The Importance of Place
LGBT Life in Washington, DC
LGBT life in Washington, DC, has historically been rooted in two larger aspects of the city: its unique status as the nation’s capital and its long record of racial segregation.
In the late 1950s, the District of Columbia’s first lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender activists recognized the need to challenge the virulently anti-gay policies of the national government. The government was by far the city’s largest employer, yet federal agencies were barred from employing gay people by a 1953 executive order. Similar practices by government contractors and witch hunts instigated by Congress during the 1950s further limited employment opportunities for gay people in Washington. And prior to the 1970s, the district had no local government, but was administered by three commissioners appointed by the president. Activists had to turn to the federal government even to address what would be local issues elsewhere.
So the first LGBT rights group in DC, the Mattachine Society of Washington (MSW), logically targeted the federal government. Focusing on how people suspected of being gay were denied civil service jobs, security clearances, and the ability to serve in the military, the group announced its formation in the early 1960s with a press release sent not just to the media, but also to the president, the vice president, cabinet secretaries, the justices of the Supreme Court, and every member of Congress.
The MSW’s most visible action, in 1965, was holding a series of pickets of government institutions that discriminated against individuals suspected of being gay. The initial picket, at the White House, was Washington’s first LGBT rights demonstration. Subsequent pickets also targeted the Pentagon, State Department, and Civil Service Commission. The demonstrations were small, involving only 10 to 16 white, mostly male activists, as few Washingtonians were willing to risk being publicly identified as “homosexual.” Not only did they justifiably fear losing their jobs and facing ostracism from family and friends, but participants were initially also concerned that they would be arrested or attacked.
Because Washington, DC, had no local government until the 1970s, activists had to turn to the federal government to address what would be local issues elsewhere.
The demonstrations began the long process leading to the eventual banning of discrimination based on sexual orientation in federal employment. In the short term, the pickets emboldened many LGBT people in the district (and throughout the country) and greatly increased the visibility of the city’s LGBT community. Five years later, when the district was given the right to elect a nonvoting delegate to Congress, the heightened level of gay awareness that had arisen from the protests was channeled into a campaign to elect Frank Kameny, one of the founders and leaders of MSW, to the position. He finished fourth in a six-way race, receiving a respectable 1.6 percent of the vote and signaling that LGBT people were a significant voting bloc in the city. But, more importantly, hundreds of local LGBT people became politicized through their involvement in the campaign and formed one of the nation’s most accomplished gay advocacy groups, the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), following the election.
Even before limited home rule was granted to the district in 1974, the GAA had succeeded in lobbying the then-appointed city council to pass a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, making DC the first major city in the country to do so. In 1976, the GAA led a successful effort to have the first elected council add a provision to a marriage and divorce law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in child custody and visitation cases, the first such protections granted in the United States.
Repealing the district’s sodomy law, though, proved much more difficult. Under the home rule charter, the city was barred from changing any of its criminal laws until 1980. Immediately thereafter, LGBT activists helped draft a sex law reform bill that passed the city council the following year. But with the Moral Majority warning that Washington was on the verge of becoming “the gay capital of the world,” the House of Representatives overwhelmingly vetoed the law, intervening for the first time in a local matter under a provision of the charter that grants Congress the power to block legislation enacted by the DC council in the first 60 days after passage.
In the subsequent two decades, Congress continued to prevent the district from enacting pro-LGBT measures. Although behind-the-scenes maneuvering led Congress to allow the repeal of a sodomy law in 1993, the House and Senate blocked a domestic partnership law until 2002. And while relenting on that law, Congress amended the city’s appropriations bill to block the district from enforcing a ruling by the DC Commission on Human Rights that ordered the Boy Scouts to reinstate two openly gay local scout leaders.
A second important factor that influenced LGBT life in DC is the city’s history of racial segregation. Not until 1953, when the Supreme Court ruled that district restaurants could not discriminate on the basis of race, did most downtown establishments begin to serve African Americans. But even then, many white-owned bars and restaurants, including ones catering to white LGBT people, continued to discriminate. One popular establishment among white gay and bisexual men quickly placed “reserved” signs on its tables, so that if any African Americans came in, they could be told that there was no available seating.
But few Black LGBT people were anxious to patronize such places. Facing hostility in the mostly white downtown bars and restaurants and wishing to socialize within their own community, Black LGBT people favored establishments in the neighborhoods that became known as Shaw and Columbia Heights. They also created private social clubs, one of which became the Columbia Heights bar Nob Hill in 1953. The bar remained open for more than 50 years; it was the oldest predominantly Black gay bar in the country for much of its history.
The social clubs sustained gay and bisexual African American life for a generation. The Metropolitan Capitolites opened the 4011 Club on 14th Street NW in the 1960s. After a few changes in name and location to accommodate its growing popularity, it became the ClubHouse in 1975. The ClubHouse was one of the primary social spaces for LGBT African Americans from the late 1970s until it closed in 1990. It was so popular that the group organizing the nation’s first Black Lesbian and Gay Pride Day in 1991 chose Memorial Day weekend for the event because LGBT African Americans from across the country were long accustomed to traveling to DC at that time of year for the ClubHouse’s annual costume party.
Not only were African Americans excluded from area LGBT bars, but they also did not feel included by most local LGBT organizations or believe that these groups considered their needs. “At the time very few African Americans were affiliated with gay political groups,” states ABilly Jones-Hennin, a bisexual man from DC who recalls often being the only Black person at meetings of the city’s LGBT organizations in the 1970s and then being unable to talk about his experiences. “I go to a Gay Activists Alliance or National Gay Task Force meeting and I’m ruled out of order when I deal with issues of racism.”
Recognizing the need for an organization that would address “homophobia in the Black community and racism in the white community head on,” Jones-Hennin and Louis Hughes, a Black gay male activist from Baltimore, formed the DC and Baltimore Coalition of Black Gays, the country’s first long-standing Black LGBT political organization, in 1978. After about six months, the coalition had a large enough membership that its leaders decided to split into separate Washington and Baltimore groups. While the Baltimore chapter did not last long, the DC Coalition was an important political and cultural force in the city for decades.
Facing hostility in the mostly white downtown bars and restaurants, Black LGBT people favored establishments in their own communities.
While other factors have also affected LGBT life in Washington, DC, during the past 65 years, the federal nature of the city and its history of racial segregation stand out for their impact, both locally and nationally, and their continuing influence today. The local activists who won the right for LGBT individuals to work for the federal government changed the political, social, and economic landscape in the district. But they also fostered a critical change in the relationship between the US government and LGBT people. For the first time, LGBT individuals were explicitly acknowledged as citizens deserving of basic rights, even as they continued to experience widespread discrimination in society, including in many aspects of federal policy. This recognition provided LGBT people with a foothold in the struggle for equality; their success in attaining federal employment protection served as an important precedent in obtaining workplace rights on the state level and in the corporate world.
The city’s Black LGBT community has been a pioneer nationally, from having the oldest surviving predominantly Black gay bar, to the first long-standing political organization, to the creation of the first Black Pride. Through these organizing milestones, many Black LGBT Washingtonians who had previously felt that they could not be out or that they had to choose between their race and their sexual/gender identity could now be part of a community where they were embraced in their entirety. These efforts also resonated across the country, as other Black LGBT groups and other Black Pride celebrations were formed in other cities. The slogan of the DC Coalition, “As proud of our gayness as we are of our blackness,” is as relevant today as it was nearly 40 years ago.
Genny Beemyn, PhD, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and coordinator of Campus Pride’s Trans Policy Clearinghouse, is the author of A Queer Capital: A History of Gay Life in Washington, D.C. (2014) and, with Sue Rankin, of The Lives of Transgender People (2011). Genny is editing a forthcoming anthology, Trans People in Higher Education (SUNY Press).
Editor’s note: The 132nd Annual Meeting of the AHA will take place in Washington, DC, on January 4–7, 2018. In the run-up months to every meeting, Perspectives highlights aspects of local history and points of interest in our host city.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.