Proud and Picketing: Ernestine Eckstein's Activism

Ernestine Eckstein was a highly influential lesbian of color who was active in the fight for LGBT rights pre-Stonewall. She was seen in a black and white photo from October of 1965, where she was in the front of the picket line protesting outside the White House. Ernestine was surrounded solely by white men, and this is seen as one of the first times gay people pubicly demanded thier rights in the US. She was also the vice president of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) in New York. Ernestine was a trailblazer in many ways, and was the first Black woman to be featured on the cover of The Ladder, which was a magazine published by the DOB.

Ernestine was born in South Bend, Indiana in 1941 and first became an activist when a student at Indiana University while working with the NAACP during the civil rights movement. She earned her degree in journalism and moved to New York City in May of 1963, and joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) when she got there. Ernestine explained that she did not fully understand her homosexuality until coming to New York. A lot of what is known about her comes from a long interview with editor Barbara Gittings and her partner and assistant Kay Tobin Lahusen which was published in the 1966 issue of The Ladder. Some excerpts from the interview are below, however, the entire interview is very much worth a read.

“I’d never know anyone who was homosexual … Never heard the word mentioned … this was a kind of blank that had never been filled in by anything - reading, experience, anything - until after I came to New York”

Ernestine Eckstein, The Ladder, 1966

I used to think, “Well, now, what’s wrong with me?” But at the same time I felt there was nothing unusual about people loving other people regardless of sex. I’ve always believed that love transcends any kind of label–black, white, woman, man. So I didn’t think it was unnatural for me to have reactions to other women. Why not?”

Ernestine Eckstein, The Ladder, 1966

“Still, I went through the soul-searching bit for several months, trying to decide if I was homosexual, where I stood. But then having once decided, the next thing on the agenda was to find a way of being in the homosexual movement – because I assumed there was such a movement, or should be.”

Ernestine Eckstein, The Ladder, 1966

“Demonstrations, as far as I’m concerned, are one of the very first steps toward changing society. I would like to see in the homophile movement more people who can think. And I don’t believe we ought to look at their titles or at their sexual orientation. Movements should be intended, I feel, to erase labels, whether ‘black’ or ‘white’ or ‘homosexual’ or ‘heterosexual’.”

Ernestine Eckstein, The Ladder, 1966

Ernesteine worked to bring more progressive ideas to the DOB during her time there. However, much of her tries were met with challengers. She tried to bring gay rights leader Frank Kameny to speak at the DOB New York chapter, but it was ultimately overruled. In June of 1966, she stepped down from her vice president position after growing tired of the conservatism and infighting she was facing. She ended up moving to the Bay Area to get involved with the Black Women Organized for Action (BWOA), which focused on Black feminist issues.

The BWOA mission statement declared: “We are for Action, because we believe that the time for rhetoric is past; that the skills of Black women can best be put to use in a variety of ways to change the society; that, in the political work in which we live, involvement for Black women must go beyond the traditional fundraising and into the full gamut of activities that make up the political process which affects our lives in so many ways.”

Very little is known about Ernestine’s later life, and she died in San Pablo, CA, at the age of 51 from unknown causes. She left behind people who loved her, and many history-making displays of courage no one should ever forget. Her impact will forever be seen through protests surrounding Black and LGBT activism, as well as paving the way for others to continue her work.

By Bri Murphy