Lilli Vincenz: Making History and Capturing It


Lilli Vincenz has a unique place in gay history. She was the first lesbian to join a Washington, D.C. picket against homosexual persecution; the first to appear on the cover of a national homosexual publication; and the first to document pivotal points of our history on film. Born in Germany in 1937 under the Third Reich, Vincenz lived through World War II and came to America in 1949, at the age of twelve. A talented linguist, she received a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1960 and entered a Ph.D. program. But she quit before completing her degree in order to join the U.S. Army—because, as she liked to say, she’d learned that the Army was “a hotbed of gay people,” and at Columbia she could meet no other lesbians. Her stint in the Army was brief. She was outed by a roommate and given an administrative discharge.

That was the beginning of her life as a gay activist. In 1962, Vincenz joined the Mattachine Society Washington, which had been founded by Frank Kameny the year before. Kameny had been looking to expand the number of lesbians in Mattachine, and he was so impressed by the bright, attractive, and well-educated Lilli Vincenz that he soon asked her to become a member of the executive board. In 1966, she was made editor of Mattachine’s militant monthly magazine, TheHomosexual Citizen.

That same year Vincenz, who had wholesome good looks and a radiant smile, also became a “cover girl.” Barbara Gittings dubbed her “every mother’s dream daughter” and convinced her to be photographed by Kay Tobin for a cover ofThe Ladder, the lesbian magazine Gittings edited for Daughters of Bilitis.  Vincenz agreed, and in January 1966, she became the first out lesbian ever to appear on a magazine cover that was displayed on newsstands around the country.

By then, she had already outed herself many times in public, beginning on April 17, 1965, when she was the only lesbian to march in front of the White House with nine other Mattachine picketers–seven men, one straight woman, and one bisexual woman, all carrying signs with messages such as “U.S. Claims No Second-Class Citizens: What About Homosexuals?”   In a June 26, 1965 picket in front of the Civil Service Commission, the saucy sign Vincenz carried was intended to tweak the nose of the Commission’s chairman who believed he’d succeeded in keeping federal jobs free of homosexuals: “A Quarter Million Homosexual Federal Employees Protest Civil Service Commission Policy,” Vincenz’s placard declared.

The 1965 pickets in Washington, D.C. are memorialized only through still photographs. But in 1968, VIncenz took her 16 mm camera to Philadelphia’s Independence Hall to film the fourth Remembrance Day picket—the Mattachine-led annual reminder to America that, as the picketers’ signs announced, “Homosexuals Are American Citizens Also” and “Discrimination Against Homosexuals Is Immoral.” This important bit of gay history was captured by Vincenz in a film she called The Second Largest Minority, which gifted posterity with a moving and unique record of gay men and women marching in an orderly fashion—but openlyand bravely, at a time when virulent persecution of homosexuals was still rife. They were asking for no less than their human and civil rights. Their courage in the context of their times is still astonishing.

Their fashion is astonishing too, as we look at it today. Vincenz’s camera shows the men wearing suits and ties and neat haircuts; the women (even the butchest of them) wearing skirts and lady-like shoes. It could not have been easy picketing in such buttoned-down clothes in Philadelphia’s July 4thheat. But Frank Kameny, the organizer and leader of the picketers, was insistent that anyone who wasn’t “dressed up” would not be allowed to join them. “If you want to be employed, you have to look employable,” he always admonished them. The pickets were, after all, in good part about fighting against job discrimination. 

Kameny’s sartorial policies could not hold up in quickly-changing times.  The Stonewall Riots happened the following June, just a week before the fifth Annual Reminder. That July 4th, a busload of Stonewall veterans and those they’d inspired showed up in front of Independence Hall. They had come to picket. The young men and women were dressed in t-shirts and jeans or shorts; they wore tennis shoes or sandals; some of the men had long hair; and instead of walking in a solemn single file as the Annual Reminder picketers always had, some walked hand-in-hand! It was the death knell of the Annual Reminders.

June 28, 1970—the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots—saw the first Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade. Lilli Vincenz was there too, with her 16 mm camera. In her 1970 film, Gay and Proud, she captured yet another vital piece of gay history; and, equally important, she gave us visual documentation of the astonishing distance that the gay movement had travelled between 1968 and 1970.  Even the titles of the two films,The Second Largest Minorityand Gay and Proud,hint in their contrast at how the movement ceased beseeching and became in-your-face-challenging.

The dress style of the participants also documents dramatically the huge distance that was travelled in two years. No more suits and ties or skirts and pretty shoes.  No more single-file, staid walking. Some participants even stop marching and they dance. Almost all look at least a generation younger than the 1968 Annual Reminder picketers. The signs they carry tell the story too: “Say It Loud, Say It Proud!” “I’m a Lesbian, and I’m Beautiful!”  “Hi Mom!” The solemn silence of the picketers is also no more. “Out of the closets and into the streets,” they shout. And “2, 4, 6, 8, gay is just as good as straight!” This was the start of the massive pride parades that continue to attract hundreds of thousands in cities all over America and the world. In her two films, Lilli Vincenz captured its birth and its progenitor too.

Vincenz’s story as an activist continued into the new millennium. In 2005, she hoped to transfer her two 16 mm films to videotape format. She took her originals to Bono Film and Video in Arlington, Virginia. The proprietor, Tim Bono, informed her that he was a Christian and could not condone the films’ “gay agenda.” His refusal to serve her violated Arlington’s Human Rights Ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. When the city’s Human Rights Commission found in her favor, Bono hired Mat Staver of the right-wing Liberty Council (who later represented Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples). Staver took the case to the Circuit Court, which decreed that the Human Rights Commission had “overstepped.” The Commission then reheard the case, and the commissioners caved. Fearing the entire ordinance would be threatened, they declared that it was really meant to protect individuals and not the contents of films. 

Fortunately, times have changed yet again. Vincenz did get her 16 mm films preserved on videotape, and the Library of Congress has made them available online: