Alex Blaze

Frank Kameny is awesome

Filed By Alex Blaze | November 26, 2007 12:05 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History
Tags: 1960s, Boom, Frank Kameny, gay history, Tom Brokaw

I'm not the only person insulted by Tom Brokaw's epic straight-washing of the 1960's. Frank Kameny, co-founder of the Mattachine Society of Washington and gay rights activist extraordinaire, wrote a letter to Brokaw setting him straight regarding the importance of the 1960's to the gay rights movement and called him on his "straights only" history book (remember that Brokaw's "1960's" go all the way up to 1974):

Dear Mr. Brokaw and Mmes. Centrello and Medina:

As a long-time gay activist, who initiated gay activism and militancy at the very start of "your" Sixties, in 1961; coined the slogan "Gay is Good" in 1968; and is viewed by many as one of the "Founding Fathers" of the Gay Movement, I write with no little indignation at the total absence of any slightest allusion to the gay movement for civil equality in your book “Boom! Voices of the Sixties". Your book simply deletes the momentous events of that decade which led to the vastly altered and improved status of gays in our culture today. This change would have been inconceivable at the start of the Sixties and would not have occurred at all without the events of that decade totally and utterly ignored by you. Mr. Brokaw, you have "de-gayed" the entire decade. "Voices of the Sixties"??? One does not hear even one single gay voice in your book. The silence is complete and deafening.

As a gay combat veteran of World War II, and therefore a member of the "Greatest Generation", I find myself and my fellow gays as absent from your narration as if we did not and do not exist. We find Boom! Boom!! Boom!!! in your book about all the multitudinous issues and the vast cultural changes of that era. But not a single "Boom", only dead silence, about gays, homosexuality, and the Gay Movement.

The development of every other possible, conceivable issue and cause which came to the forefront in that period is at least mentioned, and is usually catalogued: race; sex and gender; enthnicity; the environment; and others, on and on and on -- except only gays.

In 1965, we commenced bringing gays and our issues "out of the closet" with our then-daring picketing demonstrations at the White House and other government sites, and our annual 4th of July demonstrations at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The Smithsonian Institution displayed these original pickets last month, in the same exhibition as the desk where Thomas Jefferson drafted The Declaration of Independence. The name of the Smithsonian’s exhibition? “Treasures of American History”. In your book: No Boom; only silence.

About 1963, a decade-long effort commenced to reverse the psychiatric categorization of gays as mentally or emotionally ill, concluding in 1973 with a mass "cure" of all of us by the American Psychiatric Association. No boom in your book; only your silence.

The most momentous single Gay Movement event occurred at the end of June, 1969, when the "Stonewall Rebellion" in New York, almost overnight (actually it took three days) converted what had been a tiny, struggling gay movement into the vast grass-roots movement which it now is. We had five or six gay organizations in the entire country in 1961; fifty to sixty in 1969; by the time of the first Gay Pride march, in New York one year later in 1970, we had 1500, and 2500 by 1971 when counting stopped. If ever there was Boom, this was it. In your book, no Boom, only your silence.

About 1972, Elaine Noble was elected to the Massachusetts state House of Representatives as the first elected openly gay public official. I had run here in Washington, DC, the previous year for election to Congress as the first openly gay candidate for any federal office. Harvey Milk was elected to the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco. No boom in your book; only your silence.

Mr. Brokaw, you deal with the histories of countless individuals. Where are the gays of that era: Barbara Gittings; Jack Nichols; Harry Hay; Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons; Randolfe Wicker; Harvey Milk; numerous others? No booms in your book; only silence and heterosexuals.

Starting in 1961 a long line of court cases attacked the long-standing U.S. Civil Service Gay Ban (fully as absolute and as virulent as the current Military Gay ban, which actually goes back some 70 years and was also fought in the 60s) with final success in 1975 when the ban on employment of gays by the federal government was rescinded. In your book, no boom; only your silence.

The assault on the anti-sodomy laws, which made at least technical criminals of all gays (and most non-gays for that matter, although never used against them) and which was the excuse for an on-going terror campaign against the gay community through arrests the country over, began in 1961 and proceeded through the 60s and onward. In your book, no boom; only your silence.

In 1972, following up on Stonewall, the first anti-discrimination law protective of gays was enacted in East Lansing, Michigan, followed by the much more comprehensive one in D.C. in 1973, starting a trend which now encompasses some twenty states, countless counties and cities, and has now reached Congress in ENDA. In your book, no boom; only your silence.

The Sixties were a period of unprecedented rapid social and cultural upheaval and change. We gays were very much a part of all that. A reader of your book would never have the slightest notion of any of that. In your book, no boom; only your silence.

At the start of the Sixties gays were completely invisible. By the end, and especially after Stonewall, we were seen everywhere: in entertainment, education, religion, politics, business, elsewhere and everywhere. In BOOM our invisibility remains total.

The only allusions to us in your entire book are the most shallow, superficial, brief references in connection with sundry heterosexuals. Where are the gay spokespeople? We are certainly there to speak for ourselves. But in your book, only silence.

Mr. Brokaw, I could go on, but this should be sufficient to make my point. The whole thing is deeply insulting. As I said, you have de-gayed an entire generation. For shame, for shame, for shame. You owe an abject public apology to the entire gay community. I demand it; we expect it.

Gay is Good. You are not.


Sincerely,

Franklin E. Kameny, Ph.D.

Indeed.

It's especially troubling that Tom Brokaw picked the exact topic for his book that should have included many gay events in his over 700-page tome - how the 1960's affect today - excluded them, and then marketed his book as "a full spectrum of opinions about the impact" of that decade, "an epic portrait of another defining era in America as he brings to life the tumultuous Sixties, a fault line in American history," and that it'll spark "frank conversations about America then, now, and tomorrow."

The fact is that of the movements of the 1960's, we're still the one that people least want to talk and think about. Brokaw's target audience in the book is the comfortable boomer class who looks back on the 60's as a quaint time in American history when people cared and our problems got fixed. They, for the most part, don't want to talk about queers and don't want to have a productive discussion about why many of these same problems still haven't been solved (mostly because of people's aversion to talking about sexuality in healthy and productive ways, which only begins the cycle all over again).

Honestly, if Brokaw didn't want to write a complete book of the 1960's, he could have at least written on the cover that it's the straight person's history book, and maybe he could have written a couple paragraphs about why he's straight-washing. I'd settle for honesty.


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I guess I can understand Kameny's frustration. After all it's these Mattachine assimilationist "We're just like you straights!" types who have consistently tried to erase transgender people and experience from the Queer community and its political struggle. It's amusing to see how bitterly he complains when it's time for he and his ilk to suffer the very same fate he and others like him have sought to impose on transpeople for almost half a century.

Maybe I'm just not up on my LGBTQ history (and I'm not going to read Tom Brokaw's book to find out more!), but I don't know what Frank Kameny has done with regards to trans-exclusion.

Mattachine may have had major issues with femme, female, working class, and politically radical exclusion, but I'm willing to look at them in the context of the mid-60's.

I just don't know what Kameny's done recently to deserve a comment like that....

Marla R. Stevens Marla R. Stevens | November 26, 2007 2:17 PM

Your comment is deserved, Rebecca. Frank is nothing if not consistent to a fault. He's never gotten the many intertwined issues of gender and sexism inherent in homohatred and, the longer he lives, the more they are exposed in his path to trip him. But Kameny is right about Brokaw, too. It is the same mindset of so-called progressives who wrongly trivialize our issues and argue that they ought not be part of their agenda because they have impact on only a few, forgetting that ignored injustice not only grows but spreads.

I havent seen the show so I cant comment on that but having grown up during the 60s.Let me tell you this the headlines werent the gay rights movemnt there was Nam the black civil rights movemnt the sex drugs and rock and roll thing going on those items made the news.Living in rual south Georgia.We barely heard about hippies and drugs and sex and all that the Blacks and there civil rights movemnet were the hot topic.I bet none of you had to suddenly find out you were going to school with black kids like it or not etc yep thats what was going on in my world.Gay rights were local stories where they happened but am I glad they did you bet I do.So remember what was hapening then and how big a audience the story got before you totaly bash somebody for not having certain things that are now history told bigger than they were.

"Mattachine may have had major issues with femme, female, working class, and politically radical exclusion, but I'm willing to look at them in the context of the mid-60's.

I just don't know what Kameny's done recently to deserve a comment like that."

The problem is that we're not looking at something that Frank Kameny wrote in 1965.

We're looking at something he wrote in 2007 complaining (justifiably I'm assuming, though I will be taking a look at the book to see for myself) of GAY-ness being erased, yet writing it in such a way as to erase trans people and trans issues.

2007 - one month after trans people collectively were politically raped by Barney Frank, HRC and their apologists, with a false history of the GLB(T) movement being one of the implements of penetration - is the context.

Seriously, even though it is signed Frank Kameny, in light of its unwillingness to acknowledge anything trans (even about Stonewall) it just as easily could have been ghost-written by John Aravosis, Chris Crain or Dale Carpenter.

Further thoughts on this can be found at:

http://endablog.wordpress.com/2007/11/26/frank-kameny-tom-brokaw-is-bad-but-trickle-down-incremento-revisionism-is-good/

Sorry Alex, but I'm with Becky on this one.

Marla R. Stevens Marla R. Stevens | November 26, 2007 5:07 PM

Hey, Cathy -- Midway & Dorchester in Liberty County rural enough south Georgia for ya? Gay wasn't much news there then but it was only 40 miles up the old post road in Savannah, then that spread by word of mouth and mimeographed sheet moved hand-to-hand outwards from there to places like Richmond Hill, Pooler, Ludowici, and Statesboro, then on to Metter and Lewisville and Valdosta.

We were making some of that news there back then, too -- with support groups for gay troops stationed in bases like Hunter, Ft. Stewart, and even for Marines stationed at Parris Island just across the Savannah River state line; study groups that went on to persuade librarians to take the gay books out of that locked shelf behind their desk; self-defense classes that led to meetings with police to insist that they prosecute antigay thugs who attacked our people leaving places like The Basement or walking home through the squares on Bull Street -- which led just a few years later to the first gay rights demonstration in Georgia outside of Atlanta being hatched in my living room (with the help of folks who had the best list -- the Sara Awards organizing group, thanks to behind the scenes support from my "Papa" Jim Williams and my cousin Neal "Ni-ni" Robinson) and the lessons learned from that being applied there even now -- sometimes even by some of the same people as then; and folks like Louis Crewe in his little south Georgia college town organizing the first chapter of Integrity -- now a national organization for Episcopalians that laid the groundwork for the ordination of Bishop Robinson which is fueling a significant schism threat in that mainstream major religious denomination today.

Brokaw's premise that 21st century life did not spring fully formed out of a vacuum and that the '60s is hardly appropriately conceptualized as a wrapped in cotton and stored away isolated phenomenon instead of being part of a continuum with real effects in the now is correct -- and Kameny is right in faulting him for not including gay movement politics in that mix. To put it more plainly, even though you personally might have been unaware of it then, doesn't mean it wasn't happening all around you and is still affecting your world right this very minute.

"I just don't know what Kameny's done recently to deserve a comment like that...."

He probably hasn't advocated for transpeople as openly and fervently as Rebecca would have liked, thus the smug, vindictive, and unfair remark. I think it's dangerous to stretch the fallacious history of one organization into a basis for character judgment on an individual.

Of course, vicious attacks are likely to happen to those who don't subscribe to Rebecca's guidelines of good LGBT behavior, that is, everything done about gay rights (key word gay rights activist in the piece) must include an equal reference to trans issues. I fail to see Rebecca decrying lesbian organizations offering scholarships and other benefits to lesbians and not gay men, however, how strange. What I think Rebecca misses is that certain organizations have certain *gasps* focuses. Just because they specialize in one area does not mean that they are your enemy and worthy of contemptuously vengeful remarks. In sum, I find Rebecca's sadistic amusement at someone else's bitterness about being ignored, well, ironic. It's as if we're in a pissing contest where a contestant says things like "Well, now you know what it feels like, since I'm sooooooo much more screwed over than you, so shut up," which are inane, nonconstructive, and disgustingly self-centered at best, with no absolute benefit in the form of suggestions as to how to remedy the situation.

"Smug"? "Sadistic"? I don't think so. I'm merely pointing out the all-too-common hypocrisy practiced by Kameny and so many others like him, that it's perfectly acceptable to exclude those they find inconvenient or not in keeping with their own image of what our community and our movement should be, but then complain bitterly when the tables are turned and they are forced to join us on the outside looking in.

I attack this kind of blatant and overt hypocrisy when I hear it coming from HRC and Barney Frank, and I'm just as quick to do so when I hear it coming from others who should certainly know better.

I respect a lot that Kameny has done (nailing boards over bathroom windows in public parks to stop the entrapment of gay men cruising for sex... hell yes. Wait, was that him? I think so), but it sure did suck standing outside HRC's National Dinner protesting their support of the non-inclusive ENDA as Frank waltzed in without even giving us a second glance. Shit, at least acknowledge what’s happening, Frank! It kind of breaks a young queer’s heart, ya know? When you realize that your idols are just as full of shit as everybody else sometimes.

Amusement at someone else's bitter situation and dismissing their plight because they do not join your own, on my books, is smug and sadistic, especially when you complain about the very same treatment that transpeople are subjected to.

I think Frank has every right to speak his mind. Becky also does.

Hi Marla when your scorce of news was mainstream there was zip about what was going on in from what you described as the underground press.Which btw was one of those things we heard roumors about and never realy saw when you were 13. I was learning to dress like a girl in my own secret world then as well.But what would become GLBT news not a word reached the rest of us. So like I said remeber what is important but highly local history and news stroies may or may not of been heard about by the rest of us and I live close to Valdosta and lived in Tifton at the time so Redneck city and yes the Klan was still around then to but slowly dieing out.So you see im more rual than ya may think.

Marla R. Stevens Marla R. Stevens | November 27, 2007 12:05 AM

I have at least a passing familiarity with Tifton -- and it's a pretty rural place all surrounded by scrub pines and such. But I think what's really determining our different experiences is the age each of us was at the time -- you pretty much still a child and me an adult with the greater experience, connections, and autonomous freedom of movement that can come with age. Our experiences and awarenesses were bound to be considerably different -- although, by the time I was the age you were then, I knew a number of transgendered people, including some of the earliest post-op transsexuals on this side of the Pond, so my awareness might have been a heightened one even if there was no age discrepancy.

Yes we each have our own memories of what the 60's were all about and yes I even had one of the last draft cards that realy ment I could have been drafted.So when we think we know what was going on remember this what you knew may not be the same as somebody living just down the road give or take a few miles.

For just a bit more being 13 and figuring out you were a girl not a guy and had nobody to turn to talk about keeping a dark secret im surprised I dint go nutty from it.

Everyone~ Cornell West said that the ability to have two simultaneous thoughts about a person (he was referencing George Washington's slave ownership) is key to functioning in a pluralistic society. People can be both good and bad, right sometimes and wrong at others. I'm not changing my mind that Frank Kameney is (a) right in this letter, (b) an important and influential figure in the gay right's movement who has left the world a better place for having existed, and (c) awesome. He helped organize some of the first marches to increase queer visibilty in the 60's, was a key figure in getting homosexuality removed from the DSM, and has worked to help document civil rights history with the Smithsonian.

Kat~

The only item that you say Kameny left off that you mention on your blog is the Compton's Cafeteria Riot. His letter specifically says that there are other events from that period that are important as well, and he did include Stonewall, which wasn't just gay. And your post indicates that you don't really have a problem with this book, so I'm wondering why you'd have a problem with Kameny not including you in his letter....

If another letter got sent from a trans-perspective to Brokaw, I'd totally republish it here if I had permission.

Nick~

Ugh. I agree. But not everyone's perfectly good or perfectly bad, as much as we try to make people out to be, and while his politics may seem anachronistic now, he did lots of things back in the day to help bring us to where we are today. And he's right in this letter!

But seriously, people shouldn't just walk right into HRC without acknowledging the protests. That's like crossing the picket line. (oh, wait, it's exactly like crossing the picket line!)

Rebecca~

This is a letter from a specific person to another specific person and his publisher. It's worlds apart from HRC or ENDA in that (a) he never said that he represented trans people to raise money and get volunteers and then turn around when it became work to make good on his promise, (b) his letter doesn't make it harder for another, later trans letter to get sent to Tom Brokaw, and (c) he hasn't engaged in the sort of ignorant (at best) rhetoric (at least here) that we've seen from the ENDA situation over these past two months. I don't think that's a fair comparison at all.

Lucrece~

I think that calling Rebecca "smug" and "vindictive" is unfair as well. There's nothing particularly smug of vindictive about advocating trans rights.

"His letter specifically says that there are other events from that period that are important as well, and he did include Stonewall, which wasn't just gay. And your post indicates that you don't really have a problem with this book, so I'm wondering why you'd have a problem with Kameny not including you in his letter"

I think I can speak for most of my sisters and brothers on this: We're no longer satisfied with being a nano-component of "other."