April 17, 1965: Frank Kameny Leads First “Homosexual” Protest At The White House

On April 17th, 1965  Dr. Frank Kameny, along with gay rights pioneer Jack Nichols, who co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, DC  bravely led the first “homosexual rights” protest at the White House at a time when being gay and lesbian was viewed as an abomination and evil in this country.

The Mattachine Society fought for the equal treatment of gay employees in the federal government, the repeal of sodomy laws, and the removal of homosexuality as a mental disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s manual of mental disorders..

Ten MSW members along with members of the Daughters of Bilitis picketed in front of the White House against Cuban and the US governments repression of homosexuals.

The group also included:  Gail Johnson,  Gene Kleeberg, Judith Kuch, Paul Kuntzler, Perrin Shaffer, Jon Swanson, Otto Ulrich, Lilli Vincenz (editor of MSW’s quarterly).

Of the protest, Jack Nichols wrote “Never before had gay people as an organized group paraded openly for our rights.”

Nichols recalls:

The picket took place during mid-afternoon. It was the Saturday before Easter, and tourists walked the downtown streets. Lige [Clarke], driving the convertible, took me to the White House curb and helped me unload signs. Then he drove off to work the afternoon shift at the Pentagon. Gail arrived at the site on the back seat of Ray’s motorcycle.It was agreed I should lead the picket line. The reason for this was that I was tall and an all-American sort. Also, I suppose, because I’d conceived the event. Frank Kameny marched behind me and Lilli Vincenz behind him …

As we marched, I looked about at our well-dressed little band. Kameny had insisted that we seven men must wear suits and ties, and the women, dresses and heels. New Yorkers later complained that we Washingtonians looked like a convention of undertakers, but given the temper of the times, Kameny’s insistence was apropos. “If you’re asking for equal employment rights,” he intoned, “look employable!” In the staid nation’s capital, dressing for the occasion was, in spite of New York critics, proper.

We paraded in a small circle. Behind lampposts stood unknown persons photographing us. Were they government agents? Perrin and Otto wore sunglasses so absolute identification would be difficult should they fall prey to security investigations. We walked for an hour that passed, as I’d predicted, without incident. A few tourists gawked and there were one or two snickers, more from confusion than from prejudice.

We’d hoped for more publicity than we got. Only The Afro-American carried a small item about what we’d done. But we’d done it, and that was what mattered. We’d stood up against the power structure, putting our bodies on the line. Nothing had happened except that we’d been galvanized, and, to a certain extent, immunized against fear.”

The Mattachine Society protest was not welcomed by the mainstream gay movement of the time.  The more conservative leaders of the gay movement felt picketing would draw adverse publicity and even greater hostility. (Which sounds very familiar to what we hear today from some LGBT rights groups.)

The Mattachine Society’s protest of the White House, along with the Stonewall Riots are among  the most significant events in LGBT History. But sadly as we look at the pictures and read the slogans on the picket signs of our LGBT activist forefathers I realize many of the slogans on these signs could still be carried in protest today.

In 2009 I wrote an article for Cincinnati CityBeat  the Queen City’s alternative newspaper called Reason To Rally where I offered an explanation of why I believe the momentum of our fight for equality has stalled to a snail’s pace

Since then, (the Stonewall riots) the cause for Equality has undertaken many different forms.

An angry queer in a T-shirt and jeans might have symbolized the gay activism of the 1970s, but the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s caused a significant change in approach.

By the end of the 90’s gay advocacy became symbolized by well groomed and overpaid white people sitting on boards, issuing press releases, asking for contributions and hosting fabulous galas instead of multitudes taking to the streets and demanding our rights

We now donate instead of protest. We sign countless petitions and then sit behind our computers and bitch and moan about our oppression instead of doing something about it ourselves.

Our cause has been splintered, fragmented and hijacked into piecemeal specific issues such as gay marriage, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act instead of what we should be doing: standing together as one and fighting for and demanding federal recognition and protections in toto

Now with the push of “religious liberty” laws like those in North Carolina and Mississippi by those who hate that are being used to roll back the rights we have fought so hard in the past to earn we MUST ALL protestors and   those angry queers, dykes, bisexuals, and trannies in tees shirts once again. We must  stand together and fight the hatred and bigotry that we deal with everyday and let them know that we’ll no longer accept being treated as second-class citizens and let them spread lies and propaganda about us and our lives.

Too many years have passed and too many of our LGBT friends have left us without knowing what true equality is.

We must ALL stand up and start fighting again.

We must not only fight  for ourselves and those in out community but also for the memory of those who bravely began this fight and are no longer here and left this world without achieving equality.

We must achive that goal for them, for us, and those who will come after us.

This is still our time.  This is still our fight.

Will Kohler

Will Kohler is a noted LGBT historian, writer, blogger and owner of Back2Stonewall.com. A longtime gay activist, Will fought on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic with ACT-UP and continues fighting today for LGBT acceptance and full equality. Will’s work has been referenced in notable media venues as MSNBC and BBC News, The Washington Post, The Advocate, The Daily Beast, Hollywood Reporter, Raw Story, and The Huffington Post

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4 Responses

  1. The Full Monte says:

    This is an excellent indictment against the LGBT community. We have become complacent and comfortable in our place, set for us by legislators and society. It's time once again for some good old fashioned civil disobedience. Groups like QUEER RISING and others can't be expected to do all the "dirty work", it's sad to me to see a call to action sent by QR or another activist group for US to show up and only a handful of US show. We have to get back to that same mentality of the Stonewall uprising and the Mattachine group that we'll not be silent and complacent, but instead be LOUD AND PROUD!

  2. Excellent article! Jack was a good friend and my friend, Paul D. Cain, and I are in the process of editing Jack Nichols posthumous memoirs which are scheduled to be released on December 1, 2012. I hope people will buy it and read it and perhaps it will ignite the fire in our community again.

    Part of the problem is the “instant gratification” of the internet. Put up a petition and POOF! You’re an instant activist by signing it! Or at least that’s what many people believe.

    The other part of the problem is that the HRC and the NGLTF are shoving our community toward tiny bits and pieces of equality but not total equality and that’s because if they dared to guide us toward total equality their directors would lose their six-figure jobs if we achieved it, wouldn’t they?

    We have a brainwashed LGBT community who have become “sheeple” and we desperately need to change them into individuals who need to think for themselves.

    We have much work to do and a lot of education within our own community.

  1. March 27, 2014

    […] third secondary source that I will be pulling information from is an article written about the first LGBT rights protest in front of the White House lead by Frank Kamery on April 17th, 1965. The article includes a […]

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