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Gay Washington History: Q-And-A With Washington Blade Editor

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1989 - Candlelight Vigil for AIDS at the Lincoln Memorial.
Washington Blade
1989 - Candlelight Vigil for AIDS at the Lincoln Memorial.

Frank Kameny, a major pioneer of the gay rights movement, was featured in our underdogs show a few months back. Kameny started his fight for gay rights in the 1960s. At the end of the decade, in 1969, he saw the birth of the nation's first gay newspaper, the Washington Blade. Since its debut, the Blade has amassed thousands of photographs which its editors are just now beginning to digitize and archive online.

Washington Blade Editor Kevin Naff says the gay community and its issues were widely ignored by the mainstream press and that's why it's so important to preserve this slice of D.C. life.

WAMU reporter Kavitha Cardoza recently met up with Naff to learn more about the collection.

Cardoza: We've picked five of your favorite photos. Tell me about this one. It's in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

Naff: That's from the 1989 Candlelight Vigil for AIDS. You've got thousands of people with their candles at night in front of the monument and the reflection off the water. And in the years before 1996, when protease inhibitors came around, the focus in the community, of course, was all around HIV/AIDS and pressuring the government to take a stronger stand and to approve drugs more quickly, it was really survival mode.

Cardoza: So I'm not even sure what this is.

Naff: Well, this is my favorite in all of the photos that we have. This was another ACT UP protest in 1991. And I don't know how they did it, but a group of activists constructed a giant condom and they dropped it over Jesse Helms' house. Senator Helms, of course, was notoriously anti-gay and opposed to any funding for AIDS drugs or research. And was really public enemy number one of the gay community for a long time. There's something printed on it and it says, a condom to stop unsafe politics. Helms is deadlier than a virus.

Cardoza: I'm struck by the guy walking away and he has this satisfied, smug expression.

Naff: Yeah, that kind of makes the photo. I mean, it gives you the scale. I mean, here's this little guy and this giant condom behind him.

Cardoza: I have to say that the next one is my favorite. It's an image in front of the White House gates and an older woman sitting with a sign.

Naff: Yeah, she's holding a sign and it says, "I love my daughter and she's gay." It's from August of 1992 and it was a gay and lesbian activist alliance sponsored protest.

Cardoza: She just looks so alone.

Naff: The photo really speaks to the importance of and the need for, not just gay visibility, but allies, the willingness of those straight people who support their LGBT children or friends or family members or whatever to support them publicly. And for this woman, you know, to make a sign and stand in front of the White House, that's about as public as it gets. And gay people talk all the time about the importance of coming out, the need to come out.

But what we don't talk about is that when we do come out to our parents, they then have their own coming out process to go through. Because then they're left with the decision to come out to colleagues, neighbors, friends and other family members to say, I have a gay child. And we don’t always think about that, but it is a coming out process for them. And again, I think another reason why this particular photo is so powerful and moving.

Cardoza: We've got two, the last two images.

Naff: One is an old black and white photo of gay pride in D.C. from 1976. And then next to it, we've got a photo from last month's Capital Pride. What's really interesting, I think, about this photo is how many young people are in it. And they're standing in the fountain at DuPont Circle with their rainbow flags and their beads and it's a very festive celebratory atmosphere. And interesting, when you look at them side by side and how the pride celebration has changed from this handmade sign, low rent, kind of low key celebration to what today is, this over the top, very corporate event.

Cardoza: One of the things I know, just from the older gay pride parade is, you don't see those huge smiles. It's more like people are gathering comfort from just being together.

Naff: Sure, you know, because so many folks in D.C. work for the government and back then, you could be fired for that. You didn't have a lot of people who were willing to stand at a microphone or march in a parade even. It was enough to have a place to just come together. And there's certainly not the sense of joy and celebration that we see in, I think, in some of the more modern pride celebrations that have now grown to a couple hundred thousand people.

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