The Cinema Follies Fire was widely reported. The Washington Post and the Evening Star carried all the details for several weeks; their focus was on deficiencies in the fire code, failure of effective fire inspections and the shock that so many of the victims were married with families. The Star published the names of the victims as they were released by the police; in their first report they even published the address and names of the wife and children of the congressional aide who had died in the fire. Both papers published editorials questioning whether or not the names of the victims should have been published. The Post argued both sides of the issue…was it homophobic not to release the names or was it more important to protect the families of the victims? The Washington Blade, at the time a monthly periodical, published all the details. It is pretty clear the horror of the event resonated throughout Washington.
The founder of GAMMA, Martin S., told me that he read about the fire and was horrified. His response was to meet with Frank Kameny, the legendary Washington activist for gay rights. Kameny’s advice was to form a support group for married gay men. The announcement of the formation of the “Association for Married Gays” that appeared in the Blade in December 1977 stated that the goals of the organization were “to provide meetings, discussion groups, legal service references, counseling, and social outlets.” As I reflect on those words I think it is remarkable that our group continues to meet those goals. While we don’t offer counseling services, it is not uncommon for members to share information about the counselors they have consulted. The announcement also said that membership would be for “both men and women in heterosexual marriages, as well as bisexual marrieds” and that membership would be “open to wives/husbands of gays, as well as their children, who wish to participate.” In the early years, the organization followed through with much of that vision.
The first meeting was held on January 10, 1978 in a private home. A number of histories in our files state that about 35 men came to that meeting. A brief article in the Blade (Jan 18, 1979, p16) written by a GAMMA guy,Vern W., stated that there were 16 men at that meeting. The earliest actual list of members I have found is attached to a letter sent by A. Billy Jones (now, ABilly S. Jones-Hennin) on May 16, 1978. It contained a total of 13 names; the list probably included only those members who had provided addresses and phone numbers.
The difficulty in managing meetings that would move from address to address prompted the group find a regular meeting venue. The Satterlee Hall library of St Alban’s parish on 13 October, 1978 became that first permanent meeting site. The meetings continued there over five years. - E. Kearsley