A brief history of gay DC

As a member of the board of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association and a proud resident of our nation’s capital, I welcome you to Washington, DC! Washington, DC is a gay and lesbian-friendly city, where people of different races and beliefs have come together to live and work. Nestled among the many interesting and diverse neigh- borhoods, you can enjoy a variety of ethnic restaurants, world-class art and culture, and, of course, impressive history.

It is truly an honor and privilege to live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Stroll the shops of Adams Morgan, breathe in the history of the world-famous National Mall, grab a bite to eat in Dupont Circle. A visit to Washington, DC is a wonderful–and safe–experience. Gays and lesbians enjoy the full support of the city and the Washington, DC Convention and Visitors Association.

How well do you know your history?

The story of gay DC

The size and diversity of Washington, DC’s gay and lesbian community is best demonstrated by its intricate network of more than 300 social, athletic, religious, political and support groups. From the Rainbow Investors Club to the Centaur Motorcycle Club, there is a group to match almost any interest. Bisexuals, transgendered people, and other minori- ties within the gay community have also formed groups of their own. The Gertrude Stein Democratic Club and the Log Cabin Republicans lobby within the political system, while the street protests of groups such as the Lesbian Avengers challenge the system itself.

Gays who prefer the night life can choose from more than 35 bars with a predominantly gay clientele – and from the many more establishments in the city that welcome and accept same-sex cou- ples. Living an openly gay life was not always an option however. Jeb Alexander, born in 1899, kept his sexual- ity secret throughout his life, particularly at his federal job (until 1975, gay feder- al employees faced dismissal from the Civil Service on the grounds that they engaged in "immoral conduct"). His diaries, published posthumously by Faber & Faber, are one of the few records of gay life in Washington prior to the 1960s. The dangers of being outed did not stop Alexander and his peers from having a good time. Discreetly, he met men at Lafayette Square and local clubs. Gay and lesbian bars were subject to police raids; so much of the social life took place at private house parties.

At one private club near Dupont Circle that operated in the 1920s and ‘30s, the legendary singer, Billie Holiday, reported- ly had a sizzling moment onstage with Miss Kentucky. Nob Hill (1101 Kenyon St., NW), the nation's oldest gay bar still in operation, was founded in 1957 and attracted stu- dents from Howard University.

It wasn't until the late 1950s that gays in Washington, DC began to push for political and legal rights. Frank Kameny, was only one of many fired from a feder- al job because he was gay, but he was the first willing to come out and fight his dismissal. His appeal failed, but Kameny continued his efforts through his involve- ment with the Mattachine Society, the first gay organization in Washington.

The organization, founded in 1961, aimed to "secure for homosexuals the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." With its members dressed in business attire, the Washington chapter of the Mattachine Society led the first gay pick- et of the White House in April 1965. In 1969, the Stonewall Riots in New York were triggered when patrons of a gay bar fought back against a police raid. The riots unleashed a new wave of loud and proud activism that extended to other cities around the nation, Washington included. The Washington Blade, then a one-page mimeographed newsletter, began publishing in October 1969.

That same year, the Mattachine Society launched its historic "Gay is Good" campaign. In 1970, the Metropolitan Community Church began its groundbreaking gay Christian ministry. The Gay Activists Alliance, an "action-ori- ented" political group, organized in 1971. It is now known as the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance. That same year, a radical lesbian collective called the Furies formed. Rita Mae Brown and other accomplished lesbians were part of this short-lived but influential group. In 1973, DC Mayor Walter Washington, signed a law banning dis- crimination against gays in housing, pub- lic accommodation, bank credit, and employment.

Frank Kameny became the first openly gay person appointed to a DC government position when Mayor Washington selected him for the city's Human Rights Commission in 1974.

Despite the gay community's improved political stature, much work remained. Police raids and bashings still happened. More local groups, such as Gay Men and Lesbians Opposing Violence and the DC chapter of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, formed to counter attacks on gays. By the mid-1980s, the AIDS epidemic began to take its toll on DC’s gay com- munity. AIDS activists, critical of the fed- eral government's slow response to the crisis, mobilized to form a local network of support and health organizations still in place today. By the 1990s, The Washington Blade, now a weekly newspaper, had expanded to over 100 pages.

In 1991, the coun- try's first Black Gay and Lesbian Pride Day was held in DC. In 1993, the DC sodomy law was repealed. In 1996, Sabrina Sojourner became the city's first openly gay citywide elected official, serv- ing as shadow representative to Congress. In December 1997, David Catania was elected to the city council, becoming its first openly gay member. Another openly gay council member, Jim Graham, was elected in 1998. Washington's gay and lesbian commu- nity is probably best known for its role at the national level. With 34 national gay organizations, the city has become a hub for the national gay and lesbian civil rights movement. National civil rights marches were held in Washington in 1979, 1987, and 1993. An estimated 750,000 people traveled to DC for the 1993 march, which received media coverage around the world. The next march is planned for April 2000.

Sheila Walsh is a former editor at the Washington Blade and a contributor to Microsoft’s Washington Sidewalk.com and Trips Magazine. Articles from the Washington Blade were consulted as a source for the article.

Take a neighborhood by neighborhood tour of Gay Washington DC

Washington, DC is more than the National Mall and the U.S. Capitol ... it is a city of diverse neighborhoods, each offering something unique to the gay and lesbian traveler. Whether you choose to stroll our revitalized down- town or the funky Adams Morgan neighborhood, you’re sure to find something of interest. Happy exploring!

Dupont Circle

The day before the 1993 March on Washington for Gay, Lesbian, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation, the traffic on the streets and sidewalks of the Dupont Circle neighborhood slowed to a near halt. Tourists from around the nation poured out of the Dupont Circle Metro to visit the neighborhood that is known as the heart of DC’s gay commu- nity. With same-sex couples and pro-gay T-shirts everywhere, it seemed as if the world had suddenly gone gay. Even on an ordinary day, a gay cou- ple strolling hand-in-hand is a common sight in Dupont Circle. Pro-gay T-shirts, however, are not.

The “in” styles at most Dupont Circle gay bars reflect DC’s conservative milieu -- athletic or busi- ness attire rules. Though Dupont Circle is considered a “gay neighborhood,” people showing same-sex affection should exercise caution. Hate crime against gays are rare in this neighbor- hood, but have been reported. Although many local gays prefer to live and socialize in other neighbor- hoods, Dupont Circle offers the largest number of businesses that cater to the gay community. They are concentrated in three areas of the neighborhood: Connecticut Ave., NW, four blocks north and south of Dupont Circle; P St., NW, between 20th and 23rd Sts., and 17th St., NW, between P and R Streets. Bars, particularly for men, are abun- dant but many non-alcoholic alterna- tives such as coffee shops and arts events are equally popular.

A great way to get “in the life” is by visiting the neighborhood’s two gay bookstores, Lambda Rising and Lammas Women’s Books. Visitors can pick up publications with information on special events.

Adams Morgan

A Sunday afternoon visit to this multi- cultural enclave is a sensory experience. Incense wafts from stores, mingling with the tantalizing smells of the neighbor- hood’s Ethiopian, French, Mexican, Caribbean, and Nouvelle American cuisine. Sunday brunch, a tradition among many in DC’s gay community, is the best way to start the day. Perry’s, for exam- ple, offers a mix of Asian and American cuisine as drag queens with attitude sashay through the aisles. After brunch, stroll down Adams Morgan’s main strip, 18th St., NW, south of Columbia Rd., and enjoy the neighbor- hood’s selection of eclectic boutiques. Perhaps you’ll find the five-inch platform shoes of your dreams.

Many of the shops specialize in interna- tional imports such as woven baskets and jewelry. Although Adams Morgan is not known for its gay night life, many gays, particularly those involved with progres- sive causes, have made the neighbor- hood their home. They prefer the neighborhood’s diversity and bohemian bent to the sometimes homogenous Dupont Circle scene. Most of the restaurants are gay-friendly, although cruising is of the heterosexual persua- sion at most of the bars. Adams Morgan is famous for its Ethiopian restaurants, where savory stews are scooped up with a traditional pancake- like bread. For something completely different, check out the D.C. Arts Center. Known as DCAC, this arts center show- cases cutting-edge art and theater.

Capitol Hill & Southeast

A visit to Capitol Hill is a must for any visitor interested in Washington, DC’s primary industry: power. The US Capitol is a good place to start. You can observe Congress by getting a free pass from your representative. There are guided or self-guided tours of the building. From the west terrace there is an incredible view of the Mall and the Washington Monument. The Supreme Court, where some major gay-related cases have been heard, is another awe- inspiring sight. Bookworms should check out the nation’s premiere library, The Library of Congress. Residential Capitol Hill, stretching south and east of the US Capitol, is sur- prisingly quiet and picturesque. Gay res- idents tend to stay here longer than those of Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan. Several gay bars can be found around the 800 block of Pennsylvania Ave., SE. On the week-ends, artisans and farmers sell their goods at Eastern Market, a good place to people-watch and get a taste of local life. South of Eastern Market, near the Navy Yard, there is a smattering of gay bars. Tracks DC, has several gay nights each week and a lesbian night once a month. Others, such as La Cage Aux Follies and Wet, are known for their physically fit male dancers. In this area, it’s best to taxi to and from clubs.

U Street/ Cardozo

From the 1920s through the ‘50s, the U Street corridor was known as Washington’s “Black Broadway.” Great musicians such as Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington performed at the Howard Theater, the Lincoln Theater, and other places in the neighborhood. Georgia Douglas Johnson’s home at 1461 S St., NW, was a social center for DC gays in the early 1900s and attracted the likes of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Angeline Grimke, and Alaine Locke. Reuniting the old with the new, the Lincoln Theater was renovated in 1994 and is once again a performing arts center. Now the neighborhood is home to a new generation of gay organiza- tions, theaters, and gay-owned business- es. This includes the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum, the Whitman Walker Clinic, and The Washington Blade. Sisterspace and Books, a popular gathering place, hosts many readings and events of interest to black lesbians and women in general.

If you are visiting Washington, DC and want a workout, why not try one of the city’s gay-friendly gyms? Day or week passes are available for purchase at most gyms. If team sports are your thing, you’ll find everything from crew to roller skating. Many of these teams welcome out-of-town visitors. The best way to find current contact informa- tion for teams is by checking the Washington Blade, the city’s weekly gay newspaper. You’ll find listings for teams such as the Federal Triangles Soccer Club , which observes the Washington, DC warm-weather tradition of playing pickup games on the National Mall.

The DC FrontRunners is another active sports club. Perhaps the simplest way to get exercise in DC is to go for a walk. The National Mall, for example, is a popular place to jog. If you want to see DC’s gay neighborhood, here’s a suggested route: Starting at Dupont Circle, go east along P Street and turn left (north) on 17th Street. If you can resist the tempta- tion to relax at an outdoor cafe, turn left on R Street and stay on that street until you reach 21st St., NW, where you will turn left. From there, turn left on P Street, NW. Dupont Circle is only two blocks away. This walk should take approximately 45 minutes to an hour – unless you get detained by a mocha latte or an ice cream cone.

How do DC’s gay power players play when they’re not on the job?

Executive director of the Human Rights Campaign since January 1995. Previously served as Director of Worldwide Litigation for Apple Computers. Favorite gay friendly restaurant: Mercury Grill. It’s gay-owned, has great food and atmosphere. Favorite tourist attraction: Dupont Circle for the gay neighborhood. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial—elegant and moving. Favorite event in DC: Human Rights Campaign’s National Dinner held every fall. Features inspirational civil rights and political leaders. What makes Washington, DC’s gay community unique? Combination of national and local gay politics and initia- tives; very diverse and well-informed community; interesting people from around the world.


Other Travel Tips: