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LGBT in Washington, DC: Our History

Washington, DC's LGBT community has been through struggles but always perseveres and shines through.

  • PRINT

For generations, Washington, DC has been a hometown like very few others. It is a city filled with a mosaic of backgrounds, ethnicities, faiths, livelihoods and boundless human possibilities.

As the nation’s capital, it offers a living history of America’s long journey for equal rights, so it’s no surprise that gays and lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people feel truly at home here.

Gay triumphs and struggles in Washington, DC tell countless human stories over the decades. Here are a few milestones:

  • Beloved poet and gay icon Walt Whitman tended to wounded Union soldiers in federal buildings transformed into make-shift hospitals throughout Washington during the Civil War.
  • Nameless gay civil servants kept their identities concealed in the 19th century and well into the next fearing dismissal on the grounds of ‘immoral conduct.’ Instead, they discreetly met other gay men at Lafayette Square and countless private clubs.
  • Nob Hill, the nation’s oldest gay bar still operating was founded in 1957 and remains a favorite with students from Howard University.
  • In 1965, America’s first gay civil rights demonstration took place in front of the White House, with picketers dressed in business suits aimed to impress and to protest. Civil rights pioneer Frank Kameny, fired from his federal job for being gay, helped lead the tiny but vocal demonstration.
  • In 1969, Washington’s first gay civil rights organizers, the Mattachine Society, launched its historic “Gay is Good” campaign and two years later, Mattachine leader Frank Kameny became the first openly gay man to run for a national office when he sought a seat in Congress.
  • Washington’s Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA), is the nation’s oldest continuously active gay organization. Founded on April 20, 1971, the organization dedicated itself to securing the “full rights and privileges” of citizenship for the gay community through its political organizing and advocacy. GLAA went to work right away. In 1972, the DC School Board banned discrimination on sexual orientation, making it the first such resolution by a school board in America. And in 1973, Mayor Walter Washington signed the city’s historic legislation banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing, public accommodation, bank credit and employment. Frank Kameny then became the first openly gay person to receive a city appointment, taking his seat on the Washington, DC Human Rights Commission in 1974.
  • Deacon Maccubbin, founder of Washington’s beloved gay community bookstore Lambda Rising, also helped foster the city's earliest gay pride celebrations beginning in the 1970s. Before (and since) the rise of the Internet, Lambda Rising has been a harbor of safety, inclusion and pride for generations of LGBT people.
  • The Washington Blade newspaper is also proud evidence of DC’s earliest efforts to connect gays and lesbians. It first began publishing in the fall of 1969 as a one-page mimeograph newsletter. Today, the Washington Blade frequently surpasses 100 pages each week and is one of the most respected voices in journalism in the community.
  • In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic brought its grip to Washington, DC. Like many communities, heroic responses emerged. While many voluntary groups banded together, two institutions led the entire metro area. The Whitman-Walker Clinic championed medical and social needs, while Food & Friends promised to bring healthy, nourishing meals to people living with HIV and AIDS. Both organizations today are still going strong, by saving and improving thousands of lives – and working with many more local HIV/AIDS causes.
  • In 1991, Washington, DC also became the site for America’s first Black Gay and Lesbian Pride Day – a symbol of the proud multiracial texture of the gay civil rights movement, and long-awaited visibility for many African-American men and women.
  • Since politics always plays such a visible role in the nation’s capital, gays and lesbians have long been major players since Frank Kameny’s earliest campaign. In 1993, the Washington, DC sodomy law was repealed, and three years later, Sabrina Sojourner became the city’s first openly gay citywide elected official – serving as shadow representative to Congress.
  • The Gertrude Stein Democratic Club flourishes in an activist community that is also home to the National Log Cabin Republican leadership.
  • In 1997, David Catania was elected to the Washington, DC City Council, becoming the Council’s first openly gay member, followed in 1998 by Jim Graham, who for many years helped champion the Whitman-Walker Clinic’s success.
  • In 2002, Mirian Saez became the first openly-lesbian Latina DC School Board member.
  • National marches to advance gay and lesbian civil rights are also part of Washington’s fabric. Beginning with the faithful few in 1965 outside the White House, thousands also have gathered on the National Mall in 1979, 1987, 1993 and again in 2000 to lock arms and unite in common cause for gay equality and justice.
  • In 2003, in fact, the Human Rights Campaign, headquartered in Washington, DC, highlighted its stunning new downtown building that serves as a proud base for national activism, political change and full LGBT equality.

These are just snapshots of Washington’s gay community over the years. The struggles are never easy, but the progress always has been steady and proud. And fortunately, the roots of leadership and change in Washington, DC run very deep.

Today, Washington, DC is a very proud host to nearly three-dozen national organizations that speak for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, their families and friends. All of these respected organizations and dozens of local groups and nonprofits work tirelessly to better the lives of all Americans, to banish stigma and shame for gays and lesbians and, most importantly, to ensure that the United States and its capital are beacons for all – including LGBT citizens and visitors.

The Capital Pride Festival, celebrating the GLBT community, takes place every summer in Washington, DC. In 2012, more than 250,000 people joined the street festival.
The Capital Pride Festival, celebrating the GLBT community, takes place every summer in Washington, DC. In 2012, more than 250,000 people joined the street festival. - Photo by Mr. T in DC
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