Jack Nichols Jr. Dies; Pioneer of Gay Activism

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 5, 2005

Jack Nichols Jr., 67, a writer and editor and one of the first gay activists to take to the streets in Washington, Philadelphia and New York, died May 2 of leukemia at Cape Canaveral Hospital in Cocoa Beach, Fla.

"Jack was among the gay pioneers who stepped out of a debilitating closet and helped crack the cocoon of invisibility," said Malcolm Lazin, executive director of Equality Forum, a Philadelphia-based gay rights group.

On April 17, 1965, Mr. Nichols and nine other protesters held a gay rights demonstration in front of the White House, the first of six such rallies in Washington that year. Three were at the White House and the rest were at the Civil Service Commission, Pentagon and State Department. Mr. Nichols and his fellow demonstrators protested government hiring practices that discriminated against gay men and lesbians. They also sought to call attention to Fidel Castro's policy in Cuba of rounding up gays and consigning them to work camps.

"With the possible exception of a picket in New York, this was the first public demonstration by gay men and lesbians," said historian David K. Johnson, author of "The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government" (2004), in a recent interview in the Washington Blade.

Frank Kameny, who in 1961 founded the Mattachine Society in Washington -- one of the earliest groups to fight for gay rights -- said the Washington demonstrations, "created the mindset for public expressions of dissent by gay people."

Without them, he theorized, the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York would not have happened. The protests, responses to a police raid on a gay bar in Greenwich Village called the Stonewall Inn, are celebrated as the first time a significant number of gays resisted arrest and publicly protested police mistreatment.

Mr. Nichols and his longtime partner, Lige Clarke, were at the Stonewall just before and after the riots and demonstrations. "The revolution in Sheridan Square must step beyond its present boundaries," they wrote in the first gay-authored account of the event. "The homosexual revolution is only a part of a larger revolution sweeping through all segments of society. We hope that 'Gay Power' will not become a call for separation, but for sexual integration . "

A charter member of the D.C. Mattachine Society, Mr. Nichols founded a Florida chapter in 1965. From 1965 to 1969, he helped organize annual Fourth of July demonstrations in front of Philadelphia's Independence Hall.

Working with Kameny and fellow Mattachine Society members, he was among the first gay activists to challenge the American Psychiatric Association's official position that homosexuality was a mental illness.

"He found it deeply offensive," Kameny said. "We both knew that as long as psychiatrists, the acknowledged authorities of the moment, considered us a bunch of loonies, no one was ever going to give us our rights and liberties."

The association reversed its position in 1973.

Mr. Nichols was born in Chevy Chase. He recalled in an interview last fall with Chicago's Windy City Times that he publicly acknowledged his homosexuality at 13 and became "a full-fledged self-accepting gay teen" at 15, after reading Walt Whitman and other writers and philosophers.

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