Jesse Monteagudo

Franklin Kameny Revised

Filed By Jesse Monteagudo | October 17, 2011 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living
Tags: Frank Kameny, gay rights, homophile, LGBT rights, living history, pre-Stonewall

Thumbnail image for frank-kameny-and-mattachine-society-of-washington-members-marching-1970.jpegLike many of you, I mourn the passing of Dr. Franklin Kameny, who passed away on October 11 at 86 years young. I wrote about Dr. Kameny in 2006, when he donated his personal papers to the Library of Congress. Here is that article, slightly revised:

History - and the LGBT community for which they did so much - have neglected the pre-Stonewall "homophile" activists. Even today many histories of the gay movement begin with the Stonewall Riots of 1969, thus ignoring decades of groundbreaking political, educational and social work. With a few exceptions, activist leaders of the 1950's and 1960's are ignored; their achievements unrecognized or forgotten by the GLBT generations who came after them and to who they owe so much.

Hopefully, posterity will be kinder to Franklin Kameny (1925-2011). A one-man history of the LGBT movement - "I have become something of a walking history book," he said - Kameny has been at the center of events for the past fifty years.

In the 1950's Dr. Kameny challenged the federal government after it fired him from his job as an astronomer with the Army Map Service on account of his homosexuality. In the sixties, Kameny and Jack Nichols founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., a then-militant group that fought U.S. government and military discrimination and led the first queer protests in front of the White House and the Pentagon and Liberty Hall in Philadelphia. It was Kameny who coined (in 1966) the then-radical slogan, "Gay Is Good."

In the 1970's, Dr. Kameny waged a campaign against the American Psychiatric Association, one which led to the APA's 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. He also ran for Congress as an openly gay candidate and co-founded both the National Gay Task Force and the Gay Rights National Lobby (now the Human Rights Campaign). Incredibly, author Paul Russell left Dr. Kameny out of his "Gay 100," list of notable lesbians and gay men. (Russell did include Madonna.)

Political pressure has kept government libraries, archives and the Smithsonian Institution from preserving and exhibiting the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. Thus many of us were delightfully surprised when the Library of Congress graciously accepted (on October 6, 2006) Frank Kameny's donation of his personal papers and historic artifacts. Dr. Kameny's unique gift to the nation consists of over 70,000 letters, documents and memorabilia that Kameny, a self-described pack rat, amassed for over half a century in his Washington, D.C. attic.

"Nearly fifty years ago, the United States Government banned me from employment in public service because I am a homosexual," Kameny said. "This archive is not simply my story; it also shows how gay and lesbian Americans have joined the American mainstream story of expanded civil liberties in the 20th century. Today, by accepting these papers, the nation preserves not only our history but marks how far gay and lesbian Americans have traveled on the road to civil equality."

Incredibly, Kameny was not eligible for a federal tax deduction for his unprecedented donation. Fortunately, grants from former Congressman Michael Huffington (Arianna's ex), Charles Francis and other philanthropists made Kameny's generous gift possible.

"This is the real deal, Frank," said Francis, who also heads the Kameny Papers Project. "This means that the papers are going from Frank's attic to the nation's attic."

The Kameny Papers include half a century's worth of letters, government correspondence, testimony and photographs. Replicas of some of those documents, as posted in the Kameny Papers Project's website, indicate the breadth of Dr. Kameny's activities and interests. Here are some of Dr. Kameny's early testimony before committees of Congress, his letters to influential congressmen and said congressmen's outraged responses. ("In all my six years of service in the United States Congress, I have not received such a revolting communication," wrote an appalled Rep Charles E. Chamberlain of Michigan.)

Kameny's memorabilia collection includes photos of early gay rights demonstrations, groundbreaking court decisions and early issues of the Washington Mattachine newsletter, "The Homosexual Citizen."

The Kameny papers are housed in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, where they are available to historians and researchers. Not included in Kameny's impressive donation are six placards that Dr. Kameny used in his demonstrations in front of the White House and the Pentagon, a campaign poster announcing Kameny's run for Congress, and half a dozen pamphlets from the early 1960's.

After he considered spreading his wealth around various LGBT archives and libraries, Kameny decided to donate these precious items to the Stonewall National Museum and Archives in Fort Lauderdale. The largest collection of its kind south of Washington, D.C., Stonewall gratefully gave Dr. Kameny its Heritage of Pride Award, an honor that allowed the good Doctor to visit Fort Lauderdale for the first time. (He had visited Miami in 1977, during Miami-Dade County's "gay rights" referendum campaign.)

Kameny's donation to the Stonewall National Museum and Archives is indicative of that organization's increasing importance as a repository of LGBT movement material.

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And that ignorance, mixed with conscious neglect and disrespect, followed him almost unto his last breath. While he was invited to the signing of the DADT repeal bill, HE, too, should have been on-stage with the gay come-laters when it was signed by the President, and toasted and honored when it repeal was inexcusably only implemented nine months later. For Frank was the sole help to gay and lesbian service members in trouble, long before any ban-specific group was organized. While New Yorkers first protested the ban in 1964, Frank was, as noted above, one of the organizers of the first ban protests at the Pentagon. And, most of all, he was the inspiration for the unprecedented, intentional personal outing to the military and legal challenge to the ban by Leonard Matlovich in 1975 that first informed straight society that not only were there well-performing gays in the military—they would fight to be there. In the landmark "Conduct Unbecoming," Randy Shilts wrote: "Every news organization in the United States, and many from outside the country, appeared at his doorstep demanding interviews. Not only had Matlovich achieved unparalleled status within the gay community; he had managed to capture the sympathy of the mainstream as well [and] a level of celebrity heretofore unknown within the gay movement." In HBO's recent documentary, "The Strange History of DADT," ban expert Nathaniel Frank said that Leonard's case "started a discussion" across the country about gay rights generally.

While it was inevitable from some direction, it might have come years later had it not been for Frank Kameny who, ironically, outlived Leonard, too, by 23 years, and walked proudly beside the horse-drawn caisson carrying Leonard's casket in 1988.

Perhaps if others in the Movement had not mewed away from his kind of take-no-prisoners attitude as demonstrated by his statement: "The government’s policies...are a stench in the nostrils of decent people, an offense against morality, an abandonment of reason, an affront to human dignity, an improper restraint upon proper freedom and liberty, a disgrace to any civilized society, and a violation of all that this nation stands for,” we might not still be second class citizens FIFTY YEARS after he put that in his appeal to the Supreme Court for being fired.

The late Frank Kameny was in no way a civil rights hero. As one of the founders of the so-called "homophile" movement, Frank Kameny never really fought for equal rights; instead, he sought to overcome homophobia against upper-class cis gays and lesbians by extending existing structures of class privilege and white privilege over them. The entire homophile movement was built around the idea that "respectable" gays and lesbians should segregate themselves from the rest of the LGb(t) spectrum and ingratiate themselves with the social elite by supporting every oppressive social norm which did not directly affect themselves.

This is why Kameny's Washington DC branch of the Mattachine Society enforced a strict dress code and rigorous behavior standards during its annual protest marches at the White House. Those marches were all about demonstrating to the ruling class that "good" gays were exactly like them and thus could be trusted to be just as intolerant towards the "wrong sort". That's why a movement supposedly founded on socialist principles not only excluded the working class from its membership, but outright sided with the authorities when the revolution came.

As a kinky trans lesbian woman of color from the working class, I will remember Frank Kameny with thirty pieces of silver.

Desiree, how dare you! ... And exactly where the fuck were you in 1957?

Ah the croak of youthful ignorance, imbued with a smattering of queer theory and no firsthand knowledge of the person of which they speak, or the historical context of those actions.

Here’s what real transgender activists of color who actually knew Kameny had to say about the man to Metro Weekly.

Transgender activist Earline Budd says Kameny was one of the people who reached out to her when she was first discovering her identity. Years ago, as a teenager, Budd was kicked out her family's home because of that identity. That's when she found Kameny, who showed her compassion and tried to get her connected to a support network.

''I often called him my father, because he really was like a father figure to me,'' she says.

Though Kameny didn't work directly with the transgender community, necessarily, Budd says everything Kameny fought for has had an impact on the transgender community by raising issues of advocacy for LGBT rights as a whole.

''There are no words that can express the loss,'' says Budd. ''We owe just a great amount of respect to Dr. Kameny and what he gave to us.''

Transgender activist Jeri Hughes remembers not an in-your-face activist, but the sweet elderly man at GLAA meetings.

''I had no idea when I first met him how important he was,'' she says.

''He seemed to have been ignored, so I tried to take care of him.''
Of course, she later learned who Kameny was and of his impact on the lives of LGBT people everywhere.

''He was before his time,'' says Hughes. ''He was amazing.''