St. Joseph’s Chapel from 2-5 p.m. on Thursday to visitors where the Matthew Shepard portrait was on display. Dennis and Judy Shepard were scheduled to be present to greet visitors.

According to the statement released by the Cathedral, later in the evening at 7 p.m., the portrait was to be officially dedicated in a private service in the Cathedral’s crypt near the site where Shepard’s ashes were interred.

“A longtime supporter of the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the life of the church, the Cathedral considers LGBTQ equality one of the great civil rights issues of the 21st century,” the statement released by the Cathedral says.

One of the two men charged with Matthew Shepard’s murder, Russell Henderson, pleaded guilty to a murder charge in exchange for an agreement by prosecutors not to seek a death sentence. He was sentenced to life in prison.

The other man charged in the murder, Aaron McKinney, pleaded not guilty and went to trial, where he was convicted of murder by a jury. In a dramatic statement before the judge at the conclusion of the trial, Dennis Shepard announced and he and his wife had asked prosecutors and the judge to spare McKinney from being sentenced to death, something he said McKinney did not do while fatally striking his son in the head multiple times with the barrel of a gun after the two men tied him to a fence post in a remote field outside Laramie.

The judge sentenced McKinney to two consecutive life terms in prison without the possibility of parole.

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District of Columbia

Three more LGBTQ ANC candidates declared winners

At least 38 LGBTQ hopefuls elected; outcome for two more uncertain

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There will be a special election to fill the seat of Kent Boese, who withdrew his candidacy but received the most votes.

The number of known LGBTQ candidates who won election to Advisory Neighborhood Commission seats rose from 35 to 38 as the D.C. Board of Elections this week released its final, certified vote count for the Nov. 8 D.C. election.

The 38 winners were among 44 known LGBTQ candidates who ran for ANC seats this year. One of the candidates who emerged as a winner, incumbent James Tandaric of ANC 3F05 in the city’s Van Ness neighborhood, was trailing opponent Andrew Koval by just eight votes when the early vote count was released in the days following the election.

The final vote count that emerged this week shows Tandaric beat Koval by a vote of 258 to 250.

When the early vote count was released in the week after the election, the outcome of four LGBTQ ANC write-in candidates along with all write-in candidates could not be determined until the Board of Elections received a required affidavit of candidacy from the write-in candidates, which was due by Nov. 15.

When the final write-in candidate results were released earlier this week along with the names of the write-in candidates, two of the four LGBTQ write-in candidates emerged as winners, both from the Logan Circle ANC. The two are Christopher Dyer of ANC 2F05 and Matt Fouracre of ANC 2F06.

Another one of the LGBTQ write-in candidates, Charles Panfil of ANC 6E02 in the Mount Vernon Square neighborhood, finished in a tie with another write-in candidate. A spokesperson for the Board of Elections said tie votes in ANC elections are resolved by the drawing of lots. The spokesperson, Nicholas Jacobs, said he couldn’t immediately say when a drawing of the lot would take place.

The race for the fourth LGBTQ write-in candidate, Bradley Gallagher of ANC 1E01 in the city’s Park View neighborhood, could not be determined and a special election for that seat will have to be held, according to the Board of Election. The reason, the elections board said, is longtime gay ANC member Kent Boese, who withdrew his candidacy after it was too late to remove his name from the ballot, received the most votes. “As such, there is no winner for this contest” under the city’s election law, the Board of Elections said.

Elections board spokesperson Jacobs said a special election for that ANC seat will be called, with Gallagher and others who obtain the required number of ballot petition signatures will be allowed to run in the special election.

Boese withdrew his candidacy after he was nominated and subsequently approved by the D.C. Council to become director of the D.C. Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.

If Gallagher were to win in the special election and should Panfil win the drawing of the lot following the tie vote in his race, the total number of known LGBTQ candidates elected to ANC seats would rise to 40, a record number compared to past ANC elections.

There were 33 known LGBTQ ANC candidates who won election in 2020, which was the first year the Washington Blade kept track of the known LGBTQ ANC candidates who ran and won.

A list of the 35 winning LGBTQ ANC candidates known during the week following the Nov. 8 election can be seen here.

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