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Lilli Vincenz and the Power of Pride

Lilli Vincenz

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.

In fact, you should watch them now. I’ll resume on the other side.

The Second Largest Minority, 7 minutes

 

Gay and Proud, 12 minutes

 

Now, I’m a movie and TV enthusiast who likes to willingly suspend his disbelief in order to enjoy a good narrative, but as a media historian I also think of moving images as cultural constructs, chronicles of the lived experience, be they documentaries or fictional representations. And rarely have I seen two films–particularly when viewed in tandem–that struck me with such force. In less than twenty minutes combined, Vincenz’s camera recorded a seismic shift of such proportions that we’re still feeling the reverberations today.

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.

Lilli Vincenz and Charles Francis with part of her film donation.

Lilli Vincenz and Charles Francis with part of her film donation. [Photo courtesy of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C.]

Vincenz distributed a handful of 16mm copies of The Second Largest Minority and Gay and Proud to gay and lesbian groups and independent film festivals across the country for a rental fee of $30, preserving gay history one projector at a time. Both films were subsequently excerpted in other documentaries; given how little footage exists from the earliest days of the gay rights movement (and certainly there’s nothing else like them in our collection), The Second Largest Minority and Gay and Proud are especially precious.

While the vast majority of the Lilli Vincenz Papers are comprised of manuscripts, the collection also contains several prints of both films, so after inspecting them we chose the best copies for further preservation. We also scanned both on our Spirit datacine in order to create the files for online presentation.

One reason we were eager to launch “Now See Hear!” was to share some of our amazing content with a wider audience. There are a lot of public domain moving images that we can and will put online, and we will also work with rights holders to acquire permission to make their owned material more accessible. In Lilli’s case, she was not only willing, but insistent.

Thank you, Lilli, for your magnificent gift.

2 Comments

  1. Bob Skiba
    June 25, 2014 at 9:57 am

    These films are an incredible documentation of early gay rights activism in the U.S. I especially found the mix of formal 1960s “Mattachine” picket signs still sprinkled among the flamboyant “Gay Pride” signs in 1970 extremely telling; attitudes were changing. Many, many thanks for preserving these precious films and for sharing them.

  2. Bob Howard
    June 28, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    These films are treasures, for sure. The juxtaposition of the Philadelphia and NYC events is amazing. I have alerted many friends to the existence of these films. They are a must see for everyone, gay or straight, as this is American history, the history of all of our America.

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