Lilli Vincenz, South Arlington, Virginia, November 5, 1978.
Introduction: Lilli Vincenz was the most active woman in the Mattachine Society of Washington in the 1960s. Her interview gives a sense of the workings of MSW, its political perspective, conflicts and differences within it and with other homophile groups, and relations between activists. She also provides some interesting details of the life of a young adult coming to terms with being a lesbian in the early to mid-1960s and her experience in the military during the era of witchhunts.
First connected with Mattachine Society Washington [MSW] in fall 1963. Saw an ad for New York Mattachine in Village Voice—wrote—referred to MSW by them. Had been in the Army.
“A conviction that this was the thing to do. The injustices were incredible and irrational. I felt that what was good enough for the Greeks was good enough for me.”
Felt absolutely sure about anti-sickness – many people were uncomfortable with it, not so sure, others felt “a mistake in tactics. People weren’t ready for it.”
“A hard-core idealist”
1963: a waitress. Had an MA in lit from Columbia. Dropped out of Ph.D. Editing work for Prentice-Hall, then joined the army. Got a general discharge—someone turned her in as gay—at the end of purge—her straight roommate. When confronted, said yes. Given general discharge because nothing in record, a model soldier.
Knew she was gay before Army but knew no one. Met other gay women in army for first time.
Discharge in January 1963. Was working in psych ward of Walter Reed. “I was so bright, so up-and-coming, how could I be a lesbian?” → her supervisors thought. A turning point in her life: “I couldn’t play a game anymore—because I was exposed.”
MSW, 1963: not more that 20-30 involved. A rather clandestine group. Met in private homes. “A daring thing.” She was the second woman—other was a lawyer, straight. She recruited a few more. A few straight women in MSW. “Always mainly male.”
“A female male chauvinist, I felt pretty much at ease.” At that point, not the tensions yet between male and female. Never thought about starting a DOB chapter. Saw it as “a lesbian YWCA, for which there was a place. But I was more interested in social change. I was not interested in a primarily social service group, protective of women.”
Grew very slowly. Personal friends. Did lots of propagandizing. “I couldn’t understand why everybody wouldn’t immediately rush out and support this worthy cause—fear and hopelessness, those were the reasons. They didn’t believe that any change was possible.” A lot of her friends had high paying jobs with the government. Vincenz then working for American Institute of Architecture—her boss knew.
Served in many executive committee positions: secretary, treasurer, editor. Joan Fraser = her pseudonym. Also was an ECHO delegate.
“Women didn’t have any way to meet. Often it was the gay men who were useful in bringing women together.”
John Marshall, Bob King → both pseudonyms.
Jack Nichols—the one who got the first picket together, a last minute thing—to protest Cuba policy regarding homosexuality. At the White House.
Ellen (straight), Gale (straight), Eva (gay).
The challenge to Kameny in 1964: Undemocratic—wanted things his own way. “We didn’t want to be dominated by a dictator.” Vincenz influential in King’s victory. Kameny “had the most ironclad commitment and constitution.”
Members dropping out—there had to be something for members—Vincenz felt that both could be done: activities for members; social cause activities. Much more factionalism in New York than in Washington. Washington always more amicable.
Close contact with Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin from the beginning. Close friendship. Lots of TV appearances together in post Stonewall. Last real active involvement was in Kameny campaign – she was instrumental in it. For DC’s first Congressional election. Washington GAA was born out of the campaign.
In every major picket from 1965 to 1969. “Our tactic was not to offend, not to antagonize. We were trying to cater to the straight majority—no local color!”
Stonewall led to a broad-based movement. talked about it at July 4th picket: already jeans, sandals, holding hands. People were “shocked.” “When you have just a few people, you can’t come across as too bizarre.”
First Christopher Street March: Filmed it. Didn’t expect it would be so large.
“We were breaking new ground. We had to go easy. Therefore we tried to look conservative in our dress and behavior. I think that was the right way to do it—to try to be conservative, polite, convincing, to be appealing, to let people see that we were not degenerates, the non-verbal message. They wouldn’t be persuaded by any rational argument. If they can identify with you as a person, then they can listen to your message.”
“We were in the position of being circus freaks, oddballs.”
“We tried to persuade in a manner they could accept.”
Kameny had a “sledge-hammer approach.” Great for the government.