A Brief History of (D.C.) Activism
By Jonathan Padget
30 Years of the GLAA
Thursday, April 12, 2001
"There are no shortcuts to freedom."
You'll find those words on the website of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance GLAA. Although they're offered in response to one specific question about GLAA policy, they handily capture the very essence of the organization fighting for gay and lesbian rights in the District of Columbia for three decades.
A 30-year anniversary doesn't come easy for any grassroots community organization, much less one born in the often-chaotic early days of modern gay and lesbian activism following the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. Yet GLAA takes pride in a consistent presence in D.C. since its 1971 founding as GAA the Gay Activists Alliance. Accordingly, it lays claim not only to being the city's oldest gay and lesbian civil rights organization, but also the nation's oldest continuously active one.
Kameny for Congress
In 1970, D.C. residents gay and straight had little political voice in civic affairs. Home Rule, with a mayor and council elected by popular vote, was still four long years away. But Congress had decided to allow D.C. citizens to elect a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives the following year. A handful of local gay and lesbian activists recognized the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to step into the the District's new political landscape and raise issues that mainstream candidates would not.
So in 1971, with the help of busloads of members from the GAA of New York, volunteers blanketed the city to gather the 7,000 signatures needed to place Frank Kameny on the March ballot. Fired from his civil service job in the late '50s for homosexuality, Kameny had braved the 1960s at the barren forefront of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement with the Mattachine Society.
Filing with the D.C. Board of Elections as an independent candidate, Kameny was the first openly gay person to run for national office. He declared: "This campaign represents the first organized effort by the homosexual community to enter the political arena firsthand, in our own behalf. It will be a formidable group to be reckoned with."
Kameny garnered nearly 1,900 votes finishing fourth in a field of six candidates. Emboldened by election publicity and results, Kameny and five campaign workers manager Paul Kuntzler, assistant Cliff Witt, press secretary Joel Martin, David Livingston and Jim McClard decided to form a permanent organization like New York's GAA.
It was April 20, 1971. The group dedicated itself to securing the "full rights and privileges of citizenship for the gay community through peaceful participation in the political process." And so the GAA of D.C. was born.
Highlights and Low Points
GAA began honing its election skills candidate forums and ratings with the 1971 D.C. School Board race. With GAA's influence, the board passed a resolution in 1972 prohibiting discrimination within the school system based on sexual orientation. It was the first school board in the nation to do so. Likewise, GAA influenced the appointed D.C. Council to include gays and lesbians in the city's 1973 human rights ordinance Title 34 that protects citizens from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations. Washington was the first major American city to do so.
But early successes came at a high internal price. "It was pretty intense in the beginning," recalls Craig Howell, who joined GAA in mid-1973. "I asked Frank years later, 'How come I never saw you in my first six months?' He said, 'Well frankly, I thought the group wasn't going to survive.'"
Howell knew GAA had a "rocky start" before his involvement. "There were four presidents in '72," says Howell. "There was an embezzlement situation and all kinds of things. There was high 'infant mortality' with groups in those days -- they came and went very quickly."
Early GAA members also put themselves in precarious situations to make gains that over time have come to be taken for granted. "A lot of the things we did in those first years were very confrontational," says Cliff Witt. "If there was some gay issue going on in a courthouse, or anywhere, we would be there protesting and the police were not nice to us."
Although Witt remembers such protests being organized in "a very formal way," with preselected volunteers for arrest and such, he says, "Fear and trepidation were always there. There was always a danger of physical violence. It could come down to pushing and shoving and getting beat up."
Police issues were high on GAA's early agenda, after two decades of systemic harassment of gays through the department's Prostitution, Perversion & Obscenity (PPO) squad. Witt paints a vivid picture of the drastic steps GAA members took at one point when PPO entrapment efforts in the P Street Beach park were particularly bad.
"We set up a very elaborate and complicated scheme to take a picture of a cop exposing himself in the park," Witt says. "The real brave ones with the cameras were in the park with the cops, and a team of boys were up on the bridges above the park. The idea was that the boys with the cameras were going to take the picture, run like hell, and throw the camera to the guys on the bridge [and they] would run like hell to this restaurant in Georgetown where our ACLU lawyers were waiting for us.
"That was a very exciting night. The only bad news was that the cops didn't do any exposing that time, so we were disappointed and we never got the picture." GAA also took a radical approach in opposing the American Psychiatric Association (APA) classification of homosexuality as a mental illness, a position finally abandoned in 1973. In its first activity after forming, GAA members teamed up with other gay activists for what Kameny calls an "invasion" of the APA's 1971 annual convention at Washington's Shoreham Hotel.
Kameny credits Witt for the logistical plan that involved stealthily hiding in nearby hills before infiltrating the convention hall where some 2,000 psychiatrists were assembled. The activists entered the hall to disrupt the meeting and seize the microphone, although things went slightly awry.
Kameny, already in attendance by invitation, was not designated to speak for the activists. But as Witt and others took the stage, they were attacked by several angry psychiatrists wielding medals they had just been awarded. They soon found themselves pushed out of fire exits which, of course, can't be opened from the outside.
So as they scurried all the way to the front of the huge hotel, Kameny stepped up and reached for the microphone from the startled moderator, who demanded to know what he was doing. "I'm seizing the microphone," came Kameny's obvious answer. The moderator, giving up, replied, "Well, tell me your name and I'll introduce you."
By 1972, Witt found himself burned out and left GAA for other community pursuits. Asked if he would do anything differently, Witt pauses, then chuckles as he says, "No why miss all the fun? And it was fun, but sometimes you don't know it's fun until it's over."
Martin moved on after a few years as well to less chaotic pursuits. "My heart and my soul are with all of these movements," Martin, also anti-Vietnam War demonstrator, says wistfully. "Without the '60s and '70s and all of the things that went on, there would not be change in this country."
"If anybody had ever said to us at that time," says Martin, "'This is where you'll be 20 or 30 years from now,' we never would have believed them."
"We Never Looked Back."
GAA found itself on firmer footing under the leadership of the late Bob Carpenter, president for the 1973-74 term. "What really got us going was the elections of 1974 the first ones under Home Rule," says Howell. "Everything was up for grabs council seats, mayor. A lot of people came into GAA realizing there was going to be an election. We suddenly went from meeting on Bob's living room couch, four or five people at most, to two or three times as many. We rated all the candidates, Home Rule came in, and we never looked back."
Howell, who refers to himself as the "Grover Cleveland of GLAA," served two presidential terms, 1975-76 and 1999-2000. Howell recalls something of a "golden age" in the early days of Home Rule that coincided with his first term, as GAA found the first elected D.C. Council members to be responsive to gay and lesbian issues of the day.
In 1975, the council voted to eliminate funding for the Police Department's reviled PPO squad and instead earmarked $50,000 for the Gay Men's Venereal Disease Clinic now the Whitman-Walker Clinic. Mayor Walter Washington also responded to GAA concerns about gay and lesbian community representation on the city's Human Rights Commission by naming Kameny to a post with that body. It was another milestone for D.C. the first openly gay city appointee.
"The issue that slowed us down was gay marriage," Howell says. "People think it's amazing that back in '75 we had a gay marriage bill. But D.C. Council member Arrington Dixon came along with a no-fault divorce bill that, among other things, would have allowed same-sex couples to marry. We testified for it before the Council, and it seemed like it was going to go through. Then the churches got wind of it, and they read the riot act to the Council members. We had to retreat on that issue." GAA turned its attention to lobbying for a provision in the 1976 version of a D.C. marriage and divorce bill prohibiting sexual orientation from being considered in child custody and visitation rights cases.
GAA fought to protect the 1977 codification of D.C.'s pre-Home Rule human rights ordinance from proposed anti-gay amendments, and the gay and lesbian community's ever-increasing political viability led to a significant role in Marion Barry's upset mayoral victory in 1978. In his first term, Barry with input from GAA's Mayoral Appointments Project named over 20 openly gay and lesbian citizens to civic posts, more than any other jurisdiction in the country.
"We Were Achieving Miracles..."
Subsequent years brought more watersheds on issues championed by GAA changed to GLAA in 1986 either singlehandedly or in active coalition with other organizations. In 1979, the D.C. Council banned initiatives and referenda which could restrict D.C.'s human rights ordinance. Sodomy law reform was passed by the Council in 1981 only to be overturned by Congress. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council agreed in 1983 after three years of GAA lobbying to include homosexuals in its chronicle of Nazi persecution being planned for the Holocaust museum on the National Mall.
The D.C. Council passed hate crimes legislation in 1990 although it took activists four additional years to ensure full implementation by the Police Department. Domestic partnership legislation was approved by the Council in 1992. Sodomy law reform finally passed in 1993 with language crafted by Kameny, "30 years, 1 month, 5 days and approximately 11 hours," Kameny says, after he first began crusading for it.
Other areas of focus have included suburban political organizing, anti-gay violence, outreach through print and broadcast media, improving police relations, condom availability in schools and prisons, opposing Congressional interference with Home Rule, AIDS funding and services, workplace policy, fair treatment by emergency service providers, adult entertainment regulation, and harassment in the military and school system.
Serving two terms between 1986 and 1988, Lorri L. Jean is generally considered the all-volunteer organization's first active female president. "We were achieving miracles on a $15,000 annual budget back then," Jean says. "We were doing a little bit of everything. It was often very draining because it was like a full-time job. But the work was so rewarding when we would have the victories."
Looking back on her tenure, Jean is proud that "membership grew substantially, and the number of women grew exponentially." Jean felt that the organization didn't seem to be "exclusively a male organization, but close." So her first presidential act was to see that the organization's name was changed to include the word "lesbian."
"We were doing something that was making a difference, literally changing the world, and even saving lives as the AIDS epidemic began to hit," Jean says. "That was important, heady stuff."
"The Price of Freedom Is Eternal Vigilance."
After a recent GLAA meeting, several members stayed to reflect on the organization's accomplishments and future direction. "We've made substantial progress toward achieving the basic things we want, except marriage," says Rick Rosendall, vice president for political affairs. That progress, many feel, has changed GLAA's primary role from protest group to watchdog.
Kameny agrees: "The big issues have been addressed and won, but endless brush fires have come along." It's the "brush fires," and the "tweaking of legislation already in place," as president Bob Summersgill puts it, that should necessitate GLAA's existence for 30 more years or even longer.
Former officer Barrett Brick is reminded of the anecdote about Benjamin Franklin returning home from the Constitutional Convention. "Well, Mr. Franklin," asks his landlady, "what have you given us a monarchy or a republic?" "A republic," Franklin said, "if you can keep it."
"No matter how good we have it here," Brick says, "and no matter how good we continue to see that it gets here, we'll still need a very active, engaged lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community and friends making sure we keep what we have here for future generations."
Summersgill prefers the words of Thomas Jefferson: "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."
"We will be here for another 30 years," says Summersgill, "staying vigilant."
GLAA will hold its 30th Anniversary Reception on April 19 from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at Jurys Washington Hotel. Minimum donation is $50. For additional information about the reception and other activities, call 202-667-5139 or visit www.glaa.org on the web.