Lambda rising: How LBGTQ activism came to Dupont

September 29, 2011

When it was first published in Oct. 1969, the Gay Blade, a gay-centric newsletter that was later renamed the Washington Blade, had a curious distribution strategy. Nancy Tucker, a founding co-editor, personally delivered the issues directly to bars.

“We went where the people were,” she said. “When we had an issue that had come out, if it was early in the evening, I would walk around and hand them out to people and dump a pile on the cigarette machine.”

Her approach also improved with experience. “I learned that if I went out too late people were too absorbed in their cruising and didn’t want a perky little lesbian walking up to them and handing them a copy of the Blade,” she said.

The Blade was founded out of the D.C. chapter of the Mattachine Society, a gay advocacy group. It was a compilation of the various gay-oriented events going on in the city, alongside practical advice about how to protect one’s rights in the face of a homophobic police force. As the first editor of the then-monthly publication, Tucker saw the publication as a social force.

“What I wanted to do as editor was to create a community and let everyone know about these organizations that existed, so people could get to know like-minded people and have a life outside the bars, which is what most people had at the time,” Tucker said.

Before the District’s gay liberation movement achieved its political goals, it thrust itself into the public sphere through homegrown social and political institutions—like the Blade—most of which grew up in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. These institutions helped the D.C. gay community trump the homophobic policies and practices of the D.C. police force, realize gay marriage, and combat blatant employment discrimination in the federal government.

This summer, D.C. experienced a slew of transgender assaults and homicides, including the assault of Chloe Alexander Moore, a transgender woman living in D.C., by an off-duty MPD officer. Advocates like the DC Trans Coalition have indicted MPD’s hate crime policies, saying that they fail to hold officers accountable to the D.C. human rights law.

Craig Howell, an early member of the Gay Activist Alliance, sees parallels between what he experienced and how the transgender community is being treated now. “We’re looking at the same type of behavior today with the police treatment of the transgender community,” he said. “It’s the same attitude they had against gay men in the ‘50s and ‘60s.”

But the memory has not been forgotten. Mark Meinke, founder of the Rainbow History Project, an organization that seeks to preserve the cultural history of the District’s gay community, saw the Blade and other homegrown institutions as key to progress on gay rights. “You have communication beginning to pull people together,” Meinke said. “Communities often exist anyway. They just have to recognize they’re a community.”


Like many components of the national gay liberation movement, D.C.’s gay activism grew out of the 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, where protestors mounted spontaneous, violent demonstrations against the homophobic police raid of the Stonewall Inn.

According to Tucker, these riots engaged the era’s younger generation of activists, informed by their experiences as Civil Rights and anti-war activists. “It was no longer a civil libertarian movement with button down suits—it was gay liberation with bell bottoms and beads,” Tucker said. “It went from there.”

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the District’s nascent gay liberation movement drew on these activist roots, starting with a group called the Gay Liberation Front. Members of the GLF lived in a collective, first at 1620 S Street NW, then at 1624 S Street NW. They mounted radical protests, like pickets and “zaps,” quick-fire performance demonstrations aimed at attracting media attention. They ran the first gay youth group, which focused on homeless gay youths, and briefly published a newsletter for this audience, called “The Breadbox.”

In 1972, the GLF staged an informal pride event that consisted of a speak-out in Lafayette Park and a picnic on the area surrounding the intersection of P and 20th Street—fondly referred to as the “P Street beach.” The extralegal affair was not repeated in subsequent years. However, in 1975, Deacon Maccubbin, briefly a GLF member, orchestrated the first city-recognized gay pride parade, which took place on 20th Street in front of his bookstore.

“What Deacon started in ’75 is still continuing,” Meinke said. “Deacon started out as a hippie and ended up as a great businessman.”

Maccubin was also an integral force behind the 1724 S Street building—an informal community center both for the leftist antiwar movement and the gay community. Comprised of small shops and office space, the building became an informal community center that housed groups like the D.C. Switchboard, the Defense Committee for the Black Panthers, and the Youth International Party. It also served as a meeting space for the Gay Blade and various gay youth groups. In 1971 he opened a head shop called Earth Works, followed in 1974 by Lambda Rising, which would eventually become one of the most famous LGBT bookstores in the country.

“When Deacon took over Alternatives and turned it into Earth Works, one of the first things he did was put up a bulletin board that lasted until he closed it a few years ago,” Meinke said.

The shop was a hub of civic and social engagement for the gay community, and the bulletin board symbolized the cohesiveness engendered by 1724 20th Street. As Meinke put it, “It’s where you went to find roommates, to find a ride.”

At the same time, the gay community began publishing the Gay Blade, whose activist roots shaped its mission of disseminating critical safety information.

“I think it accomplished the two goals: the goal of Mattachine to inform the members of the community about their rights and about the dangers of the community, including the entrapment by police of men prowling for dates in bars and on the street,” Tucker said.


While Dupont, in particular, was a hotbed of 1960s counterculture and activism, “it certainly wasn’t as gay as other parts of the city until the late 1970s,” Meinke said. “The counterculture was part of what drew gay youth to the area. Dupont in the 1970s was kind of slummy, cheaper—it was easier to find rooms.”

The combination of cheap rent and an already vibrant nighttime cruising scene made Dupont a natural location for gay bars.

“Dupont only became an area that people flocked to in numbers when there were clubs there,” Meinke said. Before Dupont, clubs that catered to gay men—and some lesbian clubs—were mainly in the Capitol South.

Howell lived in the apartment building next to Mr. Ps, a bar owned by George Dotson and Glen Thompson. Thompson also founded Badlands, the first incarnation of the now-defunct gay club Apex.

“They were always very popular—always well-visited and noisy,” Howell remembered. “The neighbors didn’t complain much because we were all gay anyway and glad to have them there,” Howell said, referring to the initial wave of bars. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”

While the closing of Grand Central led the owners to foray into Dupont Circle, it was urban development that forced many other clubs to relocate to Dupont. Capitol South, though, would remain a fixture in gay nightlife until the city invoked eminent domain to claim the clubs’ properties for the Nationals Stadium and other developments in 2005.

According to Meinke, Dupont Circle was already characterized by a heady gay social scene before Mr. P’s and the Frat House opened their doors. The “P Street beach” on 21st began connecting two popular cruising areas for gay men.

One was known as “The Block,” referring to the 31st and Dumbarton Street block. “Particularly gay men from Georgetown and others from the area would walk the block and others would drive around the block and meetings would be arranged,” Meinke said. Other well-visited cruising areas were scattered around the northern Dupont area, centered on Connecticut Avenue.

Those seminal Dupont clubs—Mr. P’s, the Frat House, and Badlands—opened their doors to the weekend path more travelled. “If you didn’t get lucky walking Georgetown you might head up to Dupont to see if you can get lucky there. You might stop and have a drink at The Frat House or Mr. P’s, and you might get lucky there,” Meinke said.


All of this activist buzz and social cohesion contributed to the District’s burgeoning gay rights movement, as it pushed for reform in the newly independent government.

Now with an ever-growing, public gay pride parade—with 10,000 attendees by 1979—and a gay-centric paper, the community was becoming a publicly recognizable force with tangible political clout.

“Once you have civic and social organizations, Meinke said, “then you have politicians trying to get your vote, then suddenly you have visibility and power.”

After D.C. received the right to govern itself through the Home Rule Act of 1973, gay rights activists channeled that power into the newly established City Council and Congressional races. At the local level, the movement targeted discriminatory employment practices and arrest policies.

Frank Kameny, founder of the D.C. Mattachine Society chapter, was dismissed in 1957 from his position in the Army Map Service for being gay. He appealed his case to the Supreme Court, but was denied. He founded the Mattachine Society to be an offensive advocate for reform, a rarity among the passive homophile organizations of the era.

When Congress allotted D.C. a delegate position in the House of Representatives, Kameny ran as the first openly gay Congressional candidate. He came in fourth out of six—a relative victory for an unknown candidate representing the interests of a marginalized group.

“Local politics was partly spurred by this very election,” Kameny said. “Local politics was creating itself. The Reform Democrats had formed and they invited us in.” Kameny was later appointed to the Human Rights Commission and helped draft the D.C. Human Rights Act.

“Kameny’s campaign showed everyone that there was a gay community in D.C.,” Howell said.

That voting force proved particularly potent in the 1979 election, when it put its force behind Marion Barry, then a Ward 8 Councilman.

“Marion Barry was really ahead of the curve in recognizing that there was a substantive gay community in the city,” Howell said. “His election was considered quite an upset and the gay community got credit for that upset.”

From then on, the gay community became an important political constituency. Although they never explicitly endorsed any candidate, the GAA implemented a ranking system based on questionnaires, beginning with D.C.’s first elections.  “Usually the second or third best would get elected,” Howell said.

“From that point on we were seen as integral to D.C. politics,” Kameny said. “Increasingly we took more and more of a role in legislation.”

As a result of these efforts, the GAA and its fellow advocacy groups realized their political goals. This included the City Council’s defunding of the police department’s Prostitution, Perversion, and Obscenity Squad (also known as the “mole squad”), part of whose job description was to arrest gay men. Even after the mole squad’s formal abolition, “it still took a long time for the police to stop treating us like second class citizens,” Howell said.

To Kameny, social and activist organizations like the ones incubated in Dupont—in buildings like 1724 S Street—play an integral role in such political aims. “They provide a formalized mechanism for achieving these goals,” Kameny said. “Any one individual can agitate as I did and as other people, but if you find a couple of other people who agree with you and say let’s work together and there you have an organization, and things get done politically through organizations that have their particular goals and try to make the changes necessary.”

“There may be a price we pay for our success,” Howell said. “Now we’re more accepted by the community and being out doesn’t have the risk involved it once did, and people start saying we don’t need these institutions anymore.”

CORRECTIONS: Craig Howell, not Charles Howell, was an early member of the Gay Activist Alliance. Lambda Rising opened in 1974 and on 20th St., not S St. The article has been amended accordingly. The Voice regrets the errors.

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I lived in Foxhall Village in the mid-70s and spent most of my weekends in Georgetown partying like everybody else! I’ve been researching and interested in finding out some information about the night club that later became known as Badlands! If my research is correct it was called, “The Last Hurrah”! Do you know where I can find out more information on that night club in 1976! Do you know who the owners were and if they are still living and if so do you have their contact information? Thank you!

Deacon Maccubbin

This article, which I only just found, mistakenly locates the Community Building, home of Lambda Rising bookstore and the first annual Gay Pride event, as being on S Street. It was actually located at 1724 20th Street, NW in 1975 when the first Pride happened. The store moved to 2015 S Street NW in 1977, by which time the Pride event had grown to cover the 1700 block of 20th Street and the 2000 block of S Street (with some spill over on adjacent blocks).

The Community Building also hosted, at various times through the 1970s and 80s, the Vietnam Moratorium Committee, the Drug Offenders Rights Committee, the Gay Switchboard, Bread and Roses Music Cooperative, DC Switchboard, the Washington Area Free University, Gay Switchboard, Gay Youth, Off Our Backs feminist newspaper, the Defense Committee for the Black Panthers, the Blade, Earthworks (“Everything But the Weed”), the Stone Age Trading Company, the New Playwright’s Worshop (“Theater in a Shoe Box”), a free clothing exchange and other non-profit, anti-profit groups.

We used to joke that the old building was only held together by all the wiretaps the FBI had run through the building!