A Date To Remember

Longtime gay activist recalls a beautiful day that inspired a generation

By Will O'Bryan
Published on August 22, 2013, 5:07am | Comments

When it comes to dates, Paul Kuntzler is a sort of human computer.

''I first came to Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 1961, for John Kennedy's inauguration,'' Kuntzler recalls, citing the historic event that occurred two days later. He easily recalls the dates – and days of the week – of, for example, meeting gay-rights pioneer Frank Kameny, who invited him to join the Mattachine Society, harbinger of the country's modern LGBT-rights movement.

Paul Kuntzler

Paul Kuntzler

(Photo by Patsy Lynch)

''I participated in the first gay-rights picket in front of the White House on Saturday, April 17, 1965,'' he says of his Mattachine roots. ''There were 10 of us – seven men and three women.''

He moved in with his partner, Steven Brent Miller, May 29, 1962, enjoying a life together until Miller's death in 2004.

The Detroit-area native, active in Democratic politics since his youth, remembers much – like helping to found the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, D.C., and the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. Certainly, he remembers Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1963.

METRO WEEKLY: By the time of the march, you were serving on the board of the Mattachine Society of Washington?

PAUL KUNTZLER: I was elected to the board of directors of the Mattachine Society April 3, 1962. I was just 20 then, the only minor involved in this tiny gay-rights movement, which consisted of no more than 150 people in five American cities: Washington, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

MW: Was it more dangerous at the time to be single or to be a couple?

KUNTZLER: Well, it was difficult whether you were single or a couple, because there was a total ban on lesbians and gays working in the federal government, including the District government. The American Psychiatric Association classified us as mentally ill.

MW: What can you tell me about the day of the march?

KUNTZLER: First of all, President Kennedy declared a virtual state of martial law. There was this belief that there were going to be riots. A lot of offices were closed, including my own.

MW: Were you expecting any rioting?

KUNTZLER: Not really. But the idea of a huge march on Washington was a radical idea in 1963. It had never happened before. I didn't really expect any problems, but I knew there was this belief that there might be riots. Of course, there weren't. There was virtually no crime that day.

MW: It actually looks like it was a beautiful day.

KUNTZLER: It was – sunny, in the 80s.

MW: How did that Wednesday unfold for you, a young, gay, white man joining this March on Washington?

KUNTZLER: In the morning, probably about 11 o'clock, I took the bus to the Washington Monument grounds where the crowds were gathering. There were civil rights organizations, church groups and trade unions. I remember being on the monument grounds and a woman saying, ''The buses are still coming through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel.'' There were about 2,000 buses.

My father had been a member of United Auto Workers. Walter Reuther, president of the UAW in Detroit, he was one of the march leaders. He spoke that day. So I decided to march with the UAW down Constitution Avenue to the Lincoln Memorial.

MW: And then the music and speeches began?

KUNTZLER: Peter, Paul and Mary sang, ''If I Had a Hammer'' and ''Blowing in the Wind.'' There was a gospel singer and others. There were a number of actors – Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll, Harry Belafonte….

MW: Where were you?

KUNTZLER: I was on the side of the Reflecting Pool underneath the trees, near the temporary World War II buildings. I could see soldiers lined up against the temporary buildings. There was a tremendous amount of military force.

MW: Could you hear everything well?

KUNTZLER: Yes, very much so. The speaker system was very clear. I could hear all the speeches.

MW: Is there a particular memory of the day that stands out for you?

KUNTZLER: I have a very strong emotional memory of people joining hands together, swaying and singing, ''We Shall Overcome.'' That was sung throughout the day. It was very emotional.

MW: What was your motivation for joining the march that day?

KUNTZLER: There was a lot of racism and segregation in Washington.

As difficult as it is now to believe, Steven was on the staff of the House Appropriations Committee – 22 white males. They only hired white males. He was going to the Stenotype Institute of Washington to become a stenotype reporter. Only whites were permitted to attend the institute, as was the case with all of Washington's business schools.

In early 1962, I saw an ad in The Washington Post about a job. I had to go over to an Arlington employment agency. I got a job in the proofing department of Union Trust Co. This employment agency over in Arlington had an agreement with Union Trust that they would only send white applicants. For the several months I worked at Union Trust, there was a young woman I worked with, someone I befriended. She had an African-American boyfriend and all my colleagues were openly critical.

People would say things, express racial attitudes quite openly. That always offended me.

MW: Did your feelings about racial equality come from your family?

KUNTZLER: I think it had to do with the fact that I was gay. I thought [the march] helped push a progressive agenda – not just for African-Americans, but for anyone who was oppressed. I always thought these issues were linked together. That's why I was always opposed to racism.

It was like a straitjacket when I came here. There was a lot of racism in the Detroit area, but people didn't express it like they did in the early '60s here in Washington. It was a very Southern city then.

MW: Did the march inspire Mattachine members?

KUNTZLER: It inspired all of us, because people came from around the country and they went home to their communities with an inspired message that helped bring about change.

All three television networks covered it live. I got home and they were replaying it. People saw it all over the country. It had a profound effect on people's attitudes all over the country. They thought there were going to be riots, but here was a very solemn, peaceful, enormous congregation of people.
MW: How far have we come since that day?

KUNTZLER: It's extraordinary. We couldn't even conceive back in the '60s that we'd make the progress we've made. The struggle for human rights never ends. It's something you're always having to work at. We've made extraordinary progress, but in terms of all groups it's an ongoing process. I was very proud of having participated.

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