Metro Weekly

Our Gay Capital: A brief history of the LGBT movement in Washington D.C.

A Tribute to D.C.'s Trailblazers

The 1951 book Washington Confidential included a fantastic claim. Between the world wars, “Washington was the capital of Fairyland, USA: More lavender lads and lesbians worked there than anyplace on Earth.”

The Lavender Scare
The Lavender Scare

That was exaggerated, of course. What else would you expect from a salacious tabloid written by right-wingers? But it wasn’t without basis in truth. While New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco were already established as meccas for those seeking camaraderie with like-minded, same-sex-loving peoples, Washington was becoming its own draw in the 1930s:  A burgeoning federal city courtesy of the New Deal, with five major universities to sweeten – smarten – the pot, as well as myriad nearby military facilities to reinforce it. By 1940, Washington had become the nation’s ninth largest city and its “Number One Boom Town,” according to Constance McLaughlin Green’s Washington, A History of the Capital, 1800-1950. By 1950, the metropolitan area had doubled in population from the 1930 census, to 1.4 million people. “This process of urbanization created the kind of social and economic base that is crucial to the development of gay and lesbian subcultures,” according to author David K. Johnson. 

In his 2004 book The Lavender Scare, Johnson notes that it’s “impossible to determine” if the nation’s capital or the federal government had a higher percentage of gays and lesbians than other cities or employers in the mid-20th century as some have asserted. (One booster claimed that DC’s gay subculture at the time was “second only to that found in San Francisco”; another speculated that two-thirds of the population was gay.) But reflections and reports from the era certainly paint it as a thriving gay town. As a result, Johnson writes, there is a “need to reassess the still common assumption that gay men and lesbians led isolated, lonely lives prior to World War II or even prior to the 1960s.” 

It also suggests the need to put the riots at New York’s Stonewall Inn in June of 1969 in proper context. While that was indeed the most prominent spark of our modern LGBT movement, the impetus came in the decades leading up to Stonewall – and most of the groundwork was laid in Washington. This is not meant to take away from New York – or San Francisco – where the idea of an official “gay pride” celebration started a year after, and in response to, Stonewall. After an initial attempt in 1972, Washington didn’t officially start an annual event to give its LGBT denizens hope and cheer until 1975. Now attracting several hundreds of thousands every year, Capital Pride celebrates its 40th anniversary this year as one of the nation’s largest Pride celebrations.

Still, one fact is clear:  Washington, DC, has long been filled with queer people working on behalf of the nation, with many drawn to the capital to make a difference in, or have an impact on, American society and politics. What follows is a review of key moments in Washington’s LGBT history, with a particular focus on the key players who laid the movement’s groundwork. 

The Pre-LGBT Era:  From The Civil War To The Cold War

Washington’s gay history didn’t start during the New Deal – or even in the 20th century. In fact, it dates back to at least the Civil War. 

Of course, 150 years ago there was nothing for an LGBT person to be “out” about exactly; 19th-century America was a time when no one could even conceive of something so positive as a gay community. Even the word “homosexual” didn’t appear in print until 1892. As a result, no famous figure from Civil War-era Washington is an out-and-out early gay hero – there are historians who refute or downplay all such notions. Most claims that Abraham Lincoln might have been gay, for example, have been debunked by prominent, gay-friendly historians – including Doris Kearns Goodwin, who wrote in her 2005 Lincoln biography Team of Rivals that recent suggestions the 16th president might have been intimate with some of his close male friends reveal more about our gay rights era than they do about Lincoln’s time. Back then, men often shared cozy sleeping quarters for financial reasons, and it also wasn’t unusual to carry on intense same-sex friendships with romantic overtones.

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman

Another Civil War-era figure suspected to be gay is Lincoln’s immediate predecessor in the White House, James Buchanan. As Timothy Cwiek wrote in a 2011 article published by the Washington Blade through the Philadelphia-based national Gay History Project, the 15th president was a lifelong bachelor. He also lived for several years with William Rufus King. The two were seen together so often that wags at the time referred to them as “the Siamese twins;” another prominent Democrat referred to King as Buchanan’s “better half.” The relationship ended only with King’s death from tuberculosis in 1853, three years before Buchanan’s election – and only days after King, a former member of Congress, had been sworn in as the 13th US Vice President under President Franklin Pierce. The case for Buchanan as America’s “first gay president” is not open-and-shut, however, since there’s no irrefutable evidence proving it; Buchanan’s writings are rather circumspect. Volunteer guides at Buchanan’s Wheatland estate in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, are “directed to take a neutral stance regarding sexual preference,” its director told Cwiek.

 There’s more solid evidence about Walt Whitman, the famous American writer who came to Washington to volunteer at a hospital for wounded warriors but then became a federal clerk and stayed in the capital for an entire decade after the Civil War. In fact, the New York native only left the area due to failing health. There’s good reason why his surname was combined with that of Civil War-era surgeon Mary Walker – who reportedly boasted about having once been arrested for “impersonating a man” – to denote Washington’s leading LGBT and HIV/AIDS health organization, now known as Whitman-Walker Health. “Walt Whitman is widely accepted today as being gay,” writes Garrett Peck in his book published earlier this year, Walt Whitman in Washington, D.C.: The Civil War and America’s Great Poet. There are still some historians wary of making such a bold assertion, but Peck gets specific. “He began his longest romantic relationship, with Peter Doyle, while cruising on a streetcar in early 1865,” the local historian and tour guide writes, emphasizing the obvious takeaway: “[LGBT] people had ways of finding each other, even then.”

A half-century later, queer people were definitely finding each other in Washington – in federal or city parks, particularly Lafayette Square in front of the White House, which was the city’s primary cruising spot until the 1950s; or at the local YMCA. Much of what is known of gay life prior to the New Deal came from a diary kept by a federal employee known by the pseudonym Jeb Alexander, posthumously published by his niece Ina Russell in 1993 as Jeb and Dash: Diary of a Gay Life, 1918 – 1945. Alexander lived for a time at the YMCA on G Street, NW, and he writes about meeting other young same-sex-loving men while there. But he met one primary lover in Lafayette Park, and recounted the first evening they shared, when they ended up on the Ellipse. “Nothing disturbed us, and we lay in each other’s arms, my love and I, while the moon beamed from a spacious sky and the cool night breeze rustled our hair,” reads one diary entry. “We lay close together and gazed at the stars above, becoming fast friends, exchanging confidences. Ah, happiness!” 

Despite such blissful prose, life for gays and lesbians during the New Deal wasn’t all spacious skies and starlight. For one thing, it was, as with the larger city and region, racially segregated. For another, being openly gay was illegal. In his diary, Alexander relates his fears of being under police surveillance as a suspected “deviant” criminal. Certainly his was a love that dared not speak its name. Alexander didn’t talk about his sexuality or his relationships openly, and internalized homophobia kept him and his lover from having a storybook romance. Yet Alexander’s friends and co-workers did know of his sexuality and even teased him about it – good-naturedly, not ominously. Of course it helped that many of his federal co-workers were gay or lesbian themselves. Even if being gay wasn’t exactly spoken of, it was certainly the talk of the town. “This used to be a gay city,” friends told one man who moved to Washington in 1951 and was interviewed by Johnson in 2004. “People would practically carry on on park benches…the agencies here were filled with gays. Nobody bothered them, nobody cared…until this business with McCarthy started.”

The business with Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.) started shortly after World War II. The relatively “gay” life for gays in the nation’s capital started spooking conservatives, who initiated a campaign to chip away at the sizable gay federal workforce – starting with 91 homosexuals forced out at the State Department and announced in early 1950. An offshoot of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, this purge of “sexual perverts” became institutional policy throughout the government and lasted for an entire generation, well beyond the earliest days of the Cold War until a few years after Stonewall. This “Lavender Scare” sparked a moral panic within mainstream American culture – and seriously curtailed DC’s once-burgeoning gay scene, “a community under siege” until the 1970s. Thousands of suspected gay or lesbian government employees and contractors lost their jobs, and thousands more applicants were denied employment – generally, as Johnson writes, on “the flimsiest of evidence to draw casual connections between homosexuality and espionage.”  This antigay campaign was all the more insidious because it went largely unnoticed – and still remains largely unknown. There was only limited opposition, and few gay employees stood up and challenged their dismissals until well into the 1960s. 

Instead, even influential political appointees fled with their tails between their legs, such as Arthur H. Vandenberg, Jr., who left the Eisenhower Administration on made-up grounds of “ill health” and “stomach ulcers” in January 1953, and Walter Jenkins, who was forced out as a top aide in the Johnson Administration after an arrest for public sex with another man became a campaign issue in the waning days of the 1964 election. In fact, Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary and attorney general have both said history might have played out better if Jenkins could have stayed in office. Jenkins was “the single most effective and trusted aide” Johnson had, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark told Out Magazine in 1999, adding: “Walter’s counsel on Vietnam might have been extremely helpful.” 

The Mattachine Society and LBT “Grandfather” Frank Kameny

Frank Kameny
Frank Kameny

For all the gay heartache and havoc wreaked by the Lavender Scare, there was a silver lining. As David K. Johnson asserts, the Lavender Scare helped gay men and lesbians forge more of a bond than they had previously – united in persecution – and it ultimately provided much of the inspiration for what later became today’s LGBT movement. The Lavender Scare inspired the first sustained gay organization in the US, as well as the most influential early gay organization. In both cases, that’s the Mattachine Society – the original chapter in southern California launched by the late Harry Hay in 1951, and the Washington chapter in the 1960s from which the late Frank Kameny – a fired federal worker himself – made his name.

Hay named Mattachine after the Italian Renaissance’s court jesters – who, while wearing masks, were free to speak the truth. Hay conceived of Mattachine as a response to the government purges of gays, which was impacting his home base of Los Angeles by virtue of the increasing number of contractors working for the Defense Department in the region. Yet Hay kept Mattachine focused on providing education, research, and social services, not political activism or legal counsel. An early attempt to create an activist-oriented Washington chapter of Mattachine by Buell Dwight Higgins failed, and it wasn’t until Hay’s Mattachine had collapsed that Kameny was able to make it the force that ultimately pushed the federal government to stop its Lavender Scare purge. Under Kameny, the Mattachine Society of Washington worked from a “Gay is Good” premise. The organization developed pamphlets to help the accused – with titles such as “If You Are Arrested” and “How to Handle a Federal Interrogation” – and provided legal assistance to help them fight both the federal government and the DC police – and its “notoriously aggressive pursuit of homosexuals,” as Johnson put it. Eventually, disgruntled city residents and federal employees starting winning in the courts, and the local police and the federal government stopped targeting gays. 

Gay Activists Alliance
Gay Activists Alliance

Kameny’s success in bettering life for gays and lesbians in Washington was so significant and so instrumental that the late Steve Endean, who founded the Human Rights Campaign Fund – today’s HRC – has called him the “grandfather” of the LGBT movement. “Kameny…has probably done more for lesbian and gay Americans than any other person,” Endean wrote in his 1993 memoir Into The Mainstream. Kameny also became the first openly gay candidate for Congress when he unsuccessfully ran as DC’s first nonvoting delegate to the US House of Representatives in 1971. His campaign committee reorganized as the Gay Activists Alliance – now the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance – which helped secure passage of the DC Human Rights Law in 1973, one of the nation’s first laws banning discrimination against gays and lesbians. The next year then-Mayor Walter Washington tapped Kameny for the city’s Human Rights Commission, making Kameny the first openly gay appointee in DC government.

Bayard Rustin and the March On Washington 1963

Frank Kameny had so much success with Mattachine in the 1960s in large part because he adapted tactics of the civil rights movement – such as building coalitions with other groups and seeking publicity for its efforts – to suit the LGBT cause. Interestingly enough, the civil rights movement’s initial success stems from the work of its own gay leader:  Bayard Rustin. Martin Luther King, Jr. may be the man most associated with the seminal 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but this first mass march on the National Mall succeeded because of Rustin. “In my judgment, Bayard Rustin was the only man who could have organized the march, and I say that out of some sense of history,” Eleanor Holmes Norton told Metro Weekly in 2013. Norton, DC’s long-serving representative to the US House, was a key figure in the 1963 march, and it was because of her efforts that President Barack Obama posthumously recognized Rustin with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during festivities marking the 50th anniversary of the march.

Rustin was also one of the first to gain national attention – mostly unfavorable – as an openly gay man. “Racism and homophobia have long clouded the narrative of Rustin’s work, erasing him from our history books and stymieing the proper celebration of his contributions to our country,” Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks of the National Black Justice Coalition wrote in the same issue of the local LGBT magazine. At the time of the march, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) took to the Senate floor to attack Rustin for being gay. Yet Norton says civil rights leaders rallied around Rustin at the time. “It was certainly before sexual orientation was even discussed. But we were young people and he was out – very out. There were some among us who tried to make sure he behaved himself, because he was so precious to us.”

Jack Nichols and the Mattachine Society of Washington

Jack Nichols
Jack Nichols

Although the Mattachine Society of Washington’s (MSW) membership never exceeded 100 people, there were certainly more players involved than Frank Kameny. One of its earliest and most influential members was Jack Nichols, a native of Chevy Chase, Maryland, who was younger and more of a hippie than Kameny. It was Nichols’ idea to picket the White House on April 17, 1965, in a protest linking treatment of homosexuals in America to that of the situation in Cuba, which at the time had just instituted homosexual labor camps. “Russia, Cuba and the United States Unite to Persecute Homosexuals,” read one of the MSW signs at the protest, which was small – only 10 participants – but also successful enough that the group soon organized similar pickets at other federal agencies – at the Pentagon, the State Department and again at the White House – all of which were well attended. In fact, Johnson writes that the pickets were “seen as the watershed moment in the gay rights struggle” before Stonewall made its mark.

Before he moved from Washington in 1969, Nichols had also worked on MSW’s efforts forging links with the National Council of Churches, as well as its influential work in pushing the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses – which finally happened in 1973. He was also one of the first to talk openly about his homosexuality on national television by appearing in the 1967 documentary CBS Reports: The Homosexuals. Sadly, even though he used the pseudonym Warren D. Adkins to protect his father, an FBI agent, his employers recognized Nichols and fired his father the very next day.

Bruce Pennington and the Gay Liberation Front-DC

By the summer of 1970, gay activists in the civil rights and antiwar movements, including those involved in the Black Panthers, saw a need for an organization on the radical left championing gay causes. Members of the Gay Liberation Front-DC (GLF-DC) lived together in a group house at 1620 S Street, NW, where they planned “zaps,” or raucous public demonstrations intended to shame the targets, at places as varied as Catholic University and the Georgetown Grill. 

As part of his work in establishing the Rainbow History Project, Bruce Pennington recorded an oral history in which he credited GLF-DC as “the advance guard, the grandparents of ACT UP and Queer Nation.” The collective is also, in a sense, the grandparent of the Capital Pride Alliance, since the GLF-DC helped organize DC’s very first gay pride the first week of May 1972, a small affair with events including a program at Lafayette Park, an outdoor religious celebration, a dance, and a drag show at George Washington University.

Joan E. Biren and the Furies Collective

Another short-lived gay collective from the early 1970s was even more influential than the GLF-DC. Known as the all-women Furies Collective, this group had a “profound effect on lesbian feminism,” according to University of Maryland scholar Julie R. Enszer. Among its members were Rita Mae Brown, author of the seminal, explicit 1973 lesbian novel Rubyfruit Jungle, and the major feminist scholar Charlotte Bunch of Rutgers University. Mary Farmer of DC’s former lesbian feminist Lammas Bookstore was also associated with the Furies, whose members lived together for a little over a year from 1971 to 1972 and contributed to the nationally distributed Furies newspaper. They also helped push the National Organization for Women to accept lesbians, something its founder and first president Betty Friedan – who once called lesbian feminists the “Lavender Menace” – was loath to do.

Another notable member was Joan E. Biren, who goes by her initials JEB. JEB taught herself to become a photographer while living in the collective, and went on to become the preeminent lesbian photographer/filmmaker of the LGBT movement. JEB’s 1979 book Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians is almost assuredly the world’s first book of lesbian photography, one featuring only out and proud lesbians. “I come from a time when pictures of gays and lesbians were destroyed after you died, by families,” JEB says.

The LGBT Movement’s “Father”: Deacon Maccubbin

Deacon Maccubbin
Deacon Maccubbin

As founder and owner of storied Lambda Rising Books, L. Page “Deacon” Maccubbin literally put Washington’s LGBT community on the map. But he also helped shape the community and give it the kind of presence and even prestige that it had never had before, chiefly by establishing a Pride celebration in 1975 – building on but surpassing the one-off event held three years prior by the Gay Liberation Front-DC, of which Maccubbin had been a member. 

In 1974, this US Army veteran converted what was once a crafts and tobacco store in Dupont Circle into what became one of the nation’s largest and most successful gay bookstores. Lambda Rising also became a meeting ground and launch pad for many new and struggling community groups. In 1975, in addition to organizing DC’s first official gay pride right in front of the bookstore, then located at 1724 20th Street, NW, Maccubbin published Just Us, the first guide to DC’s gay community, through the auspices of the Washington Area Gay Community Council, a group he founded and chaired. Through his activism and leadership, Maccubbin, often working in tandem with Frank Kameny, was also instrumental in helping the DC city government and police department institute gay-friendly policies and curb antigay practices. 

Cleve Jones and the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt

Its roots may be in San Francisco, but the world’s largest piece of community folk art was first displayed and has had its biggest impact while in Washington. The project that became known as the AIDS Memorial Quilt was originally conceived as a tribute to San Francisco’s assassinated gay rights leader Harvey Milk. Activist Cleve Jones, who co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, created the first panel of the quilt in honor of his friend Marvin Feldman. The quilt was first laid out on the National Mall in 1987 and last displayed there in full in 1996, though a portion of it was returned in 2012 to coincide with the start of the XIX International AIDS Conference hosted in Washington.

Warehoused in Atlanta when not being displayed in portions around the world, the quilt now consists of more than 48,000 panels representing over 94,000 people, and weighs in at an estimated 54 tons. Each panel is three feet by six feet, roughly the size of the average grave – a nod to the fact that many people who died of AIDS-related causes, particularly in the disease’s first decade or so, did not receive proper funerals because of social stigma as well as fears of contagion by funeral homes and cemeteries. Serving as de facto memorials, complete with details about the deceased’s personalities and hobbies, the quilt is a quietly powerful and emotional testament to the size and variety of a whole generation of mostly gay or bisexual men, gone too soon. 

Barney Frank and the Dawn of the Gay Incumbent

Barney Frank
Barney Frank

Barney Frank may not have set out to become America’s most prominent gay politician, but thankfully he also didn’t shy from that role once he did come out in 1987, while in his fourth term in Congress. A Democrat representing the Boston suburbs of Massachusetts, Frank was reelected by wide margins in every subsequent election until he retired in 2013. At the time this was a rather unprecedented feat for an openly gay politician, although it was essentially matched by the late Gerry Studds, Frank’s fellow Massachusetts Democrat who in 1983 became the first openly gay member of Congress. Studds would serve another six terms until retiring in 1997. 

Known for his wit and humor, Frank ended his 32 years in the House as “one of the most powerful members of Congress,” according to the New York Times, and one who played a key role in shaping the government’s response to the financial crisis of the early 21st century. In the 1990s, he was one half – with Herb Moses – of what the Associated Press dubbed “Washington’s most powerful and influential gay couple.” He also became the first LGBT member of Congress to be married while in office when he married Jim Ready in 2012.  

Frank left national office in 2013 as only one of a record eight LGBT members of Congress – including America’s first LGBT Senator, Tammy Baldwin, who, in a small but sure sign of progress, was elected to represent the same state, Wisconsin, that not quite a century earlier had given us Lavender Scare-monger Joe McCarthy. Prior to the US Senate, Baldwin had been re-elected six times to serve the 2nd Congressional District of Wisconsin in the US House of Representatives – and she was out as a lesbian from her first run in 1998.

Lesbian Visibility at the 1993 March On Washington

Urvashi Vaid
Urvashi Vaid

The 1993 “March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation” wasn’t the movement’s first such march, and isn’t even regarded as its greatest – that would be the predecessor in 1987. But this, the third national LGBT march, was the first to generate wide public attention – in some measure thanks to filmmaker Joan E. Biren, or JEB, who used advanced technology to document the activities on the National Mall. “It was the first time anybody but the government had put the large Jumbotron screens on the Mall, so that what we were doing could be seen all over the world,” JEB says. The march was spearheaded by Urvashi Vaid during the time she served as president of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and bisexual activist Lani Ka’ahumanu all-but singlehandedly put the “Bi” in the event, right down to its title. 

But women weren’t just behind the scenes at this march, which took place on April 25, 1993, only a few months after Bill Clinton was inaugurated as the 42nd President. In addition to Clinton, you can’t think of the gay 1990s without thinking of rock star Melissa Etheridge. Despite fears that coming out would jeopardize her career, Etheridge ended up breaking through to the mainstream after coming out in 1993 – the year she also released her multiplatinum-selling fourth album, appropriately titled Yes I Am, and had three of her biggest hit singles, the Grammy-winning “Come To My Window,” “I’m The Only One,” and “If I Wanted To.” Etheridge performed at the march, giving every gay and lesbian person in the country hope for a brighter future. Tennis legend Martina Navratilova was another prominent speaker at the march, which is also where the Lesbian Avengers launched its first Dyke March, in which more than 20,000 women participated the day before the big march. 

Removing LGBT Discrimination in the Military, Marriage

US Army Defines Homosexuality — via Wikimedia

In September of 2011, after the US military’s ban on openly gay and lesbian service members was finally repealed, retired Col. Margaret Cammermeyer presciently told Metro Weekly: “I think that we end up having sort of a ripple effect. The repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ will further justify the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.” That ripple did in fact happen, not quite two years later. Of course, the roads to repeal of these inherently antigay policies of President Bill Clinton – known by their acronyms DADT and DOMA – were decades long. Cammermeyer herself had been fighting for open military service since she was discharged simply for coming out as a lesbian in 1992, the same year Clinton campaigned for the White House promising to open the military. A year later he capitulated to conservatives with DADT. A truly gay-welcoming US military wouldn’t emerge until the next Democratic President, Barack Obama, assented to the work of the many people and organizations – too many to cite here – all around the country that led this progressive charge. 

This summer, two years since the US Supreme Court struck down DOMA, the justices will once again weigh in on the issue of marriage equality, deciding whether any one state may refuse to license same-sex marriages or to recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. Even if they rule against the principle of marriage equality, this cause has now essentially won in the court of American public opinion, with a majority in favor of allowing two men or two women to marry. And the pace at which this progress has been achieved has been astounding. The country was on Clinton’s side when he signed DOMA into law in 1996, only coming around in recent years, effectively since Obama took office in 2009. 

In many ways, the success is a testament to the perseverance of Evan Wolfson, who has been championing this cause since he was merely a student at Harvard Law School over three decades ago. First through Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and more recently through the organization he founded, Freedom to Marry, Wolfson has pushed the cause – even within the LGBT movement, where some thought marriage wasn’t worth fighting for, or at least not at the expense of other needs they deemed more pressing, such as employment protections in the private sector building on Kameny’s work with Mattachine. Another influential figure in the fight for marriage equality was Washington-based writer Andrew Sullivan, who first laid out a conservative case for same-sex marriage through a cover story in The New Republic in 1989.

The Future Is Now

The average LGBT person today lives a prideful life unimaginable to our forebears, even those from just 40 years ago:  Most of us in the Greater Washington area can live, work and love openly, honestly, and legally, without fear of discrimination, brutality, or reprisal; without being labeled mentally ill, perverted, or unfit for office, even in sensitive fields such as national politics or military intelligence. Most of us also see ourselves reflected to varying degrees in pop culture, from political leaders to TV celebrities. And although it’s possible Washington was gayer in the period between the two world wars, the city remains every bit as gay today as it has been in most of our living memories. 

And yet, even now it’s still not all spacious skies and starlight. In a new book, Michelangelo Signorile warns against what he calls “victory blindness:  the dangerous illusion that we’ve almost won.” Despite increasing tolerance and acceptance of LGBT people, and despite the relatively rapid national successes in creating an open military and advancing marriage equality, there’s still much to do, Signorile writes in It’s Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality. This longtime activist and journalist argues that our advances are causing even early champions such as pop singer Madonna to prematurely declare victory. At the same time, the advances are enraging conservatives, who are scheming for new methods of attack.

For example, one obvious unresolved issue is the fact that private employers in many states are still allowed to discriminate against LGBT people. There’s still nothing to show for valiant efforts over the past two decades to pass through Congress a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA. Such legislation would offer workplace protections in the private sector building on what Frank Kameny and the Mattachine Society of Washington helped achieve at the federal level.

In fact, the fight against discrimination in the workforce and in business more generally may be getting more, not less, challenging, a result of conservative pushback against recent LGBT gains. Several states, most prominently Indiana and Arkansas, have jumped on the “religious liberty” bandwagon, passing laws that allow business owners to discriminate against LGBT people by refusing service on religious grounds. As reported by Metro Weekly in April, most of those in the current crop of Republican nominees for president initially supported such discriminatory legislation. While some of these frontrunners have since joined fellow state leaders such as Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in backtracking from their initial positions, the willingness even to consider taking such an anti-gay stance suggests this debate over LGBT rights and so-called religious freedom will continue apace, at the very least as one factor in next year’s presidential race.

Many LGBT advocates hope that this flare-up ultimately helps the cause, as the majority of Americans with a favorable and supportive view of their LGBT siblings and friends see just how hostile and retrograde conservatives can be by contrast. But as ever, it will only happen if everyone, even everyday citizens far from the movement’s leadership, stands strong and speaks up. And there are plenty of things to speak up about and continue to work on, from reducing hate crimes and violence against LGBT people, to pushing for greater diversity in the movement and greater racial equality in society. We also need to continue addressing the menace of HIV/AIDS, as the epidemic still haunts the community three decades after its first round of calamity and devastation – this time by virtue of haphazard attention, support, and implementation of proven but costly treatment and prevention strategies. 

But perhaps nowhere is it more obvious that the fight for full LGBT equality is far from won than in the area of transgender rights. For one thing, the repeal of DADT didn’t open the military to transgender people. And despite support expressed in recent months for lifting the trans ban from both President Obama and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, no formal review of the policy has yet been ordered. For another, transgender people face far more struggles than the rest of those in the movement through discrimination in work and health care as well as violence and suicide.

Fortunately, there are many dedicated advocates working on these issues and more – from Sheila Lettman-Hicks of the National Black Justice Coalition to Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality to – at the local level – Sheila Alexander-Reid, director of LGBT Affairs for DC Mayor Muriel Bowser. Perhaps their names will be among those added to a review of key moments and key players in the LGBT movement such as this, but 40 years hence, when Capital Pride turns 80. 

May the so-called “capital of Fairyland, USA,” continue to set the pace and thrive. 


Doug Rule is a contributing editor at Metro Weekly. This piece originally appeared in the 2015 Pride Guide, produced by the Capital Pride Alliance ahead of the 40th Anniversary Capital Pride Celebration. Used with permission.


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