Lilli Vincenz, a Lesbian Crusader When Few Dared to Be One, Dies at 85


Lilli Vincenz, who became a gay rights activist in the hushed, repressive era before the Stonewall rebellion of 1969, when such a concept scarcely existed, making a mark as a newspaper editor, documentary filmmaker and psychotherapist devoted to L.G.B.T.Q. issues, died on June 27 in Oakton, Va. She was 85.

Her death, at a care facility, was confirmed by a niece, Julia Bode, who did not specify a cause.

Dr. Vincenz’s journey to prominence in the nascent gay rights movement of the mid-1960s began after a personal collision with intolerance. In 1963, she was serving in the Women’s Army Corps when a roommate outed her as gay, leading to her discharge after only nine months in uniform.

She took that rejection as an opportunity to begin a fight against injustice that would guide her for decades. “After leaving the WAC,” she said in an interview with the site Gay Today, “I actually felt free to be me.”

In April 1965, Dr. Vicenz became, by most accounts, the first lesbian to picket the White House in support of equal rights for gay people as a member of the Mattachine Society of Washington, an early gay rights organization.

The protest — the first of its kind, according to the Library of Congress — and others that followed were small but brought visibility to a movement in its infancy.

“What did I want to accomplish?” she told Gay Today about her early efforts with the society. “Be with gay people, help the movement, help unmask the lies being told about us, correct the notion of homosexuality as a sickness and present it as it is, a beautiful way to love.”

The following year, Dr. Vincenz became the editor of the Mattachine Society’s monthly newsletter, The Homosexual Citizen. In 1969, she and another activist, Nancy Tucker, spun off a newspaper of their own, The Gay Blade, which became the Washington Blade, the country’s oldest L.G.B.T.Q. newspaper.

Carrying placards in front of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s home was hardly the only way that Dr. Vincenz sought to bring visibility to the cause.

In 1966, Dr. Vincenz became the first out lesbian to appear on the cover of a national gay magazine, The Ladder, a publication produced by the country’s first lesbian-rights group, the Daughters of Bilitis, according to a retrospective on her life and career by Lillian Faderman, a historian of lesbian and gay culture.

With her scrubbed, all-American looks, Dr. Vincenz looked like “every mother’s dream daughter,” as Barbara Gittings, The Ladder’s editor, put it.

Dr. Vincenz also contributed to the cause on the other side of a camera, making two 16-millimeter films that were later hailed as significant artifacts of the early gay rights movement.

The first, titled “The Second-Largest Minority,” documents a Mattachine Society protest in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1968.

To modern eyes, the black-and-white film, roughly seven minutes, seems anything but seismic. Looking like a home movie, it shows clean-cut protesters in office attire marching in an orderly circle, carrying placards with messages like “Sexual Preference Is Irrelevant to Employment.”

But the protest was revolutionary for the times.

“The whole notion of gay people publicly expressing their sentiments in that fashion was beyond conceptualization until we started doing it,” the Mattachine Society’s co-founder, Franklin E. Kameny, told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2001. “If we had not persisted, there would have been no Stonewall.”

Her second film, “Gay and Proud,” documented the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade in 1970, a commemoration of the first anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in Manhattan. The uprising, after a police raid at Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, was a turning point in the gay rights movement.

“Gay and Proud” shows a much larger, and shaggier, gathering of protesters taking a more militant stance in the parade, chanting defiantly and waving placards with messages like “I am a lesbian and I am beautiful.”

In addition to providing a “vital piece of gay history,” Ms. Faderman wrote, Dr. Vincenz’s films “gave us visual documentation of the astonishing distance that the gay movement had traveled between 1968 and 1970.” Even the titles of the films, she added, showed “how the movement ceased beseeching and became in-your-face challenging.”

Lilli Marie Vincenz was born in Hamburg, Germany, on Sept. 26, 1937, one of two daughters of Gustav Vincenz, a prosperous engineer who died of a heart attack when Lilli was 2, and Johanna (Reinitch) Vincenz, who remarried after World War II and moved the family to Fort Lee, N.J., in 1949.

Dr. Vincenz recognized her sexuality early on, she said in a 2008 interview, and “it became painful after a while to realize that I was gay and I didn’t know anyone else who was gay. I was extremely lonely.”

A skilled linguist and writer, she graduated from Douglass College, part of Rutgers University in New Jersey, in 1959, with a bachelor’s degree in French and German.

The following year, she earned a master’s degree in English and comparative literature from Columbia University, and was planning to continue her studies for a doctorate. But after a stint as an editor in the book publishing industry, she decided to join the Army, in part because she had heard it was “a hotbed of gay people,” according to Ms. Faderman’s retrospective.

This putative hotbed, however, had a policy banning gay people from service, and she was thrown out while training as a neuropsychiatric technician at Walter Reed military hospital in Bethesda, Md.

During the 1970s, Dr. Vincenz ran a weekly discussion session called the Gay Women’s Open House, which functioned as a marketplace of ideas and sanctuary of sorts for lesbians in the Washington area. It was around this time that she began to date Nancy Ruth Davis, a writer and activist who would become her partner for decades. Ms. Davis died in 2019. Dr. Vincenz left no immediate survivors.

In the 1970s, Dr. Vincenz decided to take a more intimate approach to helping gay people in their struggles. She earned a master’s degree in psychology from George Mason University in Virginia and started a psychotherapy practice catering to their needs. She eventually earned a doctorate from the University of Maryland.

“I find it a privilege to work with gay people who are, in general, so much more courageous, innovative and open to new ideas than the average straight person,” she told Gay Today. “Many of their wounds have been sustained in the pursuit of and validation of who they are, and of not wanting to hide their identity or settle for less.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *