One evening in the late summer of 1961, a young woman named Lilli Vincenz walked into a “kind of a lesbian bar” called the Ace of Spades in Provincetown, Massachusetts. She had never been in such an establishment before, and this was a “very strange-looking shack, half-hidden behind a restaurant, with all kinds of old utensils hanging on the outside as ornaments.”
She was never the same again.
“I feel different,” she wrote that night in her journal. “To look at someone and smile and see the smile returned by a girl — this has never happened to me before. … Oh, it was wonderful to flirt with a girl!”
Vincenz, whose papers are preserved at the Library, would go on to be one of the nation’s most influential lesbian activists in the early days of the gay rights movement. Her delightful moment of self-discovery is just one dot in the Library’s sprawling collection of LGBTQ+ material that captures the joy, pain and perseverance of a demographic that has challenged the nation to uphold its post-Enlightenment ideals of fair play.
“Vincenz is a really important collection,” said Ryan Reft, who, along with fellow historian Elizabeth Novara, oversees LGBTQ+ collections in the Manuscript Division. “First, her papers, along with those of activist Frank Kameny, serve as a window into the homophile movement of the midcentury and its fight for equal rights, as well as documenting the developments in the LGBTQ+ community that followed. Second, Vincenz also provides a lesbian voice, which our collections sometimes lack. While one can discover in our collections pockets in which notable figures appear, we are working to diversify the voices archived in the division generally but particularly as it pertains to LGBTQ+ history.”
Major American lives and subjects fill significant collections — Frances Benjamin Johnston, Leonard Bernstein, Alvin Ailey, Alla Nazimova, Cole Porter, the AIDS Memorial Quilt Archive — as well as midcentury activist groups such as the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society.
Behind the big names, there are countless moments of smaller lives and subjects. There is the tiny collection of photographs of gender-nonconforming older adults by photographer Jess Dugan from the 2018 book “To Survive on This Shore.” There are wonderful moments, such as the recording of Audre Lorde reading her poetry in a 1982 appearance in the Coolidge Auditorium.
Today, the Library collects LGBTQ+ material at the research level, and the Pride in the Library: LGBTQ+ Voices in the Library’s Collections research guide is an excellent starting point. There also are specially curated exhibits such as “Serving in Silence: LGBTQ+ Veterans.”
“I’m glad that we’re able to talk now,” said Tedosio Louis Samora, a U.S. Army veteran who served in the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion in Vietnam, in a filmed interview with the Veterans History Project. Samora, part of a Mexican-American family that has a tradition of military service, discussed the confrontational, even violent emotions involved in coming out to his brothers, who also served in the conflict.
The nation’s engagement with queer issues began almost as soon as the first settlers landed at Jamestown in 1607. Take, for instance, the 1629 Virginia General Court case of Thomas(ine) Hall. Hall was an intersex person whose genitalia and gender identity confounded local authorities. A judge finally ruled that Hall was both a “a man and a woeman” and ordered Hall, then about 28, to always wear a man’s breeches and shirt and a woman’s apron and cap.
Skip to a summer night in 1870 and we find Walt Whitman, the nation’s poet, dashing off a few quick lines to Peter Doyle, his intimate companion two decades his junior: “Good night, Pete, — Good night my darling son — here is a kiss for you, dear boy — on the paper here — a good long one.” The final “o” is smudged, as if Whitman did indeed give the page a smack.
A generation later, Johnston — a renowned photographer of everything from U.S. presidents to architecture — took a provocative self-portrait. She posed as a “new woman” in 1896: Hiking her skirt to the knee, holding a beer stein in one hand and a cigarette in the other. She would go on to become not just a pioneer of photography but also as a lesbian icon.
In the 1910s, few people were more glamorous than stage actress, director and producer Eva Le Gallienne. Among her other female lovers, she sometimes dated the equally glamorous actress and producer Alla Nazimova.
Nazimova’s papers at the Library document her larger-than-life persona. A Russian actress and accomplished violinist who studied under the legendary actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski, she immigrated to the U.S. and became a huge stage and film star. In 1918, she was making $13,000 per week, even more than Mary Pickford.
She was also “Broadway’s most daring lesbian,” according to “The Sewing Circle,” a 1995 history of “Female Stars Who Loved Other Women” by Axel Madsen. (She had a “lavender marriage” for several years to help disguise her relationships.)
Most famous for her work in the plays of Ibsen and Chekhov, she produced and starred in the avant-garde silent film “Salome,” a 1922 adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play. It was a disaster when released but was added to the National Film Registry in 2000 and today is regarded as a key moment in the history of gay cinema. In a 2013 book, “The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood,” author Diana McLellan dubbed Nazimova “the founding mother of Sapphic Hollywood.”
Nazimova’s most lasting contribution to Hollywood-wide lore may have been her Sunset Strip estate, which she called, tongue firmly in cheek, “the Garden of Alla.” It was a huge mansion on 2.5 acres and a haven for exclusive parties. She sold it in the late ’20s with the stipulation she could stay rent-free for the rest of her life. The new owners added an “h” to “Alla,” to complete the Islamic reference, and two dozen private villas.
It became a prominent (often scandalous) backdrop to the golden age of Hollywood, the subject of histories and novels, mentioned in films and plays. A name-check of guests is astonishing: Clara Bow, Errol Flynn, Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, D.W. Griffith, Barbara Stanwyck, Eartha Kitt and Ronald Reagan.
By the 1940s, Nazimova was in her 60s and her career, a good bit of her health (she’d had cancer) and most of her income was gone. Still, she was the affectionate godmother of actress Nancy Davis, who later married Reagan and became first lady of the United States. And she was living openly with her longtime partner, actress Glesca Marshall.
A new era began just a few years later, with activists beginning to wage battles for open acceptance at work, play, military service, worship and marriage. The Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian activist group, was formed in 1955, published a magazine called The Ladder and was a mainstay to early activists such as Vincenz.
Which brings us to the vast collection of Frank Kameny, founder of the Mattachine Society of Washington.
A native New Yorker, gay World War II combat veteran and a Harvard-educated astronomer, he became one of the nation’s most influential gay voices from the late 1950s until his death in 2011. He was particularly involved in the “homophile movement” of the 1960s before the Stonewall Riot in 1969 in New York created the modern gay-rights era. So profound are his contributions to the American cause that his house in northwest D.C. — the Mattachine Society’s headquarters, salon and nerve center — is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
His papers at the Library are vast — more than 56,000 items. Perhaps his greatest victory came in 1973, when his decadelong campaign to have homosexuality removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders finally bore fruit. The organization declared that being gay was no longer considered a mental illness.
“VICTORY!!!!” he wrote in the subject heading of a Dec. 15, 1973, letter to his friends and supporters. “We have been ‘cured’!”
He might have been premature in predicting the acceptance of LGBTQ+ life in the U.S., but his enthusiasm at the moment is preserved at a pivotal moment in national history.
This article appears in the May-June issue of the Library of Congress Magazine.
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