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More Heroes for These Desperate Times

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Like I mentioned the other day with the recently departed Freedom Rider Catherine Burke-Brooks, one of the things that we can learn from past struggles for justice is just how much they overcame in terrible circumstances. I, like many of my students and many others, really struggle with what we are doing to the planet. There are other things too, but the impending doom of the entire ecosystem sometimes makes it hard to move forward. I fully agree that giving up is completely counterproductive, but at the same time I often feel like those are saying not to give up are also people who aren’t really taking the crisis as seriously as they could. So it’s really hard. But one of the reasons I am working on my book about American organizers is to help square that circle (manuscript draft actually nearly done!), reminding people, including myself that what we have to overcome today is not necessarily more scary than what people of the past had to overcome.

This leads me to the recent death of Lilli Vincenz, the lesbian activist who I am mentioning in the book, though in context of a different organizer. I mean, even if we are living in an era where the far right is engaging in a rearguard action to stop acceptance of gay people throughout American society, what these activists had to overcome in the 50s, 60s, and 70s–decades where gay people were just murdered in the streets and the cops thought it was hilarious if they weren’t actually complicit or doing the murdering.

Dr. Vincenz’s journey to prominence in the nascent gay rights movement of the mid-1960s began after a personal collision with intolerance. In 1963, she was serving in the Women’s Army Corps when a roommate outed her as gay, leading to her discharge after only nine months in uniform.

She took that rejection as an opportunity to begin a fight against injustice that would guide her for decades. “After leaving the WAC,” she said in an interview with the site Gay Today, “I actually felt free to be me.”

In April 1965, Dr. Vicenz became, by most accounts, the first lesbian to picket the White House in support of equal rights for gay people as a member of the Mattachine Society of Washington, an early gay rights organization.

The protest — the first of its kind, according to the Library of Congress — and others that followed were small but brought visibility to a movement in its infancy.

“What did I want to accomplish?” she told Gay Today about her early efforts with the society. “Be with gay people, help the movement, help unmask the lies being told about us, correct the notion of homosexuality as a sickness and present it as it is, a beautiful way to love.”

The following year, Dr. Vincenz became the editor of the Mattachine Society’s monthly newsletter, The Homosexual Citizen. In 1969, she and another activist, Nancy Tucker, spun off a newspaper of their own, The Gay Blade, which became the Washington Blade, the country’s oldest L.G.B.T.Q. newspaper.

Carrying placards in front of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s home was hardly the only way that Dr. Vincenz sought to bring visibility to the cause.

In 1966, Dr. Vincenz became the first out lesbian to appear on the cover of a national gay magazine, The Ladder, a publication produced by the country’s first lesbian-rights group, the Daughters of Bilitis, according to a retrospective on her life and career by Lillian Faderman, a historian of lesbian and gay culture.

Can you imagine what level of bravery that is? And yet, no one today has any idea who she is. The history of gay rights in the American imagination has been reduced to a single person–Harvey Milk. There’s of course good reason to remember Milk and I don’t have to spell that out here. But there’s a heck of a lot more amazing activists involved in this movement. And just deciding, yep I’ll be the face outing myself to the entire nation and damn the consequences, now that’s some bravery we could take inspiration from!

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