The Daily Agenda for Wednesday, April 17
April 17th, 2013
TODAY IN HISTORY:
First White House Picket for Gay Rights: 1965. In 2010, former Cuban president Fidel Castro apologized for for his government’s persecution of gay people in the mid-1960s. That persecution included rounding up gay people and throwing them into camps. That apology reminded Washington, D.C.’s veteran gay rights advocate Frank Kameny (see May 21) of Castro’s action in 1965 led directly to the first time a group of gay activists picketed the White House that spring:
While, Castro had no notion, of course, of what he was doing in this context at that time, in my view and in my interpretation of the dynamics of the 1960s Gay Movement, he triggered Stonewall and all that has followed.
News of Castro’s incarceration of gays in detention camps in Cuba came out early in 1965 — probably in March or very early April. At that time “the 60s” hadn’t yet erupted in their full force, but the precursors were very well advanced. Picketing was considered the mode of expression of dissent, par excellence.
Jack Nichols (see Mar 16) approached me to suggest that we (“we”= The Mattachine Society of Washington, of which I was President) picket the White House to protest Cuba’s action. I felt that it was rather pointless to picket the American President to protest what a Cuban dictator was doing. So I suggested that we broaden and Americanize the effort. One or more of our signs said (in gross paraphrase, here, from memory) “Cuba persecutes Gays; is America much better?”, and others specifically addressed governmental and private anti-gay discrimination here, and other gay-related problems of the day.
Those MSW picketers, seven men and three women, arrived promptly at 2:00 in the afternoon of Palm Sunday at Lafeyette Park. They went across the Pennsylvania Avenue and formed an orderly oval in front of the White House and marched, carrying signs reading, “U.S. Claims No Second-Class Citizens. What About Homosexual Citizens?”, “Cuba’s Government Persecutes Homosexuals. U.S. Government Beat Them To It,” and “Gov. Wallace Met With Negroes. Our Gov’t Won’t Meet With Us.” They dressed conservatively, the men in suits and ties, the women in skirts and heals. Kameny insisted on it. “If you’re asking for equal employment rights,” he said, “look employable!” The group had decided not to publicize the protest in advance because they didn’t want to give authorities time to invent a reason to block their protest. But that also meant that there were no reporters or news cameras at that first protest, although the local Afro-American did include a small news bulletin about the demonstration.
They marched for one hour, then packed up and left, elated over how easy it all was. That protest would lead to many more that year: at the Pentagon, the Civil Service Commission, the United Nations, Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, and two more pickets at the White House. Those pickets marked a new beginning for the gay rights movement, and they all happened in 1965, four years before Stonewall. Kamany later reflected on that auspicious year:
Ever since, it has been my view, and remains so, that those demonstrations created the protest-oriented mindset which made Stonewall possible, and that without it Stonewall just wouldn’t have happened. Therefore, several steps removed, and obviously utterly unbeknownst to him, by his 1965 detentions of Cuban gays, Fidel Castro precipitated and triggered Stonewall and all that we have gained from it since. So, if you enter into a same-sex marriage, or are helped by a gay-protective anti-discrimination law, or run for elective office an an open gay, thank Fidel.
Update: This was not the very first picket for gay rights. It appears that the first such action was organized on September 19, 1964, at the U.S. Army’s Whitehall Induction Center in New York City.
Thornton Wilder: 1897. The Pulitzer Award-winning playwright and author is best known for his plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, as well his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. He also wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. His works touched on very broad, universal themes: the qualities of good and evil, and finding meaning in the lives of ordinary people. Our Town was particularly inventive: it’s sparse stage setting was quite “modern” in 1938, but not as avant garde as the character of the “stage manager,” who breaks the fourth wall and converses with the audience, even going so far as taking questions.
Details of Wilder’s private life are very hard to come by. The lifelong bachelor was exceptionally circumspect about his private life, although he is known to have enjoyed a wide circle of friends. He was romantically linked with the writer Sam Steward, to whom he was introduced by Gertrude Stein. They were reportedly together while Wilder wrote the third act of Our Town — in which we learn that the town’s choir director and church organist Simon Stimson commits suicide. Sadly, in 1938 it would not have been at all difficult to read that as code.
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And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?