Guest Blogger

If Frank Kameny Was a Pop Star

Filed By Guest Blogger | December 30, 2010 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, The Movement
Tags: Frank Kameny, gay icons, Zack Rosen

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Zack Rosen is a Leo who is losing his hair. He blogs at The New Gay.

Frank-Kameny.jpgYou know who Madonna is, right? Or Lady Gaga? Can you recite every line of Kathy Griffin's latest standup routine or tell me who exactly fucked whom on the cast of "The A List: New York," and in what position?

If you answered yes to any, or all, of those questions then I have another one for you: Do you know Frank Kameny?

Frank Kameny is the 85 year-old man who is almost single-handedly responsible for the jump starting the modern gay rights movement as we know it. Before there was the HRC, or "It Gets Better," or DADT even existed to be repealed there was Frank Kameny. Mr. Kameny is responsible for the visibility, and eventual legality, of gays in the military. He was the first to organize pickets on the White House for governmental mistreatment of so-called "homophiles" in the pre-Stonewall 60s. He is responsible for the American Psychiatric Institute declassifying homosexuality as an illness. He coined the phrase "Gay is Good" some 30 years before Ellen, The Indigo Girls or Will & Grace existed to combat the almost universally held notion that same-sex love was the most debased, shameful urge that a person could carry. In short, without his hard work we'd still be languishing in ditches and backrooms of American society.

So where is he now? Living the high life in a Dupont Circle row house? Gracing the cover of Out Magazine on an annual basis? Is he the subject of a reality show or Oscar-winning movie to keep him on the forefront of our national consciousness?

No. Frank Kameny is struggling to make ends meet in a decidedly modest corner of our nation's capital. All but forgotten by the glittery activist circles he birthed, Frank Kameny is, at best, honored by an honorary street sign on DC's gay 17th St. and, at worst, forced to borrow cab fare for this journalists 2009 interview with him at Lambda Rising, about a 20 minute ride from his house.

In short, Frank Kameny needs your help.

Before we get too far into that, lets pretend Frank Kameny was not a national treasure, not the man whose hard work and tenacious charm allows me to hold hand with my boyfriend at the Columbia Rd. Safeway. Lets pretend he was a pop star.

Lets pretend Frank Kameny was given a different set of gifts and blasted onto the scene in 1973 with an unparalleled dance hit, or double LP of smoky torch songs that redefined not our human rights but the soundtrack to our dinner parties and makeout sessions. Lets say he followed this initial success with a string of double-platinum albums, with NBC Christmas specials and sold out engagements at Carnegie Hall, with regrettable forays into disco or synthpop that we forgave him for because we loved him.

If this was the case, where would Frank be now? He'd be inescapable within the pages of our most-read gay publications. Drag Kings would don his outfits at spoken word nights and clips of his more ingratiating moments would be fixtures at video bars like Sidetracks or JRs. People would call him a "national treasure" on their facebook status updates and whisper to each other "it's him!" when they saw him on the street. He would be known and celebrated and loved for no other fact than that he was outlandish or flamboyant or somehow worthy of entrance into the puzzling, mercurial ranks of the gay canon.

That is not the case. When Katy Perry garners gay headlines for merely wiping her ass from front to back, when not liking Glee is considered a gay sin on par with Shopping at Target or voting Republican, when people seem so concerned with what they are and what they have that they don't know how they got it, people like Frank Kameny sit alone in the Christmas morning detritus of opened boxes and crumpled wrapping paper while their proverbial families play outside.

Helping Our Brothers and Sisters is a DC-based charity dedicated to "meeting the short term needs of marginalized GLBT in the Washington D.C. area, who don't fit the criteria for help from other organizations or agencies" and right now they are dedicated to assisting Frank Kameny. Their volunteer Ben Carver is helming the "Buy Frank a Drink" initiative, where the price of a high-end cocktail can be donated instead to helping Mr. Kameny with his basic financial needs. Carver has assured this author that all the money going into HOBS right now will be given to Frank.

The Gay Rights Movement is notorious for "eating its leaders alive," as the saying goes, but I can't think of anyone out there that could criticize Frank Kameny's actions or intentions. Instead, he has just been forgotten. But he is still with us. It is important to show him our support, and by extension our gratitude, while we still have him.

If you want to support Frank Kameny, please visit the facebook page for "Buy Frank a Drink" with more information about the project and instructions on how to donate.

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Brilliant piece.

Please tell us how to reach him to help.

Happy new year.

Though, actually, Frank's DC neighborhood is not that financially "modest," it's just that his part of it is, this is aBRILLIANT post!

I know that DC's Gertrude Stein Democratic Club [which he helped found] has helped him in the past, and Charles Francis spearheaded the successful effort to get the Library of Congress to purchase Frank's papers, but needs never stop and no one deserves in our Community deserves it more than Frank Kameny.

And a second project that deserves support is getting Frank awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It's great that Harvey Milk got one but a travesty that Frank didn't first. For instance, when Frank was first picketing outside the White House for gay rights, the pre-liberated Harvey was still mourning that Right Wing Barry Goldwater wasn't INSIDE the White House.

Kathy Padilla | December 30, 2010 3:12 PM

Done. Cheers!

Done. Thanks for this, Zack.

I first met "Uncle Frank" in the 70's when he came to speak at a "gay liberation" conference at Indiana University, and I have seen him again and again as the years go by.

Uncle Frank, what a trooper you have been in your effort to make the world better for people like me! If you hadn't gotten the ball rolling when you did, how many years would the world have waited before someone else came along with bravery and initiative equal to yours? The modern GLBT movement can never repay you for what you have done for us!

Uncle Frank, I also want to thank you for the way you coached, advised, accompanied and befriended Leonard Matlovich during his challenge against the US Air Force -- you literally helped Mat make history. I am so glad you are still here with us to soon see gay and lesbian servicemembers serving our country proudly and openly.

Zach, thanks for letting us know that Uncle Frank could use our help -- and thanks for telling us about HOBS, which sounds like a wonderful group for us to support every way we can.

Kameny's "homophile" movement sought rights for heteronormative upper-class gays ONLY. This was dramatically illustrated by the White House protests mentioned in the post; only gay men and women wearing "suitable attire" -- defined by Kameny and his people as strictly gender normative and within upper class definitions of socially appropriate -- to participate.

Kameny and the Mattachine Society are also notable for cooperating with the police in trying to suppress the Stonewall Riots, posting signs demanding that the rioters cease their ruckus and working to try and deprive them of community support.

Wow, Desiree! ... you are a walking public service announcement for trans people everywhere, now aren't you? ... We venerate the Stonewall Riots in hindsight, but when a riot is going on right outside your front door, the sane thing to do is to try to stop it! It's called non-violence, Mother Mary.

I try to support the rights of trans people, but I get very tired at how some dig so hard to find things to kvetch about on this blog. Will you be bitching about Elton John not wearing a dress while he plays mother to his new baby? For what you said about Frank, you certainly lead us to believe you are an unappreciative little wench.

Kathy Padilla | December 30, 2010 8:24 PM

Hmm - I read her comments as mostly or completely about gay people who she felt were excluded.

Kathy, your cool-headed follow-up to my heated retort is well taken -- however, I simply don't think that we can apply 2010 standards of inclusion to activism that took place in the late 1960's. I understand that affluent white males are now, and even more then, were highly privileged -- but even so, with society at large being so uninformed, closed-minded, and just plain homophobically bigoted, it took great courage for even the business-suited white males of the 1950's and 60's to come out openly as Kameny and a few others did.

Abraham Lincoln feared that whites and blacks could never get along together. Lincoln's view on this proved true for another one hundred years -- but ultimately he was wrong about this. Even so, Lincoln is still rightfully honored for the many things he did right.

Kathy Padilla | December 31, 2010 9:53 AM

How we remember the past effects not only today, but what we see as possible tomorrow. That past did include groups and actions that had greater diversity than suggested. The Dewey's protest which slightly preceded Dr. Kameny's White House demonstration back in 1965 was organized in good part by the owner of the then largest gay publication in the US, who is mostly forgotten today (Clark Polak). The Janus Society that ran the protest not only made efforts towards inclusion of minorities, but the protest itself was around gender non-conformity and refusal of service to the larger community.

Our histories are not so simple a narrative - there are more strands than just one. Which ones one honors and which one disavows is an important choice. This doesn't mean I condone negative comments on a thread seeking to help an elderly pioneer. But - it doesn't mean I support transphobic responses either. The content of the comment had nothing to do with trans peoples. The gender non-conformity mentioned was regarding lesbians not being permitted to wear trousers, if memory serves. Attributing the commenters opinion solely to her being transgender was mistaken.

Kathy is correct; my dislike of Frank Kameny has less to do with me being a trans girl and more with me being a genderqueer lesbian whom he and his sort would have argued "deserved" to be persecuted for failing to comply with social norms.

I am confident that Kameny supported the rights of people with variant gender expression -- including the legendary drag queens who were a central part of the Stonewall Riot itself. If Kameny insisted on suits and dresses, you must remember that this came at the end of the 60's, after the hippie and free love movement and Haight-Ashbury scene. The nice business quality clothes were simply an effort to show that the gays and lesbians coming out and protesting openly were not to be confused and mentally co-mingled with other controversial things going on in society at that time. It wasn't meant to deliberately exclude anyone.

In any event, I did not criticize Desiree or her comment on the basis of her being a trans person, and if I gave that impression, I do sincerely apologize. I also apologize to everyone for posting in anger, something that by now I should know never to do. I am lucky that no one called me the asshole that I was being. (Well, actually I really like assholes, can't get enough, but you know what I'm sayin' ...)

On the other hand, this clash has led to a discussion that we need to have, and all social movements run into eventually: Is it proper for us to judge the actions of the past entirely according to the social standards of the present? That is a difficult call that even professional historians struggle with all the time. I once again cite my example re Lincoln.

You fail to understand the history. The Stonewall Inn was the only gay bar in all NYC which would admit genderqueer gays and lesbians; all of the other ones were for "straight-acting" gay men only. The Mattachine Society movement which Frank Kameny played a major role in starting, was closely tied to this segregationist movement within the gay community and built its tactics entirely around promoting "homophilia" within the existing power structure. They played no role in the Stonewall Riots; indeed, their immediate reaction was to side with the police and condemn the rioters in tremendously transphobic ways.

To quote an eyewitness of the actual events, "A prominent Stonewall myth holds that the riots were an uprising by the gay community against decades of oppression. This would be true if the "gay community" consisted of Stonewall patrons. The bar's regulars, though, were mostly teenagers from Queens, Long Island and New Jersey, with a few young drag queens and homeless youths who squatted in abandoned tenements on the Lower East Side. I was there on the Saturday and Sunday nights when the Village's established gay community, having heard about the incidents of Friday night, rushed back from vacation rentals on Fire Island and elsewhere. Although several older activists participated in the riots, most stood on the edges and watched.

The established gay community he's talking about are Kameny's lot, the upper-class gay white men whose cowardice paralyzed LGBTI activism for decades, who insisted that the ONLY way to secure gay rights was to pander to the prejudices of the majority until they accepted straight-acting gays as "normal".

While you have a right to your viewpoint just as anyone else does, I doubt that historians will ever arrive at a consensus that largely agrees -- and I particularly question your claim that "pander[ing] to the prejudices of the majority until they accepted straight-acting gays as 'normal'" set back the gay rights movement at all. What you fail to understand is the near-universality of straight-acting gay men being in the closet at that time. I was not at the Stonewall Riots, but I was alive in 1969 (I was 14 years old that summer, in fact).

Again, let's just agree to disagree. I'm outta here.

I have to co-sign A.J. on this, this sounds like a bitter comment.

In fact, Kameny copied a bit after the black civil rights movement and King, MLK, and all the major players wore...uhhh, suits.

It what minorities have to do.

That's Malcolm X not "King and MLK, lol

There's a huge difference between wearing suits when appropriate and declaring that anyone who does not comply with upper-class social norms should be entirely excluded from the gay community for the sake of looking "respectable" in the eyes of the straight majority.

P.S. Your title is worded as a hypothetical, and thus the subjuctive form of verb is called for: If Frank Kameny were a Rock Star ... at least that's the way I was taught grammar 40 years ago ... just sayin' ... | December 30, 2010 5:47 PM

@ Mlle Arceneuax: how can one put this delicately? How about, "You don't know what the fuck you're talking about"?

One could deconstruct, with documentation, your nonsense, such as the fact that Frank had NOTHING to do with the choices of New York Mattachine which you incorrectly broadbrush in any case, but it would be a waste of time. I recognize the "mind" set, and you'd only fire back with something else. I only write at all to say that I'm one person who won't stomach your ignorant demonization of someone like Frank, in fact many, including ever-poor fellow pioneer Barbara Gittings, et al.

Ugh, I realized my subjunctive error the second I posted this. I feel somewhat exonerated that you gave me a chance to acknowledge that, so thank you AJ.

As for Franks heteronormative tactics: I know he required "ladylike" clothing and such for the protesters, and I would not support the other actions if they were done today. However, I have to ask this questions: would you rather he had fought for us all those years ago or not?

Thats the main question when it comes to activism. I think people should be given every chance possible to try and change the world around them. In Frank's case, I imagine the world was a very different place when he started and that some of his tactics were necessary, or seemed so, to support the climate he was living in.

However, this argument is a privilege. We are lucky that we are able to enjoy enough basic visibility to be engaging in this dialogue. If Frank Kameny hadn't done anything, anything at all, do you think our world would be an easier place?

Yes. If Frank Kameny hadn't done anything at all, our world would be an easier place.

The entire "homophile" movement was always based on leveraging social privilege and white privilege and male privilege and cisgender privilege in order to gain social acceptance for upper class gay white cis males at the expense of everyone else. That's where the entire, "Gay, Incorporated" mindset was born, and had it not existed we'd be 5-10 years further along in actual civil rights.

Well, Desiree, I am amazed that you are willing to say this. I don't think you can blame the 20+year history of structural failings regarding "Gay, Inc." on any one person, and certainly not on Frank Kameny.

Maybe we just have to kindly agree to disagree on this point, I don't know -- but understanding that social changes sometimes have to happen in sequential order, I don't understand your logic.

I do understand your resentment, however, at feeling excluded, and I do sympathize with it. Or I try to.

If social changes have to happen in sequential order, then the sequence needs to prioritize the needs of who are suffering the most over the wants of those who already have the most power and are suffering the least.

That simply isn't the way reality works -- instead, the changes that are possible are the ones that a small fraction of the population, at least, are ready for. If "need" and "pain" had anything to do with it, then I could imagine the oil companies paying off the mortgages of people with their homes in foreclosure, instead of shaking the entire globe for the highest prices their oil can bring.

Activism of the 60’s cannot be defined as simply as it is today-us against them.

Tab Hunter’s Ghost | December 31, 2010 9:02 PM

I honor Mr. Kameny’s bravery and pioneering spirit! What a national treasure indeed.

As to letting the thread be highjacked by someone who is known to constantly highjack threads, meh. She doesn’t deserve the attention.

Frank Kameny is a true gay American hero.

A,J. be cautious. I know widows and orphans whose mortgages are paid by dividends from Chevron.

Here is the interesting contrast. Forget being a pop star, why can't this country find a way to provide adequate retirement funding for all 85 year olds? Why is Frank any more entitled to a comfortable life at that age than a bag lady or a heterosexual drifter?

I agree with AJ. Frank was doing what he thought was best forty years ago and to judge him by today's world is not fair. What you should blame if you must is the lack of a trans person stepping up with Frank or alone and doing similar things. Thank goodness by the time Stonewall happened some drag queens had had enough and did fight back. But please stop attacking Frank for doing what he did to help gays and lesbians. Trans folks needed to stand up for themselves as well. God only knows what he knew about trans people back then!

The Frank Kameny critics don't have a clue what life was like for sexual minorities in the '60's and '70's. Over 99% of our communities were not even out, let alone doing any activism like kKmeny was, and out of his own house and own pocket, not as a public spokesmodel for Gay INC. He is the genuine article. He also was a volunteer advocate for hundreds of federal workers who lost their jobs either for just being gay, or suspicion of being gay. He learned how to do it by defending himself, when he was fired from his position at a federal agency as an astronomer. Before there were any agy hotlines, drop in centers, youth assistance, etc., Kameny was a THE go-to person if you ahd a question, or needed help.
20-20 hindsight is a beautiful gift.