By Rodger Streitmatter Lilli Vincenz is a pack rat. After she began subscribing to the country’s first nationally distributed lesbian magazine, founded in 1956, she kept every issue. After she became secretary of Washington’s first gay rights organization in the 1960s, she kept a copy of every letter she wrote on behalf of the Mattachine Society.
After she joined the effort to elect the first openly gay candidate to Congress in 1971, she kept copies of the fliers she and others distributed during Frank Kameny’s historic campaign. These items recently went from the back of the closets in Vincenz’s Arlington, Va., home to the climate-controlled manuscript division space at the Library of Congress. Library officials accepted more than 10,000 items from Vincenz—all organized in twelve cardboard boxes.
Asked why she not only kept all these items but painstakingly arranged them in a way that will make the Library of Congress staff’s cataloguing much easier, 75-year-old Vincenz said, “I knew I had to do this. I had to. It was so important to me.
Janice Ruth, assistant chief of the manuscript division, said the material adds substantially to the collection documenting the evolution of the gay and lesbian rights movement during the second half of the twentieth century.
One big plus of the collection, Ruth said, is that it spans both the professional and personal aspects of a lesbian who was active during an important period in the emergence of the movement. Vincenz, who operated her own psychotherapy practice for many years, kept a diary off and on for several decades, and she’s included that journal in her donation.
An entry from 1961 documents a young woman’s thoughts when she was trying to decide whether to join the U.S. military. In the “con” column, the 23-year-old Vincenz wrote “lack of privacy,” while under “pro” she wrote “adventure, excitement.”
She ultimately served in the U.S. Women’s Army Corps until she has discharged after her roommate told their commanding officer that Vincenz was a lesbian. Her donation to the library also includes two short films that she made.
The earlier of the movies is of a gay rights demonstration in Philadelphia in 1968. It shows somber picketers dressed in starchy business attire—jackets and neckties for the men, dresses and nylon stockings for the women—walking silently in a circle while holding signs that read, for example, “Homosexuals Are Citizens Also.”
The second of the films is of the country’s first gay pride parade in New York City in 1970. It features happy revelers strolling down the street while chanting, “Gay and proud, gay and proud, gay and proud.” Mike Mashon, head of the moving image division at the Library of Congress, considers the two movies—the first seven minutes long, the second 11½—as important artifacts.
“The thing that’s so interesting in watching Lilli’s movies,” Mashon said, “is the contrast between the 1968 very polite gathering—with the men in ties and the women in pearls,” and the much more freewheeling vibe in the film two years later.”
It’s one thing to read about how people became politicized after the raid on the Stonewall Inn in 1969, he said, but it’s another altogether to see the change captured through the jeans and T-shirts people are wearing in the pride parade.
“This is not something that was well documented in film,” Mashon said. “Any films that we have from the beginnings of the gay rights movement are really precious to us.”
Other items in the material relate to Vincenz’s 29-year relationship with her partner, Nancy Davis, and to her founding and hosting of a weekly open house for gay women in the 1970s as an alternative to the lesbian bar culture.
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