In Lilli Vincenz’s papers, a trove of gay rights history

(Linda Davidson/ The Washington Post ) - Gay rights pioneer Lilli Vincenz, left, at her Arlington home with her longtime partner, Nancy Davis.

(Linda Davidson/ The Washington Post ) - Gay rights pioneer Lilli Vincenz, left, at her Arlington home with her longtime partner, Nancy Davis.

The Library of Congress’s manuscript division has 11,500 collections, most of which are stored in a climate-controlled labyrinth in the Madison Building. The papers of several presidents are there, along with Thurgood Marshall’s and Helen Keller’s and George S. Patton’s. A teenage George Washington’s geometry books are here — equilateral triangles surrounded by flowery, even handwriting.

There are other people in the manuscript division, people you have never heard of: Truman Gibson, a lawyer and boxing promoter. Martin Oviatt, a Union soldier with the 6th Ohio Cavalry who kept three diaries during the Civil War. Sarah Stone, a 19th-century Massachusetts native with an autograph collection of 19th-century celebrities, such as Daniel Webster and Martin Van Buren. Also, a woman from Arlington County named Lilli Vincenz.

Gallery

History is written by the victors, but also by the scrapbookers, the collectors, the keepers, the pack rats. By those who show up, at the beginnings of things and with the right technology. History sometimes comes in pieces. It needs to be reassembled. Pasted and coaxed. Sometimes the finished product still has holes.

In one corner of the climate-controlled manuscript division, on a series of otherwise empty shelves, sits Lilli Vincenz’s unprocessed collection. It’s new. It just got here — the library announcement of the acquisition is scheduled to go out today.

Twelve boxes. Cream-colored. Heavy. Inside: meticulous fragments of the gay rights movement of the latter half of the 20th century. Political pamphlets, sociological surveys, photographs and obituaries. Diaries of a young woman who was nervous about going into her first gay bar but whose Arlington living room later became the default place for gay women to feel at home.

Birth of a movement

In 1968, Vincenz made a movie. A short documentary, called “The Second Largest Minority,” about a Philadelphia picket. It is seven minutes long and black and white. In the footage, men and women wearing starchy business attire pace in a silent circle holding signs that say, “Homosexuals Are Citizens Also.” Two years later, she made another film. This one is 111 / 2 minutes long. It documents the sun-kissed revelers of New York’s first gay pride parade, grooving out on the street and chanting “Gay and proud, gay and proud, gay and proud.”

Vincenz would have been in her late 20s and early 30s when she made these films. Her family had emigrated from Germany when she was a child. During this period of her life, she was in between a stint in the U.S. Women’s Army Corps — she worked in the Medical Corps and was honorably discharged when her roommate tattled that she might be gay — and a doctorate in psychotherapy. Interested in film, she borrowed a camera to shoot footage of early gay rights protest as a class assignment.

Throughout the 1970s, Vincenz peddled these clips out to independent film festivals across the country, $30 a rental, with steep penalties for late returns. She did a brisk business. The footage appeared in other films, eventually: “Before Stonewall,” “After Stonewall,” “Out of the Past,” “Gay Pioneers.”

The filmmaker Arthur Bressan used Vincenz’s footage in his documentary “Gay USA,” an early film about the movement. He later wrote her a thank-you note: “You had captured a moment in history as well as a flash of gay conscience and consciousness,” he wrote. “Your footage gives Gay USA a genuine sense of the beginnings of things.”

Her films became ur-texts of sorts, Zapruder footage for the gay rights movement — original sources, rare artifacts, used by groups around the country to understand what was happening or what had already happened in the early days of the crusade.

“The thing that’s so interesting in watching Lilli’s films is the contrast between the 1968 very polite gathering — with the men in ties and the women in pearls,” and the much more radical, freewheeling behavior in the 1970 film, says Mike Mashon. Mashon is the head of the moving image department at the Library of Congress. His facility in Culpeper will take possession of the films. (Vincenz had been contacted by an independent consultant who had previously helped other gay rights activists place their papers, offering to help Vincenz place hers.)

“It’s one thing to read about how people became politicized after the raid on the Stonewall Inn” in 1969, Mashon says, but it’s another to actually see the abrupt change happen — to witness the tonal shift of the movement over a few short years.

Today, the footage wouldn’t be noteworthy. Today, everyone attending a Pride parade would leave with iPhone footage. But “any films that we have from the beginnings of the gay rights movement are really precious to us,” Mashon says. “This is not something that was well documented in film.” The library doesn’t have anything else like them in the collection.

There is something poignant about one woman collecting the ephemera of a movement whose members were often avoiding documentation. In the 1960s, being gay was thought by some to be a moral offense, as well grounds for being fired. People who had the same artifacts as she did might have thrown them out for fear of being exposed.

Vincenz’s boxes function as an external hard drive for the memories of a generation, a cardboard representation of neurons and emotions and flesh and blood.

A life stored in boxes

Vincenz still lives in Arlington, on a quiet street with lots of trees. On a recent summer afternoon, Nancy Davis, her partner of 29 years, answers the door, leading a reporter upstairs, through a bedroom, into a walk-in closet and out the back side into a big, open music room, which Vincenz and Davis built as an addition over the garage. Vincenz plays the fiddle and hosts a folk jam Wednesday evenings.

“I thought you were coming in the other entrance,” Vincenz scolds from the music room. Her vision has been mussed.

Vincenz is now 75. She has a sleek cap of white hair. She wears comfortable-looking slacks and colorful button-down shirts. She comes across as the type of person who has certain ways of doing things: On this afternoon, she has arranged a seating area in the sun and set out bottles of water in preparation for the interview. If you phone her up and ask for “Lilli” without identifying yourself, she might respond, “This is Dr. Vincenz.”

“The word ‘donation’ doesn’t really resonate with me,” Vincenz will say, methodically considering the precision of language, when asked about her decision to donate her materials to the Library of Congress. “I just think of giving to people what will be helpful.”

Here are the types of things she’s offered to be helpful:

Paraphernalia from the Mattachine Society, an early “homophile” organization of which Vincenz was one of the first lesbian members, back in the days when members were required to use pseudonyms for fear of retribution. Back issues of “The Ladder: A Lesbian Review,” an independent publication whose cover she appeared on in 1965: short hair, bright eyes, wide and enviable smile. Articles and essays about a gay women’s open house, which Vincenz founded and hosted in her home through the 1970s — a homebody alternative to lesbian bar culture. One regular wrote a song:

Come all you women in the D.C. vicinity

If loving women is your proclivity

Rev up your engine, roll up your bike

And point your wheels to Columbia Pike

Carlyn Springs to 8th Place; turn to the right

For Lilli’s open house on Wednesday night.

In the files, one can learn how Vincenz first met her partner in 1984, when she placed a personal ad in the Washingtonian, looking to expand her social circle. “It looked as though I could have written it,” Davis told an interviewer in the early 2000s, according to a transcript preserved by the library, “because the interests were so similar.” Davis carried the ad around in her wallet for days, until the post office box was about to expire, before finally getting up the nerve to write back.

Vincenz, the files show, made a handwritten list of pros and cons before joining the military in 1961. “Lack of privacy,” she wrote in the “con” column. “Ad­ven­ture, excitement,” she wrote in the “pro,” which eventually won out.

The life that is so carefully documented in the climate-controlled boxes is fuzzier in real life, in her sunny music room.

Ask her to recall her first experience as an out lesbian, and she’ll say, “I wanted to find a gay bar, so I found a bar, and I found these women.”

Ask her why she kept everything — why she painstakingly stored the greeting cards and fliers that most people would sweep out with spring cleaning — and she’ll say, efficiently, “It’s just that I knew I had to do this. I had to. It was so important to me.”

Before one of their Wednesday music sessions, Davis jokes that they both have OLS — Old Lady Syndrome. Vincenz, Davis says, just has too much information, too many life experiences, “and no other place to put it.”

Some of the events of Vincenz’s activism are 50 years old. She’s recounted everything already, in other interviews through the years. Some events and details have faded.

“Didn’t we get married in Alaska?” Vincenz asks, sorting through sets of photographs in her home office.

“Well, among other places,” Davis says. They’ve been married three, or maybe four, times, on cruise ships around the world.

“But I only count Key West,” Vincenz says. “There was a minister there.”

The boxes that function as an external hard drive for a part of gay rights history also function as Vincenz’s personal hard drive.

So much to sort through

Lilli Vincenz lives in Arlington, where you can hear her play haunting renditions of John Prine songs but where some anecdotes are missing. And Lilli Vincenz lives in the Library of Congress, which has her diaries and her historic import, which sees this collection as an important contribution to its coverage of civil rights history.

Janice Ruth, the assistant chief of the manuscript division, has only begun to think about how the papers will be sorted and categorized and made available to the public. It’s a fairly small collection, but the job could still take months.

There’s just so much in there. Fliers from when Vincenz volunteered for the congressional campaign of openly gay Frank Kameny. The survey results for a study she conducted, which interviewed people about their perceptions of lesbians.

But Ruth has already begun to flag a few discoveries, things that excite her as an archivist and historian.

Like the diaries that Vincenz kept, which were never bound or formal but were rather loose sheets of notebook paper that Vincenz would write furiously in for several days or weeks at a time. One of these blocks of time was her first visit to Provincetown, Mass., which wasn’t the gay mecca it is today but did have a burgeoning community.

She met some women there, the ones she’d briefly alluded to in the interview. They told her about a lesbian bar called the Ace of Spades.

“I’m also afraid to go,” she wrote on Aug. 21, 1961. “At first I thought of all the consequences that could follow me from my being seen there by people and by being badmouthed even when not in the club — or worse yet, by being recognized by someone I knew! I also thought of my parents and what they would say. But then I thought of all I’d gone through in these past years, and I knew I had to go — no matter what the consequences — for the sake of the past, of the pain, but also for the wishes I’d had, time and time again proclaimed to be willing, if only I had the chance. Now, I can fulfill everything. Well, that’s saying too much — I can fulfill something.”

 
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