This Tuesday, May 13, was declared “Tribute Day for Civil Rights Activist Dr. Lilli Vincenz” by a proclamation from Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette. The proclamation was read at the conclusion of a panel discussion and a screening of a documentary, “The Gay Pioneers,” which featured Vincenz’s involvement in protest marches in front of the White House beginning in 1965, in an era when such brave actions led routinely to loss of employment and universal shunning.
Vincenz and her partner of 30 years, Nancy Ruth Davis, were on hand for the event, attended by about 100 at the Arlington Central Library. Since 1971, Vincenz hosted “Gay Women’s Open Houses” every week at her home only blocks from Falls Church in the old East Falls Church section of Arlington.
From that she formed and provided leadership and counseling for the “Empowerment Group for People Living With AIDS” and the “Community for Creative Self-Development” with Davis.
In recent years, “Community for Creative Self-Development” events have customarily included Vincenz performing with her fiddle, and Davis reading some of her short stories and essays. Routinely in attendance until his death in November 2011 was late LGBT rights pioneer Franklin Kameny.
In addition to the papers and effects of Kameny, Vincenz’s exhaustive collection of papers, photographs and 16mm films, documenting a life over a period of 50 years in the gay and lesbian civil rights movement, was accepted into the collection of the U.S. Library of Congress to be made available to all Americans and historians worldwide.
Much of the panel discussion Tuesday centered on the lack of awareness of today’s more youthful activists in the LGBT rights movement of the efforts of the likes of Vincenz, when activism came at a much higher cost than today.
To the extent that there an appreciation of the historical roots of the movement, it reaches back only as far as the legendary Stonewall riots of June 1969 in Greenwich Village, which has been adopted to demarcate the beginning of the modern gay rights movement.
But there was much that occurred before in an era when there was virtually no popular support for LGBT rights and brutal penalties to pay for anyone who was identified as lesbian or gay.
From marching in 1965, Vincenz filmed a movie in 1968, “The Second Largest Minority,” to document those picket lines and in 1970 she made a second film documenting New York City’s first gay pride parade. Her films were screened across America at independent film festivals in the 1970s to build support for the still-nascent movement for LGBT equality and her film footage has been used in contemporary documentaries and movies to bring the important history they embody to younger generations.
Included on the panel at Tuesday’s event was Charles Francis, the current president of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. Vincenz was the first lesbian member of the original Mattachine Society when it picketed the White House, the U.S. Civil Service Commission and the Pentagon and at the site of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia in 1965.
Others on the panel Tuesday were Eva Freund, on those same picket lines with Vincenz, a founding member of Equality Virginia, and Bob Witeck, an Arlington native and marketing strategist for business outreach to the LGBT community. Reading Chairman Fisette’s proclamation was George Hobart of the “Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays” organization.
The “Gay Pioneers” documentary film was produced by the Equality Forum of Philadelphia, and Tuesday’s event was jointly sponsored by Encore Learning of Arlington and the Arlington Public Library.
A similar showing of the film with comments by Vincenz, Davis and the late Frank Kameny occurred at a public event hosted by the Falls Church News-Press at Stacy’s Coffee Parlor in Falls Church in 2007.