The Daily Agenda for Thursday, December 20

Jim Burroway

December 20th, 2012

Frank Kameny Fired From Government Job for Being Gay: 1957. Frank Kameny was a World War II veteran and Harvard-trained astronomer working for the Army Map Service. In Eric Marcus’s compendium of oral histories, Making History, Kameny described the events that led him to a lifetime of LGBT advocacy:

When I was on assignment in Hawaii in November or December of 1957, I got a call from my supervisor in Washington, D.C., to come back at once. I told him that whatever the problem, it could wait a few days, and I returned to Washington at the end of the week. As soon as I got back, I was called in by some two-bit Civil Service Commission investigator and told, “We have information that leads us to believe that you are a homosexual. Do you have any comment?” I said, “What’s the information?” They answered, “We can’t tell you.” I said, well, then I can’t give you an answer. You don’t deserve an answer. and in any case, this is none of your business.” I was not open about being gay at that time — no one was, not in 1957. But I was certainly leading a social life. I went to the gay bars many, many evenings. I’ve never been a covert kind of a person, and I wasn’t about to be one simply because I was working for the government. I’ve never been one to function on the basis that Big Brother may be looking over my shoulder.

So they called me in, and ultimately it resulted in my termination. They did it the way the government does anything: They issued a letter. They said they were dismissing me for homosexuality. I was in shock.

…Keep in mind I had been training all of my life for a scientific career, for this kind of occupation. I was not at all familiar with the job market. When I was thrown out, I had nowhere to go. Perhaps if this had happened five or ten years later, I would have had a professional reputation to fall back on, but in this case I didn’t. For a long time I applied for jobs in astronomy, but there was nothing. Ultimately, in 1959, I got a job doing something in physics. My bachelor’s degree is in physics, in the area of optics.

But meanwhile, I had decided that my dismissal amounted to a declaration of war against me by my government. First, I don’t grant me government the right to declare war on me. And second, I tend not to lose my wars.

Kameny launched a string of appeals, first through the Civil Service commission itself, then through the courts. He took his appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — writing his own brief (which is available here) declaring the discrimination he experienced “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.” The Supreme Court denied his petition in 1961.

Kameny went on to co-found the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., which in 1963 launched a long campaign to overturn sodomy laws. He participated in the very first picket line in front of the White House on April 17, 1965. He was also an instrumental player in the fight to remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders. In 1971, he became the first openly gay candidate for the U.S. Congress when he ran for D.C’s non-voting Congressional delegate. In 1975, the U.S. Civil Service Commission notified him that they had changed their policies and were now allowing gay people to work in federal jobs (see Jul 3). In 2009, the U.S. government officially repudiated Kameny’s firing when John Berry, the openly gay Director of the Office of Personnel Management, delivered a formal apology during a special OPM ceremony in his honor. Upon receiving the apology, Kameny tearfully replied, “Apology accepted.” He passed away in 2011 at the age of 86.

Vermont Supreme Court Rules State Must Recognize Same-Sex Unions: 1999. In a unanimous decision, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the state must provide the same benefits, protections and obligations to same-sex couples as it does to heterosexual couples. The Supreme Court left it up to the legislature to decide how it would end the discrimination, either through marriage or through civil unions. Most state political leaders opted for the latter. State Attorney General William Sorrell, predicted, “It would likely be a civilly sanctioned relationship that would, for all intents and purposes, have the benefits and protections a traditionally married couple would have but wouldn’t be called a marital relationship. They wouldn’t be called spouses, they’d be called domestic partners, and for a number of people, that makes an enormous difference.” Gov. Howard Dean concurred, saying that same-sex marriage “makes me uncomfortable, the same as anybody else.” Beth Robinson, the lawyer for the winning plaintiffs, dismissed that idea and pressed for full marriage. “The Legislature will come to understand that as a practical matter, you can’t call it something different and have it be truly equal.”

It would take another decade before the Legislature would come to that understanding, opting instead to go for civil unions, which Gov. Dean signed into law 0n April 26, 2000. It took effect on July 1, 2000. In 2009, the Legislature revisited the issue again and passed a same-sex marriage bill with bipartisan support, only to see it vetoed by Gov. Jim Douglas (R). The legislature then overturned the governor’s veto, and same-sex marriages finally became available in the Green Mountain State on September 1, 2009.

Elsie de Wolfe: 1865. She was the legendary interior designer who finally put gloomy victorian styles out of its misery. And for that, she is hailed as America’s first decorator and her designs, nearly a century later, are still just as fresh today as they were bold in at the turn of the last century. She began her creative life as an actress in the 1890s, but her appearances were appreciated more for her stylish clothes than her performing abilities.

At about 1887, she began what was called “A Boston marriage” with Elisabeth “Bessie” Marbury — a New York socialite, literary agent, and business manager with such illustrious clients as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Sarah Bernhardt. The two bought and restored Villa Trianon in Versailles, France, where de Wolfe became enamored with the light colors and brightly-lit rooms that defined French style. She then drew on those influences as she set about redecorating Marbury’s New York home by throwing out all of that dark Victorian furnishings and cluttering bric-a-brac, and people took notice. When a group of wealthy women formed the exclusive Colony Club, de Wolfe was tapped to design the clubhouse’s interiors. The Colony opened in 1907 and with it, de Wolfe’s reputation was set.

A photo from A House In Good Taste, 1913.

Instead of the dark paneled rooms and heavy atmosphere common with men’s clubs, The Colony featured light draperies, pale walls, wicker furniture, chintz — she became known as “the Chintz Lady” — and light, lots of natural light. Her design practice exploded overnight, with commissions for private houses, clubs, opera boxes, and a dorm at Barnard College. Her 1913 book, The House in Good Taste, became an instant classic which still offers timeless advice today. As she explained, “I opened the doors and windows of American and let the air and sunshine in.” That same year, her design business took up an entire floor of offices on Fifth Avenue. In 1915, she was commissioned to design a brand new townhouse for Henry Clay Frick, then the wealthiest man in America. That commission alone made her a very rich woman.

De Wolfe was an iconoclast in many ways. She single-handedly turned the design profession from a “man’s world” into one in which women could excel. She embroidered her own pillows with the motto, “Never complain, never explain.” At her home in France, she had a dog cemetery where each headstone carried the epitaph, “The one I loved the best.” And speaking of France, When World War I came along, she broke from all expectations by volunteering to become a nurse — where she was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour for her work with mustard gas victims. In 1926, she scandalized French society with her grand entrance to a society ball dressed as a Moulin Rouge dancer while turning handsprings — at the age of 61 — her many years of practicing yoga did well for her. Her marriage that same year to the diplomat Sir Charles Mendl was also a surprise because, as The New York Times dryly observed, “When in New York she makes her home with Miss Elizabeth [sic] Marbury at 13 Sutton Place.” Her marriage now made her Lady Mendl, immortalized in the Cole Porter lyric:

When you hear that Lady Mendl, standing up
Now turns a handspring landing up-
On her toes
Anything goes!

When World War II broke out, Mendl and de Wolfe moved to Hollywood. After the war, they returned to Villa Trianon where de Wolfe died in 1950.

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