Posted April 27, 2023

LGBTQ+ History and Culture In Washington, DC


Despite all of the extravagant pageantry, elaborate floats, and shimmering sequins, Pride isn’t just a party. Far more than a musical romp through the streets, Pride has always been political — and pivotally so. That’s why, in the nation’s capital of Washington, DC, LGBTQ+ history and culture deserve the utmost visibility.

The Capital of The Capital in Washington, DC. (Photo Credit: Jose Matute)

Sure, the festival and parade are blissful merriment for locals and visitors near and far, but Pride in DC is an opportunity to showcase and celebrate marginalized communities on a grander scale — those who have long struggled to find their footing and are now commanding a presence in the epicenter of American politics.

We’ve Always Been Here

Whether vocal or behind-the-scenes, LGBTQ+ people have always been present in DC, working to influence change, demand basic rights, and push for progress. Evidence can be traced back through the centuries, when queer people were forced into closets out of social taboo and fear of ostracism.

DC has a long history of people fighting for their rights. (Photo Credit: Eric Dekker)

Homosexuality has also long plagued politicians, including Senator Lester Hunt of Wyoming, who became the only member of Congress to commit suicide when Joe McCarthy threatened to blackmail him over his son’s attest for soliciting a same-sex relationship. Or President Lyndon B. Johnson, who feared his campaign lead would fizzle when his aide, Walter Jenkins, was arrested for sexual acts in a YMCA.

And, perhaps most infamously, Ronald Reagan’s inaction during the early days of the AIDS crisis, leading to the deaths of thousands of LGBTQ+ people. The taboo of homosexuality led to decades of inaction, struggle, and hardship — for politicians afraid to rock the boat, for allies, and most especially, for queer people whose lives were on the line.

The Road to Capital Pride

Eventually, enough was enough. In 1971, two years after the Stonewall Riots, gay activists stormed the ballroom at the Shoreham Hotel, where Attorney General Ramsey Clark was addressing the American Psychiatric Association, an organization that classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. Some two years later, the APA declassified it as such, thanks to the political pressures from the Mattachine Society of Washington, a group that also worked to fight against discrimination in the military and repeal sodomy laws.

The road to Capital Pride was a long one, which leapt forward in the 1970s. (Photo Credit: Caleb Fisher)

In 1973, likeminded activists and feminists rallied together to earn human rights laws for LGBTQ+ people and economic rights for women, while the National Coalition of Black Gays emerged later in the decade and created the first Black gay magazine, Blacklight.

In the midst of this uprising, DC hosted its first Pride, called Capital Pride, in 1975, and emerging neighborhoods and businesses became gathering places for LGBTQ+ people, like Dupont Circle, Barracks Row, Village Books, and Lambda Rising — the owner of the latter, L. Page “Deacon” Maccubbin, helped organize the city’s inaugural Pride festival.

After the first Capital Pride, neighborhoods surrounding DC became gathering places for LGBTQ+ people. (Photo Credit: Yeon Choi)

The famous L-O-V-E mural in Blagden Alley, within a suburb of DC. (Photo Credit: Sara Cottle)

A far cry from the pomp and circumstance of Pride today, the initial fête was a modest block party on 20th Street N.W. Its popularity quickly outgrew its locale, though, rising to 10,000 attendees within its first few years and eventually spreading out over the surrounding blocks. In the ensuing years, Pride changed hands and locations, before earning its most front-and-center location ever at Freedom Plaza near the White House in the ‘90s.

In 1997, the celebration was given its current moniker, Capital Pride, and spread onto Pennsylvania Avenue — one of the most political streets in the country — with the U.S. Capitol Building looming in the background behind the main stage.

Struggle and Progress

As swift as progress came to the nation’s capital, though, it wasn’t without its hardships. Amongst all this growth and change, the ‘80s saw a slow down of new queer-friendly spaces, and the U.S. Marines committed assault and vandalism at gay bars like Equus and Remington’s. The AIDS crisis also hit DC particularly hard, stymied by an utter lack of vocal support from the town’s politicians.

As was true in the 1980s — love will always win. (Photo Credit: Gayatri Malhotra)

But just as politicians shunned the disease, and as police wore surgical masks and rubber gloves during gay bar raids, in fear of contracting AIDS, the LGBTQ+ community rallied together. Nob Hill was a gay bar that hosted an AIDS forum, The Quaker House created a social sanctuary for those with AIDS called the HIV Coffeehouse, and the Georgetown Lutheran Church helped start the Gay Men’s VD Clinic.

Through all the strife and struggle, the raids, the blackmail, and the inaction, LGBTQ+ culture persevered. Same-sex sexual activity was decriminalized in 1993, same-sex domestic partnerships were recognized in 2002, and same-sex marriage followed suit in 2009. Although new queer spaces have dwindled, a lot of that is due to a wider social acceptance, and thus a lack of necessity for these kinds of sanctuaries.

Pride and Politics

Nowadays, thriving gay bars like JR’s Bar and Grill, Duplex Diner, Dirty Goose, and Uproar are just as likely to be attended by straight people, and roving companies like Mixtape and Guerilla Queer Bar host recurring dance parties in non-gay bars to further bring communities together and break down lingering barriers.

Pride and politics have always been intertwined in Washington, DC. (Photo Credit: Rene Deanda)

As has the fight for our most basic of civil rights. (Photo Credit: J. Amill Santiago)

DC’s political landscape has come a long way since the dark days of the AIDS crisis, or periods so stifled that politicians would rather commit suicide than publicly confront the reality of same-sex relationships. LGBTQ+ representation is all over DC, from Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to Senator Tammy Baldwin.

As of this year, 13 voting members of the 118th Congress identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, the highest number in American history. From its guerrilla heyday to its out-and-proud Congress, Pride has always been political in DC — and always will be.

Where to stay: The George, Kimpton Hotel Monaco DC, or Kimpton Banneker Hotel

Follow the tag below to learn more about how LGBTQ+ history and culture have shaped some of our favorite cities.


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