News & Politics

A Pioneering Gay-Rights Protester Returns to the White House

Paul Kuntzler is the only living participant in a key event.

Photograph of Picket courtesy of Frank Kameny Papers, Library of Congress.

Paul Kuntzler recently found himself on a sidewalk near the White House, holding a sign: “Fifteen Millon U.S. Homosexuals Protest Federal Treatment.” It wasn’t the first time—exactly 59 years prior, he’d been in the same spot, displaying the same message. Now, at age 82, he had returned to help recreate that historic event, considered the first White House picket for national gay rights. Kuntzler is the last of the ten original participants still alive, and he had been invited to attend a restaging organized by a local nonprofit dedicated to preserving LGBTQ history, called Rainbow History Project.

The 1965 demonstration was the first in a series of pickets where Kuntzler and the others pressed to end the ban on gay and lesbian servicemembers in the military as well as the practice of denying security clearances for gay and lesbian federal employees, among other issues. That original protest—held April 17, 1965—was organized by Frank Kameny and Lilli Vincenz of the Mattachine Society of Washington, a gay-rights group. Kuntzler was an early member, having been recruited by Kameny when they met at a gay bar in Northwest DC shortly after Kuntzler moved here. Asked what he thinks about how far gay rights have come since then, Kuntzler said he finds it “incomprehensible.” He and other Mattachine Society members “never could have imagined the change.”

In some ways, the reenactment resembled the original, with protesters holding copies of 1965 signs. In other ways, it looked different: There were about twice as many participants, and some carried signs with modern phrases like love is love. Looking back on that first protest, Kuntzler mostly recalled feeling nervous about the presence of around 30 press photographers. “I tried to hide my face from the cameras,” said the retired nonprofit executive, who lives in Southwest DC. Now he proudly stood with the other participants, smiling for a group picture.

As in 1965, the demonstration was mostly silent, with picketers walking in a circle. Rainbow History Project’s Vincent Slatt handed out explanatory literature to passersby. His group planned the reenactment as a tribute to Kameny, who died in 2011, and Vincenz, who passed away last year. Rather than protesting the current administration, Slatt said they were making a larger point: “We’ve come a very long way since 1965, but there’s always more work to do.”

This article appears in the June 2024 issue of Washingtonian.

Omega Ilijevich
Editorial Fellow