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GAY HISTORY: Gay Pioneer's Papers Enter the Library of Congress
by Bob Roehr
2006-10-11

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Kameny was honored last weekend at two Human Rights Campaign events during their national gala weekend. Some of his protest signs were on display. Photos by Tracy Baim. Kameny at the Library of Congress Oct. 6. Photo by Bob Roehr

_________________

Franklin Edward Kameny has been the indispensable man in creating of the American gay-rights movement for nearly half a century. And he saved everything, squirreling away documents, posters, and artifacts in the attic, bedroom, and every other corner of his home.

More than 70,000 of those items have become a permanent part of our nation's historic record at the Library of Congress. The Oct. 6 transfer ceremony took place in a room of the Library where rare Stradivarius violins filled display cases.

'The Kameny Papers document the evolution of the gay-rights movement from its origins in the 1950s through the 1990s. They are a rich and valuable resource for researchers seeking to understand the movement, its evolution into a significant social and political force, and its impact on American life,' said John Haynes, a 20th century political historian in the Library's Manuscript Division.

Charles Francis, one of the persons who organized the transfer, called the papers 'breathtaking in terms of [ documenting ] the animosity that this man faced all by himself, starting in 1957, that he stood up to and argued for in terms of Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence, and our Constitution. Ultimately, he won many, many of those battles.'

Frank Kameny, 81, had not intended to become an activist, but that was the fate that life dealt him, and he embraced it heartily.

The World War II veteran used the GI Bill to pursue his education. With a freshly minted Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard, just as Sputnik traumatized the nation and ignited the space race, he was poised to become a leader in that adventure.

But the accusation of 'homosexual tendencies' was enough to deny one federal employment. Following a trumped up morals arrest near the White House, Kameny was declared a security risk and lost his job at the Army Map Service.

He appealed that through administrative channels and then the courts. Broke and sometimes living on as little as 20 cents a day, he taught himself enough law to file the appeal to what is believed to have been the first gay-rights case to reach the Supreme Court, in 1961. It declined to hear the case.

Francis read aloud to the audience from a key document, a 1966 letter to Kameny from John H. Macy, Chairman of the U.S. Civil Service Commission.

'To be sure, if an individual applicant were to publicly proclaim that he engages in homosexual conduct, that he prefers such relationships, that he is not sick or emotionally disturbed, and that he simply has different sexual preferences, as some members of the Mattachine Society openly avow, the Commission would be required to find such an individual unsuitable for federal employment.'

Kameny fought the Civil Service Commission prohibition on hiring gays for 18 years. In June 1975 he received a call from the general counsel's office; 'The government has decided to change its policy to suit you,' he gleefully recounts the official saying.

In 1963, when homosexual activity was still illegal in all but a handful of states and police entrapment was common, Kameny testified before Congress; 'We are working to achieve for the homosexual minority, full equality with our fellow citizens—nothing more, nothing less.'

Kameny formed the Mattachine Society of Washington, an early gay-rights group. He distributed their newsletter to some members of Congress, invited the chief of police and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to engage in sodomy, and led pickets outside the White House and on the Fourth of July at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, all in the name of equality.

The picket sign on display at the Library ceremony dates from the pre-Stonewall days of the 1960s. It will go on display at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History.

He ran for Congress in 1971 when Washington, D.C., gained a non-voting delegate to that body. Politicos were stunned that an openly gay candidate could gather the required 5,000 signatures to get on the ballot, and then poll 1,800 votes, coming in fourth in a field of six. Gays were coming out of the closet and becoming a social and political force.

Several gay political organizations sprang from that campaign, including the local Gay Activists Alliance, and nationally, the precursor to the Human Rights Campaign.

When gay activists seized the stage at the 1971 conference of the American Psychiatric Association, Kameny thundered into the microphone, 'Psychiatry is the enemy incarnate. Psychiatry has waged a relentless war of extermination [ against gays ] . You may take this as a declaration of war against you.'

Two years later the APA capitulated; it removed homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses.

'It is the great luck of American history that Franklin Kameny's career was ruined early, and that it made him angry,' said Dudley Clendenin, former New York Times reporter and coauthor of the gay history Out for Good. 'He didn't go anonymous, and pitiful, and quiet. He plunged into life-long patriotism in the form of civic activism.'

'He cultivated the self-righteous arrogance of a visionary who knew his cause was just when no one else did. He was George Patton as gay activist, a general without an army, alone against everyone else.'

Kameny's mantra became, 'If society and I differ on something, I am willing to give the matter a second look. If we still differ, then I am right, and society is wrong. And society can go its way, so long as it does not get in my way. But if it does, there is going to be a fight, and I am not going to be the one who backs down. That has been the underlying premise of the conduct of my life.'

'Almost single-handedly, Frank Kameny formed and popularized the ideological foundations of the gay rights movement in the 1960s,' Clendenin said. 'He taught generations of us how to stand for who we were and what we believed.'

Former California congressman Michael Huffington, one of the benefactors who helped to make the donation possible, confessed to not having known of Kameny until others approached him about a year ago.

'He has gone through hell and back,' Huffington said at the ceremony. 'Very few of us appreciate what this man has suffered, and yet today, as I met him for the first time, he is a man with a gleam in his eye and clearly a man who has changed the history of this country for the better … [ not just for gays ] because when you end discrimination, and hatred, and fear, everybody is a beneficiary.'

Others who packed the room had more personal accounts of the man.

Then 14-year-old congressional page Gregory King was riding a bus down Pennsylvania Avenue by the National Theater in 1971 when he saw a crowd with Kameny placards. 'I knew from the newspaper that he was gay and running for Congress, so I got off the bus and stayed for his speech and picketing.'

'His being open and proudly gay was a pivotal thing in my life. I don't think that I would have ever emerged as a teenager, uncloseted, without the influence of him saying you could do it.' King later served as spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign.

'I was in high school here in Washington in 1969 and the only organization I knew of was Mattachine,' said Bob Witeck. 'So I called, I had no idea it was Frank's house.'

'He was very reassuring. Here was an adult talking to a teenager who gave him confidence and reassurance. I had no idea, I couldn't go to a bar, there was no Internet, the only thing you could do was talk to another person who could tell you it was okay. He was my link to sanity, he was my link to maturity.

Witeck went on to found Witeck-Combs, the marketing and communications firm that helps companies interact with the gay community. He said, 'Frank was the only gay person in the world that I knew of in 1969, and here he still is. He's an amazing man.'

See www.kamenypapes.org .

Saving the Legacy

Charles Francis was the catalyst in organizing and arranging the donation of Kameny's papers to the Library of Congress. He first met Kameny through a mutual friend in 2004 'and the more I learned about him, the more awestruck I was about what he actually accomplished.'

Bob Witeck says their motivation was to help Kameny, a man of limited means who seldom had profited from the work he had done for the community, and at the same time, preserve the legacy of documents that he had squirreled away.

Kameny did not have the income to benefit from any tax benefits from donating his papers. But others could purchase them from him, with the stipulation that they be donated to a designated archive, and reap the tax benefits from that donation.

Five truck loads of documents were transferred from Kameny's attic to Francis' residence, where a volunteer group sorted through and organized the papers. An appraiser set a value of $75,000 on them.

Francis approached former congressman Michael Huffington, who agreed to provide half of that sum as a matching grant, and other individuals and organizations fairly quickly provided the balance. The Library of Congress reviewed the documents and enthusiastically agreed to accept them.

Francis calls it appropriate that Kameny's papers remain in Washington because that is where the man has lived, and much of his activity has been directed toward ending federal discrimination.

'Finally, we felt there was a historic justice that the government that fired him in 1957, was now bringing his collection into the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress as a civil rights pioneer.'

Frank Kameny

One of the founders of the modern American gay-rights movement, Frank Kameny brought a radical, take-charge attitude in place of more assimilationist policies that plagued many early gay leaders. A child prodigy and WWII veteran, Kameny obtained a Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University in 1956 and began work for the Army Map Service in 1957.

However, mere months into the job, rumors circulated regarding Kameny's homosexuality, which culminated in his firing from the Map Service and being barred from all civil service jobs, reflecting a McCarthy-era mandate for all homosexuals at the time. Kameny fought to regain his job for five years, including a personal appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and a suit against the government, both of which were denied. Finally, in 1961, he decided to join with Jack Nichols to establish a Washington, D.C., version of the homophile group Mattachine Society.

Reflecting both Kameny's personal priorities and local complaints, the Mattachine Society of Washington focused on ending sexual orientation discrimination in civil service positions and the military. It organized the first gay protests in front of the White House in April 1965, in which Kameny, Barbara Gittings and other prominent activists participated.

Kameny's work, along with the Mattachine Society, eventually led to the Civil Service Commission to amend its anti-gay policies in 1975. He also advised countless armed services members in coping with anti-gay military policies. In addition to his civil and military service radicalism, he also battled the American Psychiatric Association ( APA ) in an effort to remove homosexuality as a mental disorder, disrupting the APA annual meeting in 1971 and fostering the eventual removal of homosexuality from its list of illnesses.

To top off an already growing list of achievements, Kameny became the first openly gay person to run for Congress, using the campaign to publicize the issue of unequal government treatment of the community. He is one of the oldest surviving activists, celebrating his 80th birthday last May.

— Jason Villemez


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