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Blacklight 4.4

This article appeared in the Blacklight Vol., 4, No. 4.

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Blacklight Home Page

A History of the Gay Movement in

Washington, D.C.


By Melvin Boozer

continued from previous page

We must go beyond the hackneyed shout of "Racism!" in response to everything Whites do. The White agenda reflects a great many things. Racism may indeed be a constant factor, but when it is used as a total explanation, it distorts as much as it clarifies.

There is a very different spirit that animates the White Gay community today. There the emphasis is on consolidation, not innovation. Mayor Barry's successful bid for reelection represents an important turning point in the development of White Gay political clout.

This is not so much because White Gay support was crucial to the outcome of the race, but because of the highly visible and significant role played by White Gay activists in the execution of the campaign.

Of course, Black Gays were also active in Barry's '82 campaign and this involvement has had catalytic affect on the development of Black political consciousness. But, for White Gays, their earlier involvement in the '78 campaign gave their more recent participation a new meaning. The '82 campaign signaled the denouement of their struggle for political change. The had finally joined the establishment.

In 1978, the D.C. Coalition of Black Gays endorsed Sterling Tucker while White Gays were playing a critical role in Marion Barry's campaign. At this point, Barry's Gay supporters could still be called insurgents into mayoral politics. Mayor Washington, Barry's predecessor, had never been very close to the Gay community.

However, by 1982, just four years later, Gays had openly insinuated themselves into almost every level of the Barry Administration-and they had a long list of accomplishments to show for it. Although Barry gained strong support from the Black community in 1982, Black Gays could not point to any significant concessions from the Mayor.

It's easy to forget in the afterglow of a successful campaign, one which has done as much to raise Black hopes as to reassure Whites, that things were once, very different-raids in Lafayette Park, entrapment by the Prostitution, Perversion and Obscenity Squad and SLIP (solicitation for licentious and immoral purposes) arrests. Early activists of the late sixties were confronted by this reality.

The origins of Gay power in Washington are associated with early efforts to deal with these kinds of issues, long before Barry was ever heard of. The continued development of Gay political clout is also associated with a cornucopia of successes in the city council and the school board as well. It is misleading to suppose that Gays owe their present state of comfort and security exclusively to Marion Barry.

Nevertheless, the close association of some Gay leaders with the Barry establishment in recent years has had a subtle but pervasive effect over the Gay political agenda. It has meant the earlier and broader priorities of Gay activists have been gradually displaced by an increasing preoccupation with the refinement of the Barry machine itself, and especially their entrenchment with it.

The early years of Gay activism in Washington must be traced back to at least the founding the Mattachine Society by Franklin Kameny, who was fired from his job with the federal government in 1957 because he was homosexual. After fighting his case unsuccessfully to the Supreme Court, he became interested in founding a group in Washington with the encouragement of the Mattachine Society of New York.

In 1961, the group held its first meeting and began to address a variety of issues from police entrapment to military discrimination. Perhaps its most significant contribution centered around an intense philosophical debate as to whether homosexuals should defer to a variety of experts to decide whether or not homosexuality was "normal." Kameny was vehemently opposed to any suggestion that Gay people were "sick."

Even before the Stonewall revolt of 1969, the Mattachine Society had participated in demonstrations in Independence Square in Philadelphia and in demonstrations in front of the White House, protesting the denial of civil rights to Gays. Such demonstrations by Gays were, at that time, unprecedented. But after Stonewall, the annual Philadelphia protest never occurred again.

Instead, Stonewall has been commemorated annually ever since. A short time after Stonewall a new group, calling themselves the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) emerged in New York. It inspired the founding in Washington of a similar group, bearing the same name, the following year when local Gays who had participated in the first Stonewall commemoration decided to organize.

The early years of Gay activism in Washington, between the Stonewall Revolt and the founding of the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) in 1971, were marked by a concern for increasing public understanding of alternative lifestyles, and by a militant style which has long since been replaced by a quieter and more accommodating tone.

For GLF, the term "alternative lifestyle" included transvestites transsexuals, bisexuals and interracial love. Many of the members of GLF were unconventional in appearance and manner. They had a strong distaste for conventional political activity.

Their tactics were dramatic, and sometimes disruptive. They participated in the uproar that forced the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. However, GLF was a byproduct of the "flower children."

It was composed of peace activists, anarchists, socialists, and disaffected middle-class youth who preferred government by consensus over government by hierarchy or majority rule. Actions were usually limited to smaller groups of people who were interested in specific topics. This was how the first Gay men's venereal disease clinic-predecessor of today's Whitman-Walker clinic-was founded.

But GLF's visceral rejection of mainstream politics in favor of a somewhat mystical and apocalyptic visions of social change, doomed it to failure in a city then committed to "business as usual."

When GAA was formed in 1971, the agenda was redefined to emphasize the extension of institutional protection to Gays by working within the framework of conventional political activity and social appearance. The GAA's agenda did not exclude direct action nor a concern for Blacks and women.

Nevertheless, GAA developed early on a pronounced preference for legislative and electoral reform and a distaste for unconventional manner and appearance. This formula was successful in attracting a new cadre of activists-professional, middle-class, Gay White males.

This group was-and is career minded, highly conventional and politically astute. GAA rapidly created an impressive track record in the school board and the city council. Its early successes laid the groundwork for the founding of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club in 1976.

After Arrington Dixon because chair of the City council, he introduced a piece of legislation which marked a turning point in Gay political fortunes. Without consultation, he wrote into a no-fault divorce bill language which would have allowed same-sex marriage.

However, the idea for such a law had been implanted earlier by GAA when it raised this issue on a questionnaire sent to political candidates. The bill touched off a storm of protests from the religiously community and was subsequently withdrawn. But the episode caused GAA to become much more cautious in its approach to legislation.

From my notes and conversations, I have amassed a small catalogue of grievances which purport to represent the actual history of Black/White relations in our community.

While there is a remarkable unanimity on most of the issues, differences do arise with respect to who is responsible for what is generally conceded to be a sorry state of affairs.

While it is apparent in recent years that a vigorous assault on racial discrimination has not been uppermost in the minds of White Gay leaders, it is equally apparent that these practices could not possibly have persisted without the acquiescence, however anguished, of the Black Gay community itself.

I suspect that the inability to act against these practices in the past resulted from a failure of Blacks to decide collectively whether their priorities lie with this issue of with their relationship with the larger Black community whose homophobia is just as real as it ever was. When the history of the past ten years is examined in this context, the recent "visibility" of Blacks can be seen in perspective.

The priorities of Black Gays cannot be fairly evaluated by the standards of a White agenda. Now that there seems to be, at least for the moment, some overlap between Black and White political goals, White Gays have developed a remarkable ability to "see" Blacks.

But the convergence of Black and White Gays on the candidacy of Marion Barry for his second term nay not be enough to sustain an enduring working relationship.