"... the Washington Area Gay Community Council has published this directory to show just how much the gay communities of two major metropolitan areas really offer to people who seek a fuller gay life."
- dedication of Just Us, January 1975
Fifty years ago, the Army Mapping Service's investigation of astronomer Dr. Franklin E. Kameny's homosexuality prompted an unprecedented reaction by Kameny. Kameny's fight against dismissal from federal employment led over the next four years to legal action all the way to the Supreme Court and to the creation of a new gay activism and the first gay community institutions in Washington, DC.
Community springs from a feeling of commonality – of oppression, of shared values, or of shared experiences. Social institutions reinforce, perhaps even create, a sense of community. But community requires people to create and sustain it. The photo portraits displayed here celebrate the men and women who sowed the seeds of that community. They have created new institutions and organizations, revitalized existing ones, led social and political campaigns, and made a place for our community in Washington, DC's wider community.
1975's Just Us, the first guide to Washington, DC's gay community, celebrated a community that had exploded into being in less than a decade. Just Us listed nearly sixty community organizations, including social spots. Fewer than ten had existed five years earlier.
Washington's gay community had no lengthy history of slowly evolving institutions. The community of homosexuals existed in the shadows, ostracized and persecuted by the society around them, with jobs and housing at jeopardy. Most men and women socialized in 'safe' restaurants and clubs. They created house parties for themselves and held private events where they could.
Until gay and lesbian individuals felt secure enough to be 'out' to themselves and the public, organizations didn't form. The sense of release and self-affirmation that launched the 1970s for local gays grew from the social turmoil of the late 1960s. It animated a remarkable group of men and women who set about organizing to provide for all of the needs of their community.
Like gardens, communities require constant attention, work, and nurturing. Like gardeners, the pioneers who plant and tend the community are rare individuals. The men and women who created the gay community's media, health, social, religious, business, and political organizations were and are pioneers. As such, they served as role models for many who came after them. In the first years of a publicly gay presence in Washington, DC, the early community pioneers broke the ground that others have tilled since then.
In the summer of 1961, Alan Kress, better known to his friends as 'Liz Taylor', created the city's first organization for female impersonators, known today as the Washington Academy. Initially a social organization, Kress's group grew to become a support system for the drag community, mounting social events, mentoring newcomers, and providing safe opportunities for members to practice the arts of illusion.
In November 1961, Dr. Franklin E. Kameny and Jack Nichols founded the city's first gay civil rights organization, the Mattachine Society of Washington (MSW), a group which redefined the goals and tactics of gay activism. They proclaimed and lived their slogan "Gay is Good". MSW generated unprecedented publicity for the city's gay men and women. Its growing visibility, its outreach to clergy, and its public demonstrations laid the groundwork for others. Local and national media took note of a new tone in gay activism.
In the last years of the 1960s, as gay activists proclaimed "Gay is Good", the city's gay men organized the first motorcycle club, the Spartans (1968). Bar owners increasingly pushed social and legal restrictions on drinking and dancing (although legally there were no bars in Washington; only restaurants that served liquor). Joanna's, a women's bar on 8th St. SE, opened the first dance floor for same-sex dancing. Others followed. Students at Howard University formed The Group of Washington, one of the first black gay social clubs.
Mattachine published the Homosexual Citizen and The Insider and the Guild Press published homosexually-oriented material on 8th St. SE. The first gay discos had opened at Plus One and Zodiac Den. In October 1969, Nancy Tucker and Bart Wenger (aka Art Stone) first published The Gay Blade. The community had news, a few organizations, and men on motorcycles.
In the first years of the 1970s, DC's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer (LGBTQ) community created:
By the time the first National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights and the Third World Conference came to town in 1979, there was a community. Not a finished one, or even a complete one, but a thriving one. In those ten years, community pioneers secured civil rights protections from the DC school board and government, ran the first 'out' candidate for Congress, began fighting racist and sexist discrimination within and without the community, fought off Anita Bryant and anti-gay resolutions, confronted Howard and Georgetown universities over their refusal to recognize student groups, saw gay men and lesbians appointed and elected to political offices, established medical facilities to take care of community needs, brought an end to harassment and entrapment by the Metropolitan Police Department (and even gave them sensitivity training!), and created a vibrant social and artistic life for themselves and the community.
In another ten years, community pioneers and those they inspired refined and broadened many of these early institutions. Women created more alternatives to the bar scene. Racist and sexist carding was brought to an end. The gay community woke up to AIDS in its midst and created a wide range of health and social support services.
In the 1990s, Washington, DC's ethnic gay communities put down their own roots in the ever-expanding community. Medical, religious, and political institutions matured. Gay men and women gained acceptance as political candidates in society at large.
Beginning with the exhilarating sense of liberation following the June 1969 Stonewall ‘Riots’, and the support of non-gay community organizations encouraged gay men and lesbians did not simply “come out of the closet, into the street” but they built a community capable of playing an active part in all aspects of Washington, DC’s life. Gay and lesbian veterans of the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s were also experienced in the counterculture’s creation of ‘alternative’ social structures and institutions. As it became clear that existing social organizations in the wider community were not attuned to the needs of gay men and lesbians or particularly welcoming, LGBTQ pioneers organized.
New organizations needed to make themselves known and needed places to meet. The creation of The Gay Blade in October 1969 provided an essential communications medium for announcing new organizations and for recruiting new participants. In the Dupont Circle area, local collectives such as the Gay Liberation House at 1620 S Street NW and the Community Building at 1724 20th Street NW provided space. Deacon Maccubbin, whose Earthworks shop and later Lambda Rising bookstore were located in the Community Building, saw to it that fledgling groups found meeting space in the building. On Capitol Hill, the city’s first LGBTQ bookstore, Lammas, offered space for meetings and social events. The Gay Activist Alliance/DC’s community center (1972 -1973) on 13th St.. NW was conceived as a meeting and social space for the community.
One consequence of the Mattachine Society of Washington’s outreach to local clergy in the 1960s was the willingness of churches and synagogues to support new gay and lesbian community groups. Among local Episcopal and Unitarian congregations Grace Episcopal (“Amazing Grace”), St.. Margaret’s, St.. Mark’s, and All Souls hosted gay and lesbian organizations’ meetings. First Congregational provided a home for the newly formed gay congregation from the early 1970s. The Friends Meeting provided space for lesbian and feminist groups, including Rising Women’s coffeehouse.
Though some local universities resisted (among them Howard University and Georgetown University) others sanctioned gay student organizations which gave community groups access not just to meeting space but to large auditoriums and halls for social events. American University provided not just a meeting space but a place for gay activists coming to DC to stay. George Washington University’s Gay People’s Alliance secured use of the Marvin Center for dances and the popular Showstoppers revue. At the University of Maryland, the Gay Students Alliance found space for a weekly coffeehouse.
None of this tremendous surge of community building would have been possible without the energy and vision of a remarkable population of men and women dedicated to creating the particular institutions for which we remember them. Some are original creators. Others revitalized or invigorated already existing organizations. Some created the social, economic, and political conditions that enabled others to succeed.
When we pause to admire the flourishing contemporary gay community in Washington, DC, it is important to remember how much work went into creating it. In recognizing the Community Pioneers, Rainbow History honors their commitment, creativity, and hard work and reminds the entire Washington community of those efforts. Rainbow History also honors them as role models for the contemporary community.
Many of Washington, DC’s LGBTQ Community Pioneers have passed away. Others have moved away. In future years, Rainbow History will add their stories to the list of Community Pioneers.
We invite you to meet and honor our Community Pioneers. Without them, we wouldn’t have a community offering, as Just Us stated in 1975, “a fuller gay life.”