September 13, 2017 at 3:00 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Cliff Witt, early D.C. gay rights strategist, dies at 77
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.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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