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Lilli Vincenz - Gay Rights Pioneer Lilli Vincenz

Lesbian Activist Talks about Early Gay Rights Movement

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Lilli Vincenz
courtesy of Lilli Vincenz
Lilli Vincenz (71) remembers Stonewall well. She had already been involved in the gay rights movement for two years when the riots broke out. She was one of only two female members of the Washington, DC Mattachine Society, having joined after being discharged from the army for being gay. Lilli sat down and spoke with Lesbian Life about coming out pre-stonewall, her involvement in the early gay rights movement, where she went to find lesbians and what that cost her.

Lesbian Life: Tell me a bit of your coming out story.

Lilli Vincenz: I had crushes in high school. I remember my best friend, I fell in love with her. It became painful after a while to realize that I was gay and I didn’t know anyone else who was gay. I was extremely lonely. I remember walking around in the Village and looking for a gay bar and I couldn’t fine one. I found a book in the counseling center of Columbia University called Voyage from Lesbos. About getting cured from lesbianism.

Then I heard about Provincetown and that there were gay people there. I had met some gay women at a bar I had heard about called The Ace of Spades. It was actually a very nice little bar with a piano and people would sing and it was very convivial. I met some women there who lived in New Hope, PA. I was really intrigued by them. I found out that some women that they knew were in the Army. And that made me think that I wanted to join the army for two reasons. One, I knew gay women would be there. But I also wanted to find out if I should become a therapist.

I joined the Army and I almost finished the neuropsychiatric technician training. I was at Walter Reed for a little while. I was in Alabama for a while. There were lots of gay women there, lots of them. They used to lie under the beds and make out at night.

Did you have lovers in the Army?

Not real lovers, but I had some sexual experiences. I also had a boyfriend. I was still kind of in between. I came to Washington because I got my wish to work at Walter Reed. But my roommate turned me in [for being a lesbian.] I was discharged under honorable conditions.

How did you get discharged under honorable conditions?

Because it was an administrative discharge versus the other kind of discharge. There was nothing wrong. I was a model soldier. I met some women there and some gay men. It was 1963. Immediately I joined the Mattachine Society of Washington. I felt very free. After the discharge, I felt, I don’t have to pretend anymore. It was very liberating.

So, you weren’t upset about your discharge?

No. I wasn’t. I know that if I hadn’t had the background that I had, I might have been bothered by it. I had a strong an ego and I already had a masters in English at Columbia University. Actually people wondered what I was doing in the army anyway. That’s how I got into activism.

Why did you seek the Mattachine organization out?

It’s the only one I could find. There were the Daughters of Bilitis, they were in New York, but they weren’t here in Washington. Also, I was very impressed by Frank [Kameny, the founder of Washington Mattachine Society]. He was like a tutor. He was so focused and so brilliant. I felt in very good company. We had a very small group, only about 25 people and I was only the second woman in there.

What kinds of things were you doing as an organization?

I wrote little newsletters for the Mattachine Society. We went out and distributed pamphlets. I was the editor of our newsletter called "The Homosexual Citizen" for 1 ½ years. In those days we called it the homophile movement. It wasn’t gay rights or civil rights, we said homophile.

What kind of articles were in the newsletter?

We talked about what was going on and what gay people were going through, arrests, court cases and also book reviews. The bad books that put gays down. National coverage. These were all small organizations. Nationwide there were not more than 20. The most important first thing that we did was try to get the police to stop arresting gay men and to establish a better relationship with the police.

It was only later that we were able to connect with government agencies. We publicized what Mattachine was doing. Our publication was probably only 20 pages. Then some personal experiences were written up. The last time we had the Homosexual Citizen was in May 67 because I quit. Frank and I had a disagreement. I had met someone who was an astrologer and she was willing to write something about astrology. And Frank was furious. This certainly was not something he had been thinking about. He was only thinking about rectifying the problems that gay people were facing. The Mattachine Society had no social aspect to it. We were all just supposed to work toward the cause.

Then in 1965 we started picketing. April 17th. That was the White House picket. I just felt wonderful. We needed visibility. Because gay people, we were not visible in those days. So we all had dress rules. We looked good. We were protesting the policies of the government in regards to gay people. Because gays were fired then.

Do you remember the reaction of the people passing by?

Well, there were only a few. I only heard later that we deliberately did not notify the media at all. But one found out and it was the Afro American and they gave us a very nice write up. Because there was no advertising, there weren’t that many people there. But there were some photographers. It was still a big thing. Picketing was not the ho hum experience it is now.

I don’t recall that we were heckled in any way. We did our picketing and we felt proud. And then Confidential magazine wrote about us and they put photographs in their magazine and all of the sudden we got calls from people because of the publicity. They did us a favor. They gave us visibility.

Then we decided to picket on July 4th in Philadelphia, 1965 in front of Independence Hall. There were quite a few people looking at us. A few years later, 68, I decided to film the picket. I had taken a film workshop and my teacher had allowed me to borrow his very nice 16 mm camera. I did the filming. It’s a 7 ½ minute film.
More: Lilli describes her memories of Stonewall and how she finally found a community of lesbians...keep reading.

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