The Second Dumb Dora Award for
Pioneer Smearing Goes to
Pioneer Smearing Goes to
The thing about Dr. Frank Kameny: Dude was Gay, and he never felt inferior to anybody!
That observation may sound unremarkable, but believe me, it’s anything but! It’s astounding, especially when you take the man’s age into account. He was 86 when he died on 11 October, which means his youth played out over two decades before the Stonewall rebellion. Frank Kameny grew up during a time when Gay people were put in jail just for dancing together. He grew up when Gay people were locked away in mental wards. He grew up when Gay teenagers and Gay adults committed suicide on a regular basis. Interviewed by author Eric Marcus, Dr. Kameny recalled those dark days:
. . . it was a different era . . . homosexuality had never been publicly discussed . . . the word “homosexual” was not fit to print, or discuss, or be heard . . . outside the medical books, there was nothing anywhere on the subject. It was blanked out, blacked out . . . there was absolutely nothing whatsoever that anybody heard at any time, anywhere, that was other than negative! Nothing! (Society told us) we were sick, we were sinners, we were perverts.
The Church, the justice system and the academic world all condemned homosexual status. So did the news media. The level of persecution we face today is intense, but compared to what Dr. Kameny faced during the first half of his life, it’s a picnic lunch!
Even today, most LesBiGay folk who denied having any internalized shame would be liars; do people free of inferiority complexes invite others to address them as “homos”, “d*kes”, “queers”, etcetera? I think not! But somehow, ‘way back in the 1950s, Frank Kameny managed to conquer his shame. Recognizing that he belonged to a persecuted minority group, he adopted a no-tolerance policy on mistreatment. Dude took on legalized heterosexism at the height of its power, fighting it with everything he had. Sometimes he lost, of course, but the man was frightfully tenacious; once he started fighting, he never stopped!
Dr. K was, and is, the ideal role model for what a Gay Rights crusader should be. To hear some tell the story, he singlehandedly lit fire under a floundering, barely-there Gay Rights movement. What’s more, he did so by sheer force of his personality.
DR. FRANK KAMENY, CIRCA 1940s
In 1957, the WWII veteran and Harvard University-educated Doctor of Astronomy was living in Washington, DC and working for the US Army Map Service. Abruptly, he was terminated. Caught cruising for sex in Lafayette Park, police had charged him with public indecency. It was indecent behavior, but Gay men had few options for coupling back then; after all, homosexual contact was a criminal offense! Risky as they were, furtive encounters in public places were the rule rather than the exception. Like countless others before and after him, Frank Kameny took the risk and suffered for it.
Most Gay people who got “outed” in the ‘50s lost their jobs, their homes, their families and friends. They’d hang their heads down like whipped dogs and slink away into the shadows. The lucky ones might start over in a new town, more likely than not under a new name. The unlucky ones might kill themselves, especially if an arrest was involved; many did. But not Dr. K!
Outraged, he dared to sue the Civil Service. Despite one legal setback after another, he doggedly fought his case all the way up to the US Supreme Court. “Preparing the petition was extremely useful,” he told Eric Marcus many years later, “because it forced me to sit down and think through . . . my entire ideology on (being Gay). At that time, the government put its disqualification of Gays (sic) under the rubric of immoral conduct . . . I objected to (that) . . . in my view, homosexuality is not only not immoral, (it’s) affirmatively moral! Up until this time, nobody else ever said (so) . . . in any kind of formal court pleading.”
Dr. K found himself leading the pack of Progressive thinkers on the subject of Gay Rights. He liked being out front, and he stayed there! After the Supreme Court ruled against him in 1961, he shifted gears and co-founded a Washington, DC chapter of The Mattachine Society. Founded by Harry Hay and a handful of other brave Californians a decade earlier, Mattachine chapters were the forerunners of today’s Gay Rights organizations. However, they were extremely low-profile; understandably, given the legal situation, much of the membership was closeted. Frank Kameny, of course, was not, but even if he had been, he wasn’t the kind to shun confrontation! Mattachine restraint was hardly to his liking. He found most of these so-called advocacy groups “unassertive, apologetic and defensive . . . (they) did not take strong positions.”
He decided this timid approach to organizing had to change! Still smarting from his Supreme Court loss, he insisted on a much angrier tone. “We at the Washington Mattachine characterized ourselves . . . as an activist, militant organization,” he recalled. “Those were very dirty words in those days . . . you weren’t supposed to be militant (but) we were . . . our goals . . . were generally to achieve equality for homosexuals (sic) . . . equality was the primary theme.”
Another decade would pass before equality became the primary theme of the national Gay Rights movement; Frank Kameny’s Mattachines got a 10-year jump on nearly everybody else! They aggressively defended victims of blackmail and bar raids, filing many legal complaints on their behalf. Cognizant of the link between religious doctrine and hetero-bigotry, they sought common ground with open-minded clergy. They also set up a referral service for Gay people needing jobs, or legal assistance, or medical help; but their main mission was fighting employment discrimination in the government, including Gay exclusion from military service.
This relentless focus on government led to a watershed event in American history: Picketing of the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, the Civil Service Commission and Philadelphia’s Independence Hall by uncloseted Lesbians and Gay men! The Philadelphia protest marches became an annual event, scheduled every 4th of July from 1965 to 1969. Openly Gay people were all but unheard of back then, but openly Gay people who were also militant? Incredible! If you’re looking for a pivotal moment that anticipated Stonewall, you need look no further than these daring demonstrations.
Usually clad in conservative business attire, the pickets got little media coverage outside the tabloid press; however, their direct action tactics caused a huge stir in closeted Gay circles. Frankly, they knocked the old-school Gay activists flat on their craven asses! So did the take-no-prisoners speeches Kameny laid on complacent Mattachine Society chapters when he did speaking tours. Here’s an extended excerpt from one speech, given in New York City circa 1964:
(Regarding) the closing of Gay bars: This seems to me to be an obvious infringement upon the right of the homosexual citizens to freely associate . . . I have suggested that . . . this is a matter which a group such as Mattachine Society of New York might well take up. I am told that it is difficult to get a bar owner who will cooperate. This is not a matter for the bar owners! This is a matter for homosexuals (sic). The lawsuits which brought an end to school segregation were not initiated by the schools which wished to integrate! They were brought by (Black) school children who wanted to attend. The parallel is valid!
There are those in the movement who seem to feel that whenever controversy exists, we should . . . present both or all sides of the question. I disagree! Having examined the (Gay) issue and decided which side is . . . correct . . . we should present that side alone, presenting the other only to refute it . . . we should certainly not sponsor the presentation of opposing views. The Democrats don’t present the views of the Republicans as having equal merit with theirs! Our opponents will do a fully adequate job of presenting their views . . . (we should not) provide the enemy . . . with ammunition to be used against us.
We cannot ask for our rights from a position of inferiority (or) as less than whole human beings . . . I take the position unequivocally that, until and unless valid, positive evidence shows otherwise, homosexuality . . . is neither a sickness, a defect, a disturbance, a neurosis, a psychosis, nor a malfunction of any sort . . . I take the stand that not only is homosexuality . . . not immoral, but that homosexual acts engaged in by consenting adults are moral . . . and are right, good and desirable, both for the individual participants and for the society in which they live!
In short, as homosexuals (sic) we want . . . the right, as human beings, to develop our full potential and dignity, and the right, as citizens, to be allowed to make our maximum contribution to the society . . . these rights are ours in fact, though we are currently denied them in practice.
At a 21st century Gay activist gathering, such viewpoints would barely raise an eyebrow. In 1964, they were considered sensational! Dr. K’s aroused rhetoric had the effect of a bomb exploding: Mattachine meetings would erupt in loud dissent. Some folks thought he was spouting Communist ideology and accused him of same. Gay people have the right to assemble? The Gay and Black Civil Rights movements are comparable? Same gender love isn’t an illness? It isn’t sinful, either? Homosexual citizens are no different from any other? Preposterous! What kind of utopian planet did this crazy Jewish guy come from?
Activism so forthright was bound to raise Conservative political ire. Dr. Kameny’s energetic rabble rousing got him targeted with Federal legislation! Texas Dixiecrat John Dowdy (dude would be called a “blue dog” Democrat today) introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to essentially outlaw his Washington Mattachine chapter. Far from being intimidated, Dr. K demanded a Congressional hearing and got one. With an attorney and an ACLU representative in tow, he testified for nearly five hours in defense of his Gay Rights group.
An openly Gay witness, testifying before Congress in the early ‘60s, with sodomy laws still being aggressively enforced . . . it was unprecedented! And who’d have predicted that the testimony would sway any Congressmen? But Frank Kameny’s arguments were so compelling, he won over a substantial number of politicians, both Democrat and Republican; he even got support from the local press (would you believe The Washington Post?)!!! A few months later, Dowdy’s bill died in committee.
This face-to-face interaction with elected officials greatly emboldened other Gay activists. Arguably, it also paved a path for the Gay lobbyists that became Capitol Hill fixtures a quarter-century later. In 1971, Dr. Kameny would co-found the very first Gay lobbying group, Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Washington, DC. By the early ‘70s, the Mattachine Society’s suit-and-tie activism had given way to the jeans-and-sneakers militancy of a younger generation inspired by Stonewall. Gay people were finally coming around to Frank Kameny’s way of thinking! Still based in our nation’s capital, he began networking with young activists all over the country.
He led a group that confronted the American Psychiatric Association over its pathological definition of homosexual desire. Photojournalist Kay Tobin was part of that group, and she later recalled: “It was Frank Kameny who said that we had to proclaim . . . that we were not sick! And the burden of proof rested on those who called us sick.” Thanks to their sustained protest actions, which politicized many closeted psychiatrists, homosexuality was gone from APA’s list of mental disorders by 1973. The significance of this achievement can’t be overstated; discrediting the notion that Gay sexuality was “queer” lessened the stigma around it enormously.
Two years later, Dr, K’s long fight to end government hiring discrimination against Gay people also met with success; reforming Civil Service policy had taken him eighteen years! Open military service wouldn’t be achieved until shortly before his death. When DADT was repealed, though, he was standing there in the Oval Office watching President Obama sign the documents. A widely-circulated photo shows Dr. Kameny shaking the President’s hand with an ear-to-ear grin creasing his wizened face. What bliss repeal must have been for a veteran like him who, while still closeted, fought to save the world from Nazi domination!
Along the way to that triumph, Frank Kameny coined the slogan “Gay Is Good”; drafted legislation that eventually overturned sodomy laws in Washington, DC; took part in the first Gay Rights summit ever held in the White House; became the first openly Gay candidate to run for Congress; served as the first openly Gay member on the District of Columbia’s Human Rights Commission; became a founding director of the National Gay Task Force (now known as NGLTF); created an invaluable archive of Gay activist memorabilia spanning 50 years; and had a Washington, DC street named in his honor.
Did I forget to mention how he dared to put FBI director J. Edgar Hoover on the mailing list for a Gay Rights newsletter? Dude was absolutely fearless! He also subscribed Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon to the publication, as well as every sitting justice on the Supreme Court. Only Hoover’s office objected (tsk, tsk . . . isn’t that just like a closet case?). Communicating through subordinates, the notorious power-broker demanded that the mailings stop. Dr. Kameny ignored the demands!
He was a Civil Rights giant, a true “race man”, on a par with African-American militants like Frederick Douglass, WEB DuBois, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X. Gay historian Neil Miller didn’t exaggerate when he wrote, in his 1995 book Out Of The Past, that “Kameny was influential in changing the entire tone of the (Gay Rights) movement.” Kay Tobin and her lover, the late Lesbian activist Barbara Gittings, were in total agreement. They were his protégées, so who was better qualified to assess his influence?
“(He) had such a clear and compelling vision of what the (Gay Rights) movement should be doing, and what was just,” Gittings once said. “He believed that we should be standing up on our hind legs and demanding our full equality and our full rights, and to Hell with the (queer) issue! They put that label on us! They were the ones that needed to justify it, (and) we were not going to help them!” Last December, the lionhearted warrior whose hind legs never bent accepted the 2010 Neil Alexander Humanitarian Award. It was the final honor awarded to Dr. Kameny during his lifetime, but what do you bet it won’t be the last?
Somehow, this towering figure of a man rated a shabby little write-up on the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History blog. The following “tribute” was posted the day after his death by curator Katherine Ott:
Frank Kameny, who died yesterday, was one of those Americans whom few people have heard of, but who spent his time on the planet making the kind of good trouble that benefited all of us. Kameny devoted his life to furthering Civil Rights, most especially for LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) people.
I beg your friggin’ pardon? Get your damn facts right, lady! Dr. Kameny was a Gay Rights activist! He didn’t much concern himself with bisexual or transsexual issues. No doubt he was sympathetic to them, but his priority was always Lesbians, Gay men, and their access to citizenship rights guaranteed under the US Constitution. Gay Rights was his lifelong passion! “Gay Is Good” was his lifelong message. Implicit in that message is another one that Ms. Ott was obviously too dense to pick up on: Same-gender loving people are not “queers”!
While he received recognition from many individuals and groups for his work, we in the museum hold a special place for those who not only make history, but also preserve it along the way. The museum had the good fortune (to receive) some of his protest material. Kameny donated objects a few years ago, and one poster is currently on display . . . his papers are at the Library of Congress, where some are also on display.
Wouldn’t this have been a good place to talk about the nature of those objects and posters and papers, Ms. Ott? Or were you just too lazy to bother with anything but a weblink?
Kameny either instigated or participated in many of the important Gay Rights actions of the 20th century. Organizing men to understand being Gay as an identity, not as a sickness, Kameny started the Washington, DC chapter of the Mattachine Society in 1961. Calling out the Federal government for discrimination, Kameny, Barbara Gittings, and a handful of others picketed the White House in 1965. Ending the American Psychiatric Association's stigmatization of homosexuality: Kameny and company forced that change, too. Thanks, Frank.
“Thanks, Frank?” I know everybody’s on a first-name basis nowadays, but such familiarity on the occasion of a great man’s death is condescending and inappropriate. Museum staff should refer to him as “Dr. Kameny” if only out of respect for his advanced years.
Katherine Ott doesn’t curate social history artifacts for the Smithsonian. She’s a Medicine and Science curator! How is it that she was chosen to commemorate Frank Kameny? Only by the broadest possible criteria would his work be related to her field. Was she just the only staffer who could spare free time to write an old f*ggot Jew’s obituary? Could the Smithsonian really have had so little regard for this American hero?
Thanks a lot, Ms. Ott, for narrowing down decades of trailblazing Gay activism to the point where it could fit inside a thimble! Thanks, too, for making Dr. K’s donations to the Smithsonian sound as ordinary as boxes of macaroni donated to a food pantry! Thanks for nothing, sugar!
When you see what kind of elaborate write-up Smithsonian bloggers gave the late Steve Jobs, then compare it to the inadequate and flippantly-worded one Frank Kameny got, the only appropriate description to use is “insulting”! There’s no description contemptible enough to suit Ms. Ott’s appalling use of the Q-word in reference to Dr. Kameny’s work. What was the woman thinking? Was she thinking at all? To men of his generation, that slur is anathema! It dates from that awful period in our history when Lesbians and Gay men were forcibly institutionalized.
The false concept of Gay people as “queers” is what Dr. K battled against his whole life! His denunciation of the Gay = Sick mentality, his fiery speeches, his championing of open military service, his confrontations with the APA . . . all of it underscores that fact. For his life to be summed up in such an ignorant way . . . for anyone to dare imply that he represented a freakish population . . . that’s the ultimate indignity! As a Gay man, I feel the insult as deeply as he surely would have.
The Smithsonian’s willingness to indulge in defamatory labeling shows how, 60 years after the Mattachine Society’s founding, our fight against institutional hetero-bigotry has yet to be won; but not to worry. Its days are surely numbered! Let bigoted archivists have their petty moment of revenge on Frank Kameny’s legacy. A moment is all the bastards will get! Too many folks have come around to his way of thinking for them to have the last word. Yes, ignorance may be plentiful, but it isn’t insurmountable; Dr. K’s many accomplishments are proof of that.
GAY RIGHTS PIONEERS:
BARBARA GITTINGS, FRANK KAMENY and KAY TOBIN
Frank Kameny and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on everything. He was an atheist; I’m a fervent Christian. He saw Gay Civil Unions as a step in the right direction; I see them as a diversion from the true goal of marriage. He spoke in defense of anti-Gay Senator Larry Craig after his arrest for public lewdness; I see no need to intervene when political hypocrisy gets the punishment it deserves! However, on the basic tenets of what it means to be homosexual, and how same-gender-loving people should be treated, we couldn’t have agreed more. In my opinion, he was the only Gay Rights icon other than Larry Kramer that ever understood what equality is really about.
Some would describe him as a Gay Rights radical. Dr. K probably wouldn’t mind the description; I believe he referred to himself with that terminology on occasion. I would beg to differ, though! I’ve observed political radicalism over many years; I know it to be a raging fire that flames up high but burns out quickly. Frank Kameny’s fire for justice never burned out! Besides, there’s nothing the least bit radical about clear thinking! How long will it take for Gay people the world over to think about themselves and their human rights with the same clarity?
Next: The Dumb Dora Award for Radical Chic Rationalizing!
Next: The Dumb Dora Award for Radical Chic Rationalizing!