Frank Kameny Leads White House Picket

Pioneering gay rights activist Frank Kameny led the first organized White House picket for gay rights on April 17, 1965 with the Mattachine Society of Washington (MSW). Kameny, a brilliant astronomer with a PhD from Harvard, had been fired from the Army Map Service in 1957 because he was gay. Fighting against this injustice, Kameny took his case to court, and in 1961 became the first person to petition the Supreme Court with a discrimination claim based on sexual orientation. The day after the Supreme Court declined to hear his petition, Frank Kameny contacted the Mattachine Society of New York, one of the earliest gay rights groups in the U.S., and asked for advice on starting a Washington chapter.

The Second Largest Minority. Lilli Vincenz, filmmaker, July 4, 1968. Lilli M. Vincenz Collection. National Screening Room. Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Division

The Mattachine Society was originally founded in California in 1950, and grew to become one of the most prominent  groups in the U.S. homophile movement. The homophile movement refers to the period of LGBTQ+ activism and organizing before Stonewall, roughly dating from the end of World War II to 1970.

Frank Kameny co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington in 1961 with Jack Nichols. The idea to picket had been discussed prior to 1965, but when Mattachine members learned from an April 16 (1965) New York Times article that Cuba was planning to put gay people into labor camps, they saw an opportunity to act. Since there was no Cuban embassy in DC in 1965, Nichols suggested they picket the White House, and they organized the protest overnight.

Information Bulletin. The Mattachine Society of Washington, 1965. Frank Kameny Papers, Box 80. Manuscript Division

There were a number of influential homophile activists at the April 1965 White House Picket. Lilli Vincenz, whose papers are housed at the Library of Congress, was the only lesbian to attend the picket.  Activist Paul Kuntzler and Library of Congress employee Otto Ulrich also attended. Notably, Ulrich didn’t march but held coats instead, as he was afraid of losing his federal job at the Library.

Feeling emboldened with the relative success of the first picket (nobody was injured or arrested, as they feared), Kameny and the Mattachine Society of Washington then held similar pickets in 1965, again at the White House (May 29 and October 23), at the Pentagon (July 31), the State Department (August 28), and the United States Civil Service Commission (June 26). The pickets then moved beyond Washington, D.C.

Picketing Becomes a National Strategy

From 1965-1969, the Mattachine Society of Washington worked with the East Coast Homophile Organizations (E.C.H.O.) to organize an annual July 4th “Reminder Day Picket,” at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  E.C.H.O (later reformed as E.R.C.H.O) was founded in 1962 as an organization of East coast homophile groups. After the Stonewall Uprising in June 1969,  E.R.C.H.O  voted to turn their attention to organizing for Christopher Street Liberation Day 1970.

Gay and Proud. Lilli Vincenz, filmmaker, 1970. Lilli M. Vincenz Collection. National Screening Room. Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Division.

Lilli Vincenz produced the short documentary, “Gay and Proud,” which features rare footage of the first Pride march, Christopher Street Liberation Day 1970. In this film, you can see legendary activists like Sylvia Rivera dancing (1:51) and Frank Kameny marching with the Mattachine Society of Washington. Kameny marched with a sign bearing the phrase he coined, “Gay is Good.” Reflecting on his experience at this first Pride march in 1970, Kameny noted that:

…it was a direct lineal descendant of our ten frightened little people in front of the White House, almost exactly five years before

Cervini, Eric. The deviant’s war: the homosexual vs. the United States of America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. p.343

Frank Kameny continued to be an influential activist for the rest of his life.  In 2009, more than 50 years after they had fired him for being gay, the Federal Government officially apologized to Kameny and recognized him with the prestigious Theodore Roosevelt Award. Kameny passed away at age 86 on October 11, 2011, on National Coming Out Day.

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Thornton Wilder

Thornton Niven Wilder was born April 17, 1897, in Madison, Wisconsin. Arguably one of the greatest playwrights of the twentieth century, Wilder is the only writer to win Pulitzer Prizes for both literature and drama.

Son of a U.S. diplomat, Wilder spent part of his childhood in China. After serving in the U.S. Army Coast Artillery Corps during World War I, he earned his B.A. at Yale University in 1920. Six years later, his first novel, The Cabala, was published. In 1927, The Bridge of San Luis Rey brought commercial success and his first Pulitzer Prize. From 1930 to 1937 he taught at the University of Chicago.

This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.

Thornton Wilder, Our Town, Act 1

[Portrait of Thornton Wilder, as Mr. Antrobus in “The Skin of Our Teeth”]. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, August 18, 1948. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Wilder’s dramatic works include the Pulitzer Prize winning plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. Set in fictional Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, Our Town (1938) employs a choric narrator called the “Stage Manager,” and a minimalist set to underscore the universality of human experience. The Skin of Our Teeth debuted in 1942 with Fredric March and Tallulah Bankhead in the lead roles. The themes are familiar—war, pestilence, economic depression, and fire. Ignoring the limits of time and space, just four main characters and three acts are used to review the history of mankind.

Wilder authored seven novels, three major full-length plays, as well as a variety of shorter works including essays, one-act plays, and scholarly articles. Greatly transformed, his play The Matchmaker became the Broadway and film hit Hello, Dolly! His last novel, Theophilus North, was published in 1973. Wilder died in his sleep on December 7, 1975.

Church at Lancaster, New Hampshire. Arthur Rothstein, photographer, February 1936. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division

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