Interview by Jack Nichols
While other demonstrators had readily accepted the 9 picket signs that my love, Lige Clarke, lettered , Lilli opted--when I telephoned her-- to create her own sign. She realized, I suppose, that we were engaged in an historic enterprise--the first instance of direct action by a gay and lesbian organization-- and she wanted her part in this enterprise to be fully her own creation.
In a now-famous photograph taken at the White House during the second picket (May 29, 1965) Lilli, one of the 3 women who marched, was, in fact, the only self-identifying lesbian. The other two women were heterosexually married, though one, J.D., referred to herself as a bisexual. (See the 1965 White House picket photo in John Loughery's The Other Side of Silence, Molly McGarry's & Fred Wasserman's Becoming Visible, Charles Kaiser's The Gay Metropolis, and my own most recent book, The Gay Agenda.)
Dr. Rodger Streitmatter, author of Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America, has showcased Lilli's talents as a pioneering movement editor. It was under her editorship, in fact, that some of my own earliest essays were published. Later, when Lige Clarke and I edited GAY, America's first gay weekly newspaper, Lilli wrote a regular column.
Journalism historian Streitmatter introduces her on page 60 in his book:
"Lilli Vincenz was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1937. It was after earning degrees in French and German that Vincenz felt the first sting of discrimination. She joined the U.S. Army, but, after nine months, another woman accused Vincenz of being a lesbian and she was forcibly discharged. After earning a master's degree in English from Columbia University, Vincenz worked as an editor at Prentice Hall Publishers. A year later she relocated to Washington and, while editing The Homosexual Citizen, worked as a technical typist for a printing company and an editorial secretary for a trade association."
As editor of the movement's first truly militant civil rights publication, Lilli's farsightedness became a matter of record. Dr. Streitmatter approvingly quotes Franklin Kameny's assessment of the publication:
"The ideology of The Homosexual Citizen can be perfectly summarized in three words: Activist,. Militant. Radical. Those were dirty words in 1966, but that's who we were. We were the cutting edge of the movement. The Homosexual Citizen reflected our activism--the unifying and protesting mindset on the vanguard of the movement."
Today, Lilli Vincenz is Dr. Lilli Vincenz. Having since earned her Ph.D. she's become a practicing psychotherapist. She and her life partner, Nancy Ruth Davis, founded the Washington-D.C. area's Community for Creative Self-Development. She remains, therefore, as indefatigable as ever.
Jack Nichols: Lilli, what were some of your first considerations when you joined the Mattachine Society of Washington? What did you want to accomplish?
After leaving the WAC, I actually felt free to be me and I immediately joined the Mattachine Society of Washington. It was 1963.
What did I want to accomplish? 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. I saw myself as being able to make a difference, as a pioneer working with other pioneers. Philosophically I was totally prepared for this role. It was an exhilarating time!
Jack Nichols: Correcting the notion of homosexuality as a sickness was an avant garde—even a radical position for gay movement people way back then. How about recalling some of your fond memories of those pioneering days?
It was from there, just before completing my training as a neuropsychiatric technician, that I was called off the ward and accused of engaging in homosexual behavior, then released with a General Discharge Under Honorable Conditions.
Walking with my picket sign--I wish I remembered the message--filled me with joy and pride--and, in retrospect, probably also with gratitude that I was able to participate in this important moment in history.
I also enjoy remembering filming the next to last Reminder Day Picket in front of Independence Hall in 1968 and the first anniversary of Stonewall, called the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, on June 28, 1970.
I knew that no one else was really documenting our work, and I had recently taken a film workshop and was able to borrow the Bolex 16mm camera from the instructor.
I felt that this footage would be important some day, and, indeed, my films have been shown in many cities and excerpted in several recent documentaries shown on PBS. Kay Tobin-Lahusen recently told me that I was the first lesbian videographer.
I remember attending DOB meetings in New York in their basement office. Shirley Willer was president, and she was an early proponent of lesbian rights and did not want men, even if they were gay, to interfere with, invalidate, or ignore the perspectives of lesbians.
I remember some clashes between her and Frank Kameny -- two Molly Browns of opposite sexes. Officially DOB did not have political aspirations, but their little magazine, started in the 50s, which I helped distribute in Washington, was a very important milestone in gay journalism. It contained news, book reports, feature articles; and as the feminist movement gained momentum in the 70s, it was the perfect vehicle for publicizing the viewpoints of lesbian feminists like Martha Shelley, Rita Mae Brown, and others.
The Homosexual Citizen, The Mattachine Society of Washington's civil libertarian magazine, was launched as late as January 1966 and came to an abrupt end in May 1967 when I quit as editor after an editorial policy dispute.
Jack Nichols: I remember--was it 1964 or 1965?--how you and I and Frank Kameny did a pioneering TV talk show in the nation's capital. The host, in a previous show, had insulted Kameny and me, and we thought that if only you could be present, he'd probably behave himself during a second appearance. Do you recall that program? The host bent over backwards being polite to you, right?
Lilli Vincenz: Right; he did behave. The TV program, WOOK, was on March 2, 1967, and the picture of the three of us was published in the last issue of The Homosexual Citizen. We three look very demure, I in the middle, ankles crossed, and you and Frank sitting with feet together on the floor.
(left) The father of activist militancy, Frank Kameny, Lilli Vincenz and GayToday's editor, Jack Nichols, on Washington, D.C.'s WOOK-TV, March 2, 1967.
Jack Nichols: Your creative streaks have grown significantly since those early days. What have been some of the major steps you've taken since the mid-60s?
Lilli Vincenz: Helping to launch the Kameny for Congress Campaign in 1971, at the instigation of Paul Kuntzler and Alan Hoffard, was also an exciting adventure, and I just knew we had to do it when Paul asked me to help.
Frank was not interested at the time, but this moment had to be taken advantage of, when Washington was getting a chance at representation in Congress, albeit nonvoting.
As a result of the publicity of that campaign to draft him on the Personal Freedom platform, the Mattachine Society of Washington telephone rang off the hook. Many women wanted to meet others, and my phone number was the only one available for giving out.
My then partner and I started the Gay Women's Open House to accommodate the need for gay and bisexual women, as well as those who thought they might be gay, to meet and talk in a protected social setting. From 1971 to 1978 every Wednesday night, rain or shine, our house was open to welcome women.
In 1972 Dr. George Weinberg--who coined the term homophobia in his wonderful book Society and the Healthy Homosexual--a good friend of mine, opined that I would make a good therapist for gay people and that it would only require a few courses; he was training therapists in New York all the time.
Well, what started with a few courses became another master's degree, this time in psychology. I was able to start a psychotherapy practice after a while and have been very happy in my profession.
Adding a PhD later, in human development and psychology, was just icing on the cake. The real joy has been working with gay and bisexual women and men and several gay-friendly people. It has been a challenge to my creativity and a tremendous growth experience. 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.
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. I am grateful to be able to help and to witness their empowerment and healing.
Jack Nichols: What would you say is the relationship between your earliest movement work and what you and Nancy do now for the Community for Creative Self-Development?
Lilli Vincenz: It is a logical progression. When still quite young I was interested in (a) how big the world was and where the universe actually ended -- and nobody could tell me, (b) how to find someone to love who could love back, and (c) how to be good at the art of living.
The German word "Lebenskuenstler" was used quite often in my family and means someone who knows how to live, who has mastered the art of living.
So, while I still have not determined where the universe ends ---though actually I have: it ends in God, where it began--I have the answers to the other two questions. In the homophile and gay movement I fought for the right to love, to find someone to love and be loved by.
Homosexuality is a love style, not a lifestyle. We make this leap to identify ourselves as gay because we LOVE, not primarily because our hormones direct us -- although they are important sign posts for leading us in the direction where love can be found.
As a psychotherapist I, of course, help people learn to love more successfully, which requires fundamentally that we love ourselves.
My political and educational work of the past needed to connect with my intrinsic bent to be good at the art of living, as well as with my desire to share my knowledge and skills--I'd wanted to become a college teacher to help people learn the art of living through literature.
The idea of forming, with my life partner, Nancy Ruth Davis, the Program (now Community) for Creative Self-Development combines all my interests and addresses creative self-development: the achievement of our full potential as evolving human beings.
Spirituality, while always playing an important role in my life, is now made prominent as a major ingredient of a fulfilled, happy and gay life. We in CCSD are pursuing creative self-development for ourselves and others. We believe that we have the key to living a happy life, and we want to help all gay people find their true identity and fulfillment.
Jack Nichols: The Community for Creative Self-Development is hosting--at American University-- its 8th annual conference on September 18th, right? What can attendees expect at the Conference?
Lilli Vincenz: Joy, creativity, peers also interested in developing their potential, prizes, new experiences, new friends, new knowledge.
This year we are focusing on the arts and their very important relationship to our joy of life and self-fulfillment. We are creators, all of us, and if we make that conscious, we can have so much more fun and make life so much deeper and grander, whether we are artists or appreciate the arts or discover, to our delight, that we have been artists without knowing it!
Some of us have created neuroses... Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist/psychologist, said that symptoms are a creative act. So, if we've created something we don't like, we learn to uncreate it.
At the Conference there will be six workshops: Gay Poetry: Songs of Ourselves; Creative Cash: Practical Applications of Your Passions; Invoking the Inner Artist in psychotherapy; Capture and Tame Your Creativity Animal; The Influence of Art on Child and Adult Development; and The Magic Theater.
After lunch comes the keynote address and film clips from "Chutney Popcorn," an award-winning feature film produced by Nisha Ganatra, a lesbian filmmaker who just graduated from the New York University film school under the tutelage of Spike Lee. She celebrates lesbian love and relationships very naturally and with much humor. Variety gave her a great review.
After the keynote comes the panel on The Arts as Nourishment. Five gay women and four gay men will discuss the relationship of their creativity or art appreciation to their personal growth. To finish, there is a social hour with a poetry reading, always a draw. And after the Conference everyone is invited to join CCSD staff for a restaurant dinner.
Lilli Vincenz: We have 12 Principles for Creative Self-Development that guide and inform our activities. (See our website for more information: www.zzapp.org/PCSDJoy.)
Principle 1 is "Evolving as an individual is a joyful and amazing process." In general, all activities are for both the CCSD core group and for others: our monthly Self-Development meetings, where we discuss issues important to us as individuals, the monthly poetry reading, love-freeing group, learning more about how to love, and the Spiritual Support and Channeling Group etc.
The Consciousness Raising Group, only for the core group, has permitted intimate personal sharing. More specifically, because we are a friendship network as well as a learning community, we socialize together and cement loving bonds with one another.
The core group members of CCSD thus have a nurturing environment in which to pursue personal growth and healing. At the Creative Self-Development Meeting last weekend we talked about making our principles a more central part of our discussions and personal attention, as is done with the steps of a 12-step program.
A "creative self-development plan" has been recommended in the past, and some version of that idea will probably come about soon. Nurturing the CCSD membership through our list serve is also something being pursued.
We are at CCSD@Onelist.com if anyone is interested in joining in the discussions.
Jack Nichols: I'm curious as to what is meant by the word "Creative" in Community for Creative Self-Development.
Lilli Vincenz: First, "Creative" means tapping innate creativity and imagination -- recognizing and prizing ourselves as creative beings, just as our Parent, who is God.
As offspring of divinity, we are obliged to do justice to our divine legacy by recognizing and using our creativity for our own and others' benefit and enjoyment.
Second, Creative means authorizing ourselves to be our own authority figure and to be free to pursue our individual paths, empowering ourselves to learn and do whatever is necessary to make us happy. Third. Creative means to be innovative in every aspect of our lives, inner and outer, with our personal lives, with others, in the smaller or larger community.
Gay people are particularly well suited to the observance and use of creativity because our very identity as gay is a creative act, allowing and requiring us to design our own lives.
Jack Nichols: Among the historic occasions you and I shared, Lilli, was our attendance at the first meetings of clergy dialoguing--at American University-- with gay men and lesbians. We hoped in those days to integrate gay men and lesbians into mainstream churches and synagogues.
You and I were also delegates to the first meeting--in January,1966--at the National Council of Churches. In the wake of more recent religious opposition from Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the Pope, what approach do you personally take to religion today? Does being a –follower--jive with being creatively independent?
Lilli Vincenz: First let me say that while I was present at the first meetings of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, I did not attend a meeting of the National Council of Churches, maybe because (I think you said) they were in New York.
My approach to religion has always been a positive one, although a somewhat unorthodox one. Baptized a Lutheran, I was confirmed in the Christian Community, an offshoot of anthroposophy and an eclectic mix of Eastern and Western religions.
Anthroposophy is the Christian philosophy of a breakaway group originally part of the theosophical movement. Very advanced and New Age thinking characterized anthroposophy even in the 50s, such as the promotion of solar power, biodynamic agriculture (no pesticides), an educational system, reflected in the Waldorf Schools (tailoring instruction to the needs of the individual child and to the soul of each child).
Even though I do not attend church services --don't even know where there is a local Christian Community, the advanced thinking I was privileged to be exposed to never put me into the position of having to rebel.
The spirituality my partner and I practice is a based on our individual relationship with God, work with guardian angels, past lives, spirit release, and practical applications of wisdom from a higher reality that is prudently considered.
As you may know, Nancy Ruth Davis, my partner is a metaphysical counselor and channel, whose background is in Christian Science, although she does not attend any services either.
As a result of her ability to reach psychically into higher realms of being, and as a result of my still doing some anthroposophical reading, we have evolved as very confident advocates of the world view that God is love, that we have free will and MUST use it, that we are not alone EVER, that we have a purpose in being on earth (to learn something), that we are spiritual beings having a human experience and that while our bodies are very important vehicles with which to get around and to accumulate experiences with, we are all souls and therefore connected with all other souls on earth, even if the personalities and habits of human beings do not necessarily reveal this fact.
To answer more directly, I think that religious traditions have a lot to offer but have also accumulated a lot of dross. We do not need an intermediary to connect with God in the form of pastor or congregation or church building.
I think we ought to encourage true love to flourish more in the traditional religious organizations, insofar as they do serve an important function in relieving loneliness, providing transcendent experiences, delivering sacraments, and providing scriptural education.
Gay people are doing a wonderful job in reminding religious leaders of their true mission, which is to unify, not to separate.
As for the bigotry, hypocrisy, and incitement to violence, direct or indirect, practiced by certain religious leaders with their exhortations, I excoriate them, for they are wolves in sheeps' clothing!
Their tirades and pronouncements poison and mislead people. People must learn to develop critical thinking, and have their consciousness raised so that they don't fall prey to the abuses of their supposed shepherds.
But some people are too lazy or are afraid to be attacked, and thus become inadvertent coconspirators in the attempt to keep people in bondage and prevent them from evolving! Wow, my soap box is intact!
Jack Nichols: Gay people, as you well know, have a reputation as creative personalities. Have you found that this reputation is warranted?
Lilli Vincenz: YES, YES, YES. However, sometimes help is needed to liberate the creativity in those who have been intimidated by external or INTERNAL homophobia. That's one of the things I do. My patients can also attend CCSD activities, except those for the core group (which would be unethical).
Jack Nichols: Lilli, it's been a very long time since I last saw you. Tell me about Nancy, your life partner whom I've never met. In a recent Quotes & Quips in GayToday, a writer says he wishes that couples should self-identify less through conspicuous consumption— the "We are what we own" approach--and more through a sharing and spreading of values and philosophies. It sounds to me as if you and Nancy have been drawn to each other because of your shared values. Would that be fair to say?
Nancy is a most beautiful soul, as well as a beautiful human being who has filled my life with so much joy and love that I feel deeply blessed by my good fortune for meeting her again --after two past lives together, also as lovers!
We're different personalities: she's an extraverted intuitive feeler, I an introverted (though pretty balanced out by now) intuitive thinker. We enjoy being together, growing together, taking advantage of conflict to improve our communication and empowerment and intimacy skills, so that we almost always end up feeling good about having negotiated yet another obstacle and being the stronger for it. We trust one another totally.
We met on May 9, 1984, and got married on December 27, 1986, in Key West, where the Reverend Steve Torrence officiated in a restaurant garden with a small but enthusiastic group of wellwishers.
Jack Nichols: You've seen plenty of social changes take place since the mid-Sixties. We knew in those days, how very important self-esteem can be, and how society's discriminatory practices affected our community's sense of itself for the worse. What are some of the major improvements you've noticed in the last thirty years?
Lilli Vincenz: I don't need to enumerate the wonderful opportunities for Gay people that now exist which we could only dream of 35 years ago and which we never envisioned would take place so soon! Self-esteem has risen, of course, but I'd like to address something deeper: self-worth and self-love -- which are not synonymous with self-esteem.
While self-esteem may be high, having to do with achievement, status, appearance, or social approval, it is a conditional thing and therefore subject to change if conditions change.
What is needed very much still in the Gay community is unconditional self-worth and self-love. As long as there are conditions of worth -- beauty, youth, money, property, friends, accolades, popularity, etc.--we can never be secure in our self-worth.
We must learn to accept ourselves unconditionally, no matter how down and out, sick, homeless, disenfranchised, abandoned, violated, unkempt, dirty we may be. Only then can we truly embrace ourselves, admit to mistakes and learn from them, and be free from the vagaries of public, including Gay public, opinion.
We are free souls and only if we can accept ourselves and love, cherish, and embrace ourselves NO MATTER WHAT are we truly free and truly centered in our own being.
I didn't say anything about the changes I've seen, maybe because these are the changes I'd like to see! We gay people are already role models for custom-designed relationships and lives, which the rest of the world could learn from, but we have to make some inner changes for happiness to be secure!
Jack Nichols: Why are these human developments in /for the gay community necessary?
Lilli Vincenz: Well, I've already answered this question in part. It was Cathy Renna of GLAAD who suggested I write an article for the Washington Blade about why human development is still necessary.
Many people don't understand what self-actualization is about, what it means to truly come into one's own, to be in charge of one's life--not necessarily in control!-- to know the purpose of one's life, to know how to love and experience emotional as well as sexual intimacy, to honor one's needs, to be able to dialogue about difficult personal issues, to experience true happiness and inner freedom, and to be able to choose love over fear.
Gay people still have many fears, understandably so, of not being safe in this society. But when one feels inwardly safe, the outer danger is not devastating because one can choose attitudes, peers, and actions to make changes.
Because of the many wounds that Gay people have sustained in the struggle to state their/our identity, we have frequently benefited from psychotherapy and grown much from the process.
But human development originates in education and development of the individual and therefore is not directly related to clinical issues.
Developing to fulfill our maximum potential means that we have all the skills we need to accomplish this goal, which means that we may need to practice in those areas of development and skill acquisition where we have been deprived. So, in comes CCSD as a "holistic learning community" where such developmental progress can be made.
Jack Nichols: How does the Community of Creative Self-Development approach politics?
Lilli Vincenz: The Community for Creative Self-Development is not a political organization. However, we contribute to helping people find their niche and encourage empowerment in whatever manner is chosen by the individual. We also emphasize making a contribution to the Gay community, and political work is certainly a big one!
Jack Nichols: You said recently that although you think the word "Lesbian"to be a perfectly fine word, you often enjoy calling yourself a gay woman. You're certainly not worried about being politically correct (PC) it appears.
Lilli Vincenz: I stay true to my beliefs. I call myself Gay more often than Lesbian, but I use both words. I have discussed this matter with Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the originators of the push to promote Lesbian visibility by inserting that word into discussions whenever possible. Their work has produced results that I do not decry.
However, I have always been an integrationist and will not let go of the wonderful word Gay! Oh, by the way, I do not like the word queer as a self-label because, in spite of the plausible purpose of trying to neutralize it, I don't like what the word has stood for and still stands for in the minds of homophobes.
Also, young people suffer when others call them queer, and there are some people who think now that it's ok to call Gay people queer if we ourselves do it.... In the same vein, by the way, I am not sanguine about using the pink triangle as a Gay symbol, because I will have no truck with nazi stigmata!
Jack Nichols: You were one of the original founders of what is probably now the most highly respected gay and lesbian newspaper, the Washington Blade, isn't that so? How did that come about?
Lilli Vincenz: The Mattachine Society of Washington was dedicated, as you know, to civil liberties and social change and was decidedly NOT a membership organization for satisfying members' needs.
Frank Kameny reminded us that it should be sufficient that we were involved in the noble fight for the homophile cause! But many of us thought of the Gay community and its needs. I developed the Community Services Committee, dedicated to serve both the Gay and straight communities.
We felt the need for a newspaper for Gay people; our Mattachine internal organ, The Insider (which I wrote), and The Homosexual Citizen, were not adequate for communicating with the larger Gay community on the basic level of people needing people.
So, the Gay Blade was born, named by a man named Frank -- not THE Frank Kameny, who thought little of our efforts, of course--and we published a one-page mimeographed sheet in fall of 1969. Nancy Tucker was the first editor and remained so for a few years, I believe.
Jack Nichols: Lilli, tell me about others things that have happened to you in the course of the last three decades. Are you still in touch with some of our old comrades-in-arms from the 60s?
Lilli Vincenz: This is going to turn into a on-line book here, Jack! I'm not in touch with anyone any more, really. I know Jon Marshall is still around, because he was cited as a volunteer for Whitman-Walker in their newsletter. Perrin Shaffer died. Gail may still be married to Lyman in Connecticut, where I last heard from her 15 years ago.
Jack Nichols: Yes, Gail's still married. When she joined Mattachine in 1964 she was a Unitarian but with her husband she converted first to Mormonism and then to Catholicism and now they have two grown sons, both Roman Catholic priests!
Lilli Vincenz: I am in touch with Frank Kameny and see him on occasion at Gay functions. Talked to him about the correct name of his platform. Haven't talked to Otto Ulrich for a while. I think Paul Kuntzler is still living with Steve in D.C.
Jack Nichols: Lilli, how would you identify your philosophical or psychological approaches? As I'd suspected you' re not a hedonist, for example, but have you any Epicurean or pragmatic or behaviorist inclinations, or what?
Lilli Vincenz: My therapeutic approach is holistic (mind, body, spirit) and aims to empower the people I work with. I still call them patients (also not politically correct in the age of the client and consumer), because they are hurting or because they are patient and thoughtful in dealing with their lives.
I am psychodynamically and interpersonally oriented in my work, interacting with people frankly and using any technique or approach I can think of, including many I have created, to help people not only heal but thrive. Some have become therapists themselves.
I am not a behaviorist, but I can use behavioral techniques for habit change; sometimes a nuts and bolts approach is needed with intractable habits.
I work with spirituality as much as possible, asking about the individual's relationship with God and dealing with what I call spiritual abuse, perpetrated by Gay-hostile dogmas and behaviors of people in religious denominations. How dare they deprive anyone of their spiritual birthright!
Jack Nichols: It feels really great, Lilli, to be back in touch with you after all the years and miles that have elapsed between us. I hope my hometown Washingtonians know what a treasure you are in their midst. Good luck too, with your Community for Creative Self-Development's 8th annual Conference!
Lilli Vincenz: Thank you, Jack. I am happy to reconnect with you and to have been stimulated to the extent that these questions have!! And now I'm off to packing my bags for 10 days in P'town!