By Adam Brinklow
The Library of Congress picked up a mother lode of documentary filmmaker, LGBT rights activist, and just generally awesome person Lilli Vincenz’s diaries, photos, and articles this week, preserving a first-person chronicle of the transition from the close-case America of the 1960s to the out and proud America we enjoy today.
So what’s so important about Vincenz that her personal papers should be enshrined next to Thurgood Marshall’s, Benjamin Franklin’s, and the government’s personal copy of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (no, really, it’s in there)? Well, after being discharged from the army for being gay, she showed up to the nation’s very first gay rights protest in front of the White House in ’65. Then she joined one of the earliest LGBT rights groups in the country, the Mattachine Society, and became the first editor of their newsletter, The Homosexual Citizen (we’re a little envious of that pub title), writing under the pseudonym “Lilly Hansen” for fear of reprisal if anyone found out her real name.
An excerpt from one of her 1966 editorials:
“We need more Voltaires today. We need men who can transcend their identifications as heterosexuals or homosexuals and who can see, in all its myriad reflections, the damnable evil which lies curled in the midst of injustice and inequality. […] We need men who refuse to throw the burden of injustice onto the so-called tides of history and who will not succumb to the tragic notion that things will take care of themselves.”
Wow. Here she is again the following month:”¨”¨”In a startling attempt to evade facing the issue of its treatment of homosexual American citizens, the US Civil Service Commission has resorted to the outlandish device of simply declaring that homosexuals do not exist—only people who commit homosexual acts. That this leaves open the question of why only some people perform homosexual acts doesn’t seem to occur to the Commission.”
Once she was done totally owning that job she produced “The Second Largest Minority,” a landmark short documentary about the still-emerging fight for gay rights in ’68, and showed up to shoot New York’s first gay pride parade in 1970. Then she worked on the congressional campaign of Frank Kameny, the first openly gay man to seek public office in America (though she admits they had to downplay his orientation to get enough signatures to put him on the ballot, something they did by standing in front of Safeways and just ambushing people with pamphlets).
Vincenz, now 75, credits her packrat ways (even items like greeting cards from luminary LGBT figures are now to be preserved with her other personal records) to a calculated decision to make a record of what was happening. And while the library had to, for example, pay $20 million for Martin Luther King’s personal papers, Vincenz chipped hers in free of charge, telling the Washington Post, “I just think of giving to people what will be helpful.” Classy.