What It Was Like at the First Gay Rights Demonstration Outside White House 50 Years Ago

PHOTO: Protesters march in the first gay rights protest outside the White House in Washington, April 17, 1965.PlayABC News
WATCH Flashback: What It Was Like At The First Gay Rights Demonstration Outside The White House 50 Years Ago

Paul Kuntzler said that when he and nine other people picketed the White House 50 years ago today, protesting the government's treatment of gays and lesbians, he could not imagine how far the gay rights movement would come in five decades.

That protest on April 17, 1965, is believed to the first gay rights demonstration, advocates say.

"It was so revolutionary,” Kuntzler, 73, said. “It had never been done before anywhere in the world. We all wore coat and ties and we all had pseudonyms."

At the time they felt they had to use made-up names to protect their identities, he said.

"I wasn’t scared," said Kuntzler, who had moved from Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan, to Washington three years before.

"I was intrigued by the idea. But I was intimidated by all the photographers. I was only 23. And as they came across the street they started photographing us. Every time I approached the cameras, I hid behind my sign because I was unnerved by the whole thing. But I don’t think I was scared. I was very open and proud of being gay.

"People passed by in disbelief. It was written on their faces," he recalled. "It had never had happened before.”

The group was mostly fighting for gays and lesbians to keep their government jobs. Fifty years later, Kuntzler, who spent his life working for gay rights, is astonished by how the country has evolved and the strides the community has made.

“My sign read, '15 million homosexuals protest federal treatment.' It reflected what I thought," said Kuntzler, who was working as a brick and tile trade associate at the time.

PHOTO: Protesters march in the first gay rights protest outside the White House in Washington, April 17, 1965. ABC News
Protesters march in the first gay rights protest outside the White House in Washington, April 17, 1965.

The Washington resident added: "We could not conceive then the astonishing progress we would eventually make as a community. The idea that gay people, gay men and women, could work openly in the government and serve in the military. It was beyond our imagination.

“The concept of gay marriage -- we didn't even conceive of the idea. Now the Supreme Court is getting ready to rule and it's legal in 37 states including D.C."

For others, it's hard to imagine what life would be like if it weren't for the pioneers at the White House picket like Kuntzler, Barbara Gittings or Frank Kameny, who all went on to be leaders in the gay rights movement.

"It's awesome to say, as a 52-year-old lesbian, that I have a daughter -- as if it's such a simple thing," said Ellen Kahn, head of the Children, Youth and Families Program at the Human Rights Campaign. "When Barbara Gittings protested in front of the White House, LGBT people couldn't imagine getting married, having children, and being out and protected at work."

PHOTO: Protesters march in the first gay rights protest outside the White House in Washington, April 17, 1965. ABC News
Protesters march in the first gay rights protest outside the White House in Washington, April 17, 1965.

For Kuntzler there is a sense of accomplishment.

"I never thought it would happen way back then," Kuntzler says. "I was never terribly interested in advancing myself but in advancing the community. I was able to accomplish that."