A year before the Stonewall riots sparked what's become known as the modern gay-rights movement, pioneering advocates for gay equality -- sorry, "LGBT equality" -- marched in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
The day these pioneers chose was the Fourth of July, knowing that tourists would be celebrating the Independence Day holiday at the site where the Declaration of Independence was drafted, debated, and adopted in 1776. Their aim was to spread the word among middle Americans that in the phrase "all men are created equal," all means all.
One of the protesters for gay rights was Lilli Vincenz, who also brought along her own movie camera to record the event. Could she have known that, 46 years later, we would be celebrating gay equality rather than begging for it?
The Library of Congress has preserved Vincenz's film about that picket line (which includes an interview with the late Franklin Kameny, a well-known agitator who coined the phrase, "Gay Is Good."). Mike Mashon wrote on the Library's "Now See Hear!" blog on June 5:
The Library’s moving image collections are large (1.4 million film reels and videotapes with more arriving every day) and almost unimaginably diverse. We may not have every film or television show ever produced, but it’s a rare occurrence when Moving Image Research Center staff can’t help a patron find at least a little something related to their inquiry.
Every so often a precious jewel emerges from this mountain of content. I admit when I first heard that the Library was in the process of acquiring the collection of gay rights pioneer Lilli Vincenz I had no idea who she was. Not long before the official announcement, Dr. Vincenz’s representative Charles Francis—who was also instrumental in the Library’s acquisition of the Frank Kameny Papers in 2006—paid a visit to the Packard Campus and brought with him a copy of two of her films. The Second Largest Minority documents the “Reminder Day Picket” at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, on July 4, 1968, while Gay and Proud is about the first Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade held in New York City, June 28, 1970. We watched them together.
The films were revelatory.
Even apart from the subject matter, The Second Largest Minority is a tight little time capsule of life in the 1960s -- the clothes, the hairstyles, the manner with which people carried themselves.
Portions of this short, made by Lilli Vincenz on July 4, 1967, have been excerpted in other documentary films, such as Before Stonewall, but until recently only a few lucky people have seen the entire 7-minute record of this historic event.
Now you can see it, too:
The images are striking. First, there are the immaculately groomed, polite-but-persistent participants in the Philadelphia event. While a picket reading “Homosexuals Ask for Redress of Grievances” may not be the most soul-stirring call to arms, let’s also not forget the bravery of these pioneers, who faced much open hostility. Contrast this with the more defiantly celebratory attitude of the Christopher Street marchers just two years later. The Philadelphia pickets are still in evidence, but the operative word now is “pride.” It’s one thing to read about how the gay rights movement was catalyzed by the Stonewall Inn riots of June 1969, but quite another to see that tonal shift illustrated so vividly in these bookend films. Powerful movements can begin and be sustained in unlikely places, and how fortunate we are that Lilli Vincenz was there to record this one.For my 2010 interview with Frank Kameny about the early days of the gay rights movement, see Part I here and Part II here. For his reminiscences of his military service in the Second World War and the movement to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," look here. For my look back at the Stonewall riots of 1969, check out these posts: "Four Decades After Stonewall" and "41 Years Ago Today, the Queers Fought Back."
The 12-minute film, Gay and Proud, which documents the first "gay pride" parade in New York City in 1970, can also be viewed on the Library of Congress' "Now See Hear!" blog.