Forty-five years after it was founded in January 1976, members of D.C.’s Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city’s largest local LGBTQ political group, voted in a Zoom meeting on Feb. 8 to change its name to the Capital Stonewall Democrats.
The vote came seven months after the club’s members came to a consensus at their July 2020 virtual meeting that the name should be changed and formed an ad hoc committee to propose a selection of new names.
Among the reasons some members gave for changing the name was that some historians have reported that Gertrude Stein, an American expatriate writer and artist living in France beginning in the early 1920s and who was widely known as a lesbian “married” to her lover Alice B. Toklas, allegedly became a Nazi sympathizer during World War II when the Germans occupied France.
Longtime gay Democratic activist Paul Kuntzler, who was one of the Stein Club’s co-founders in 1976, disputes claims that Stein was a Nazi sympathizer. Kuntzler said Stein was widely known as being Jewish. He cited people familiar with Stein who have reported Stein was protected by some of the many French friends she and Toklas had, at least one of whom was part of the German installed French government during the war years.
Kuntzler said he strongly opposes changing the club’s name, saying a new name would take away the club’s identity as an important LGBTQ Democratic Party organization for over 40 years. He said that in 1976, he proposed the Stein name as a counterpart to the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club of San Francisco, which was founded in 1971 as the nation’s first LGBTQ Democratic club.
Kuntzler, 79, who holds the status as one of two living honorary lifetime members of the club, appears to be the only member to speak out against a name change. Richard Maulsby, one of the other founding members, has said he favored changing the club’s name.
Former Stein Club president Earl Fowlkes, who served as co-chair of the ad hoc committee that deliberated over the selection of a new name for the club, said that while some club members were concerned about Stein’s alleged role as a Nazi sympathizer, he believes most club members considered the Stein name to be outdated and not reflective of the club’s role as an advocate for LGBTQ rights in the 21st century.
“A lot of people, especially the younger ones and the new members to D.C. felt that the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club did not really let them know it was LGBTQ,” Fowlkes said. “So, having a Democratic Club named after Gertrude Stein doesn’t make any sense on a number of levels,” he said.
“It doesn’t undo the history of Gertrude Stein in Washington, D.C., which is a rich history,” Fowlkes said in discussing the name change. “And that history continues with the new name. It’s still the same club with a different name.”
The question of whether the Stein Club’s name should be changed “was settled with the vote to do so at the July 13, 2020 General Body Meeting,” club president Jatarious Frazier told the Blade in a Feb. 1 email describing the club’s process for changing its name. Frazier said the committee then moved forward with recommendations for several possible new names.
“Following a unanimous vote on the proposed name, the committee decided to move forward and have the Renaming Committee co-chairs present the proposed names for a vote at the January [club] meeting,” Frazier said in his email. He said the committee voted to approve and present the name Capital Stonewall Democrats, a “name that is both reflective of who we are as an organization and is also indicative of the community we serve,” Frazier told the Blade.
He said the committee also proposed three other possible names, the Marsha P. Johnson Democratic Club, named after the black transgender woman and LGBTQ activist who was said to have played a role in New York’s Stonewall riots; DC Pride Dems; and the Lavender Legacy Democratic Club.
At the request of former club president Monika Nemeth, club members decided at the January meeting to invite the membership, many of whom were not present at the January meeting, to vote on the four proposed names by email through an email ballot sent to the members. The ballots were sent out on Feb. 1, with a Feb. 8 deadline set for club members to submit their votes via email.
At the Feb. 8 Zoom membership meeting, club vice president for administration Heidi Ellis announced that the Capital Stonewall Democrats name came in first place, with 58.3 percent of the vote out of a total of 84 votes cast. But she said the vote did not meet a two-thirds vote threshold needed to complete the name change. The DC Pride Dems name came in second place, with 21.4 percent of the vote.
At Ellis’s request, club members agreed to hold a runoff election between the top two vote-getters at the Monday night, Feb. 8 meeting. Following a voice vote, Ellis declared Capital Stonewall Democrats the winner. No one could be heard voting against that name.
At the conclusion of the vote Frazier said the club’s officers would immediately begin changing the club’s website and other documents and city agency registrations to reflect the new name.
Although the name change is one of the most significant actions the club has taken in years, no one talked about the name change before or after the vote other than to discuss the mechanics of the vote. Instead, the focus of the meeting was on two guest speakers. One, newly elected D.C. Council member and LGBTQ ally Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), praised the club’s decision to change its name and gave a presentation on the Council’s legislative agenda for 2021, which includes at least two LGBTQ-related bills.
The other speaker, longtime D.C. black gay activist Christopher Prince, gave a presentation on Black History Month that focused on the history of D.C.’s black LGBTQ community and its numerous leaders in politics and arts and literature.