Gov’t Repudiates Frank Kameny’s 1957 Firing, Apologizes
June 25th, 2009
In 1957, Frank Kameny was fired from his job as an astronomer at the Army Map Service when his supervisors found out he was gay. He protested to the U.S. Civil Service Commission and argued his case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which denied his claim. That experience turned Kameny from an anonymous government employee to one of the most tireless activists of the LGBT movement.
Yesterday, more than fifty years after his firing, Frank was on hand at a special ceremony to receive a formal letter of apology from John Berry, the openly gay Director of the Office of Personnel Management. Kameny was also bestowed the Teddy Roosevelt Award, the department’s highest honor. Upon receiving the apology, Frank Kameny tearfully replied, “Apology accepted.”
We often think of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York as being the start of the Gay Rights movement, but that assumption ignores the bold, aggressive action by Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings, Del Martin and Phylis Lyon, along with other pre-stonewall landmark events like the Black Cat Raid and the White House pickets. Frank Kameny was right in the middle of many of those bold initiatives in demanding equality for gay people when relatively few gay people themselves believed they deserved equality. Remember, this was a time when the medical profession regarded homosexuality as a mental illness.
Frank would have none of that. He co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., which in 1963 launched a long campaign to overturn sodomy laws and remove homosexuality from the American Psychological Association’s list of mental disorders. He participated in the very first picket line in front of the White House on April 17, 1965. Along with other activists from New York they expanded those pickets to include the Pentagon, the U.S. Civil Service Commission, and, more famously, to Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia pickets would become an annual event for the next five years.
In 1968, Kameny coined the phrase “Gay Is Good,” basing it on the slogan “Black Is Beautiful.” It was a bold and radical gesture for many gays and lesbians who hadn’t before dared to believe that about themselves. While Frank points to that phrase’s popularity as his most proud accomplishment, it wasn’t his last. He became the first openly gay candidate for Congress in 1971 (he lost), and he played a pivotal role in the APA’s removal of homosexuality from its list of disorders in 1973 (he won).
Yesterday, Frank’s life of advocacy completed its full circle with the apology and recognition from the Office of Personnel Management, the successor department to the U.S. Civil Service Commission which upheld his firing. In Joyce Murdoch and Deb Price’s book, Courting Justice: Gay Men And Lesbians V. The Supreme Court, Frank called his 1957 firing the spark which energized his long dedication to securing equality for all LGBT people:
“I just couldn’t walk away,” recalled Frank Kameny, a brilliant Harvard-educated astronomer who became nearly destitute after being fired from his government job in 1957. The phrase echoed through many interviews with gay people who fought against dreadful odds after losing a job, being embarrassed by a “sex crime” arrest or suffering some similar humiliation. “For the rest of my life, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself,” Kameny added. “I would be dead of stomach ulcers by now. There’s simply a burning sense of justice.”
Frank Kameny is 82, and is still active in Washington, D.C. where he makes his home. His home, by the way, was designated as a D.C. Historic Landmark by the District of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Review Board in honor of his activism. His papers are now in the Library of Congress, and a collection of original picket signs, a “Gay is Good” button, and other memorabilia are a part of the Smithsonion’s collection.
The Long Arc of History
April 4th, 2009
John Berry, an openly gay man, was confirmed yesterday as director of U.S. Office of Personnel Management. This is the federal agency which sets personnel and hiring policies for the U.S. government. Jonathan Rauch notes the historical significance of this momentous occasion:
..in November of 1971, the federal personnel office wrote this letter to Frank Kameny, the pioneering gay-rights activist (still going strong, btw), in response to Kameny’s protest of the firing of a gay federal employee:
The activities of sodomy, fellatio, anal intercourse, mutual masturbation, and homosexual caressing and rubbing of bodies together to obtain sexual excitement or climax are considered to be acts of sexual perversions and to be acts of immoral conduct, which, under present mores of our society, are regarded as scandalous, disgraceful, and abhorrent to the overwhelming majority of people. …
Individuals who engage in acts of sex perversion and other homosexual acts…are not regarded with respect by the overwhelming majority of people. Indeed, some of the most extreme epithets of contempt and vituperation are popularly applied to persons who engage in such activities…
The letter goes on, and on, in that vein (the first page is here).
That same office as of yesterday is now headed by a gay man.
Kerry Eleveld at The Advocate phoned Kameny (he will be 84 in May) to discuss his long life of advocacy for LGBT rights, including several pioneering protests in front of the White House, Pentagon, State Department and Civil Service Commission. Kameny became involved when he was fired from the Army Map Service in 1957. Eleveld asked Kameny what he thought about Berry being named to head the OPM:
“I remember seeing his name somewhere,” Kameny said of the news, “but I don’t know terribly much about him.”
I said I wasn’t so much interested in his estimation of Berry as I was in the fact that a gay man might be heading the organization.
Silence weighted the other end of the line as I realized Mr. Kameny hadn’t fully grasped the news.
“Oh, oh my…” he said as it settled in. “For the first time in this whole conversation, this is really registering on me. Oh, my…now I am impressed!” he said with a hint of glee in his voice. “Macy must be turning over in his grave,” he added, referencing John W. Macy Jr., his archrival who chaired the commission in the ‘60s.
Update: John Berry has invited Frank Kameny to be present for his swearing in.
Prayers for Bobby
January 6th, 2009
A study just found a sharp distinction between the behavior of gay teens with accepting parents and those who were rejected by their parents. One story of the consequences that can come from religion-based rejection is being told in Prayers for Bobby.
On August 27, 1983, Bobby Griffith took his own life. This was the end of his four year struggle to reconcile his orientation with the pressures from his family to pray his gay away.
But Bobby left behind extensive diaries. And a distraught mother.
Unlike some parents who, when confronted with the destructive nature of their rejection, seek to absolve themselves and blame their children, Mary Griffith was shocked into self-evaluation. And the result of her journey of discovery was life-changing. Mary recognized that she had been instrumental in her son’s distruction and decided to become an activist for the care and support of gay teens and for changing the attitudes of parents.
In 1995 came the book, Prayers for Bobby: A Mother’s Coming to Terms with the Suicide of Her Gay Son.
Now on January 24th, Lifetime Channel will be tell Mary’s story (starring Sigourney Weaver). The network has been heavily promoting this movie and let’s hope that many many families are watching.
LA’s Black Cat Bar To Be Designated A Historic Cultural Monument
September 21st, 2008
Our essay last January 1 about a riot that was sparked when police saw men kissing at the stroke of midnight on New Years Day has had an impact. I’ve just received word from Wes Joe that the Black Cat bar, the scene of the 1966/67 riot which birthed a renaissance of the gay rights movement in Los Angeles, has passed an important hurdle in becoming a City Historic Cultural Monument:
Hi, happy to report that on Thursday the LA Cultural Heritage Commission approved designation of the Black Cat as a City Historic Cultural Monument. An important hurdle since they’re picky — the other 2 applications up that morning were denied.
Next step is a City Council Committee, then the full Council. Hopefully not a big deal since we have the strong support of the City Council President.
Thanks again for The Temerity of a Kiss, which really helped motivate us to do this.
An aside, noticed the button in today’s piece on Frank Kameny. In doing the research at the ONE archives I came across a cover of Tangents magazine covered with buttons. Couldn’t resist putting that in the application material. On Thursday one of the persons giving testimony, Alexei Romanoff, had owned the bar down the street from the Black Cat that was also raided New Year’s morning 1967. Showed him the page and he remarked that he had over 700 such buttons.
Thanks again! Wes
Thank you Wes for helping to preserve an important cultural landmark.
Frank Kameny’s Papers Available To The Public
September 19th, 2008
It’s been about two years since Frank Kameny, longtime Washington, D.C. LGBT activist, donated his papers to the Library of Congress. Now that those papers have been cataloged, they are available to the public:
Charles Francis, organizer of the Kameny Papers Project, said the 50,000 items were “organized to perfection” by library staff and would be an invaluable resource to people reviewing the earliest days of the gay civil rights movement.
“The Kameny Papers, documenting the evolution of the gay rights movement in the United States, are now available to study for many years to come,” he said.
Frank played a pivotal role in the gay rights movement since the 1960’s. He became involved when he was fired from his civilian job with the U.S. Army’s map service in 1957. Federal civil service rules at the time prohibited gays from federal employment, and security clearances were routinely denied to anyone who was found to be gay. He became the first to appeal a firing on the basis of homosexuality.
He lost those appeals, but went on to found the Washington, D.C. Mattachine Society. He also played a key role in getting the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973.
In 1968 Frank coined the phrase “Gay is Good,” inspired by the popular “Black is Beautiful” slogan. “Gay is Good” may appear rather simple today, but it was a particularly significant slogan for 1968 when homosexuality was still considered both a mental illness and a criminal act. Last year when some of Frank’s memorabilia was featured in a temporary display at the Smithsonian, he shared with me what the slogan meant to him:
I’ve said, for a long time, that if I’m remembered for only one thing, I would like it to be for having coined “Gay is Good.” But never did I expect that that would make its way to the Smithsonian. I feel deeply contented.
According to the Washington Blade, highlights of the Kameny Papers include papers related to the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 decision and the landmark 1974 federal decision to grant an openly gay man a Pentagon security clearance.
And by the way, in case you were wondering, Frank Kameny is still very much alive.
Today In History: A Bugger Was Hung
August 12th, 2008
“Buggery” — the quaint British legal term for homosexual activity — was a capital offense until 1861, when the laws were finally relaxed to allow for life imprisonment. But that change came almost thirty years too late for Captain Henry Nicholas Nicholls, who was hanged 175 years ago today for the “abominable vice.”
According to the London Courier:
Captain Henry Nicholas Nicholls, who was one of the unnatural gang to which the late Captain Beauclerk belonged, (and which latter gentleman put an end to his existence), was convicted on the clearest evidence at Croydon, on Saturday last, of the capital offence of Sodomy; the prisoner was perfectly calm and unmoved throughout the trial, and even when sentence of death was passed upon him. In performing the duty of passing sentence of death upon the prisoner, Mr. Justice Park told him that it would be inconsistent with that duty if he held out the slightest hope that the law would not be allowed to take its severest course. At 9 o’clock in the morning the sentence was carried into effect. The culprit, who was fifty years of age, was a fine looking man, and had served in the Peninsular war. He was connected with a highly respectable family; but, since his apprehension not a single member of it visited him.
Military Service Issue – Sixty Years Ago This Month
July 23rd, 2008
On 26 July 1948, President Harry S Truman signed Executive Order 9981, establishing the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services. It was accompanied by Executive Order 9980, which created a Fair Employment Board to eliminate racial discrimination in federal employment.
The comparison was not lost on one witness today (CNN)
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Vance Coleman, a black man who joined the Army when it was segregated, testified that the current treatment of gays and lesbians is similar to how African-Americans were treated before President Truman integrated the military in 1948.
“I know what it is like to be thought of as a second-class citizen, and I know what it is like to have your hard work dismissed because of what you are or what you look like,” Coleman said.
Earlier this year the House of Representatives honored the order ending segregation
Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), That it is the sense of Congress to honorably and respectfully recognize the historic significance and to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 signed on July 26, 1948 that declared it to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin thereby beginning the process of ending segregation in the United States Armed Forces.
Today former Secretary of State Colin Powell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and others celebrated the 60th anniversary of the integration of U.S. Armed Forces in the Capitol Rotunda.
Tom Brokaw: No Gays In His ’60’s
November 26th, 2007
Tom Brokaw’s new book, Boom! Voices of the Sixties is supposed to be a sweeping review of all of the highlights of that pivital decade for social change. Brokaw left virtually nothing untouched: civil rights, the war, feminism, the sexual revolution — all of it is right there in his exhastive review. Except for one thing: There are no gays in the Sixties.
No Stonewall, no protests in front of the White House or Independence Hall, no Civil Service expulsions, none of that is a part of Tom Brokaw’s “Sixties.” And that has 1960’s gay rights activist and icon Frank Kameny livid. Kameny, whose memorabilia was recently featured in a display at the Smithsonian Institution fired off a stirring rebuttal to Brokaw’s silence on a very important part of America in the 1960’s. Reminding Brokaw that “Gay is good” (Frank coined that phrase in 1968.) Kameny reminds Brokaw of the great sweep of history that Brokaw overlooked and demands an apology.
Just Leave Out the Icky Part
October 31st, 2007
But what if this was a family movie and one of the characters was gay? Oh, you’d just remove that icky part, of course. Does it matter if the story is semi-autobiographical and based on a the difficulties of being a gay father to an adopted son with serious abandonment issues? Nah, just make him straight. It’s much cuddlier.
From Vue Weekly:
Really, how can you not love a little boy orphan who truly believes he’s from Mars and travels inside of an Amazon.com cardboard box with the warning “FRAGILE: Handle with care” on it? David Gordon (John Cusack) certainly can’t. In fact, this celestial orphan named Dennis (Bobby Coleman) might be the perfect match for science fiction writer David.
That is the sole premise of Martian Child, based on the award-winning novelette by, and about, sci-fi author David Gerrold and his experiences as a single adoptive dad. The only major difference is this family film leaves out the part where David is gay, and instead makes him a widower with an attractive “friend,” Harlee, played by Amanda Peet.
Awww. How sweet.
Maybe he and his father can go to a Save Marriage rally in the movie as well. Wouldn’t that be sweet?
Reviewer Omar Mouallem, who has no problem with this minor revision, tells us
But like the orphan in the box, it’s not humanly possible to dislike Martian Child. Not even a little.
Oh, I don’t know about that, Omar. I haven’t even seen it and already I dislike it more than a little.
You see, Omar, I’m not all that fond of when heterosexuals take the contributions and sacrifices that gay men and women make – often times because of the humanity and compassion that comes from being made to feel like an outsider – and pretend that the very attributes that taught this person compassion are icky and nasty and to be hidden.
Gay Is Good: Frank Kameny’s Memorabilia At The Smithsonian
August 31st, 2007
The Smithsonian’s Museum of American History is closed and undergoing renovations, but that’s not stopping them from putting on ambitious and expansive shows at other venues. One such exhibit is the “Treasures of American History” at the National Air and Space Museum.
And one part of this exhibit is titled “Gay is Good” and features several items from Frank Kameny’s recently donated archives and memorabilia, includes picket signs from 1965 and “Gay is Good” buttons from around 1968. These items join Thomas Jefferson’s small, portable, folding desk upon which he wrote the Declaration and the inkwells Abraham Lincoln used to write the Emancipation Proclamation — all of which played key roles in the formation of our national values of freedom and equality for everyone.
Frank Kameny is a living hero of the American gay rights movement. It all began when he was dismissed in 1957 from his position as an astronomer in the Army Map Service because of his homosexuality. Federal civil service rules at the time prohibited gays from federal employment, and security clearances were routinely denied to anyone who was found to be gay. He became the first to appeal a firing on the basis of homosexuality. The ACLU represented him at the Court of Appeals, but they refused to go further when he lost. So he wrote his own appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, filing it on January 21, 1961. The Supreme Court took only two months to turn it down.
In 1961, Frank and Jack Nichols co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., aggressively pressing for equal treatment of gay employees in the federal government. They also began their work to overturn anti-sodomy laws across the country and to remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders, both of which served as justifications for ongoing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The APA was not very receptive to working with the Society however, writing in 1963, “it is not in the best interests of the APA to meet with you, nor to publicize your meetings.” Meanwhile there was a move in Congress in 1963 to prevent the District of Columbia from registering the Mattachine Society as a nonprofit organization.
But that didn’t deter the nascent gay rights movement. Frank and other members of the Mattachine Society participated in the very first gay-rights picket in front of the White House in 1965. And in 1973, he was on a panel of the APA’s symposium on homosexuality when Dr. John E. Fryer appeared as “Dr. H. Anonymous.” This ended up being a key moment leading to the APA’s elimination of homosexuality as a mental illness. That was quite a turnaround from a mere ten years earlier when the APA refused to meet with him.
In 1968 Frank coined the phrase “Gay is Good,” inspired by the popular “Black is Beautiful” slogan. “Gay is Good” may appear rather simple today, but it was a particularly significant slogan for 1968 when homosexuality was still considered both a mental illness and a criminal act. Today, in a private message reprinted here with his kind permission, Frank reflects on his slogan:
I’ve said, for a long time, that if I’m remembered for only one thing, I would like it to be for having coined “Gay is Good.” But never did I expect that that would make its way to the Smithsonian. I feel deeply contented.
You can find more information about Frank’s contribution to gay rights in America at his web site, the Kameny Papers. Not only was he a great gay rights leader, he also ended up being a great archivist. It seems as if he never threw anything away and we’re all the richer for it. Now his legacy is a part of our national patrimony. And as this video from The Kameny Papers website shows, his struggle — and ours — is part and parcel of the larger struggle to bring America’s promise of equality to fruition for everyone.
Marriage is One Vassal / One Vassal
August 23rd, 2007
One of the most often heard (and most ignorant) arguments against recognition of same-sex couples is that marriage has always been the same – one man and one woman – for 5,000 years. Considering that the same people who assert this position also claim they read the Bible, I marvel that they don’t break out in giggles.
In 1994 the acclaimed history scholar John Boswell released Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. Boswell centered his research on liturgy and offered evidence that during the middle ages certain segments of the Church recognized same-sex couples using ceremonies startlingly similar to wedding.
Now the Journal of Modern History (as reported by Science Daily) will present in its September issue historical evidence of legal documents used by two men to who promised to share “one bread, one wine, and one purse.”
The effects of entering into an affrèrement were profound. As [Allan A.] Tulchin explains: “All of their goods usually became the joint property of both parties, and each commonly became the other’s legal heir. They also frequently testified that they entered into the contract because of their affection for one another. As with all contracts, affrèrements had to be sworn before a notary and required witnesses, commonly the friends of the affrèrés.”
Tulchin acknowledges the difficulties of stating definitively that such civil unions were sexual in nature – just as they would be today. Nonetheless, recognition of same-sex affection and devotion in a period before our own should hardly shock us. I doubt my grandmother’s bachelor uncles would be all that surprised.
Frank Kameny: “Not Dead”
May 17th, 2007
The legendary gay-rights leader Frank Kameny has released a statement in which he claims that he is “not dead.”
Next week’s issue of The Advocate, which will hit the newsstands Tuesday, reports that Frank Kameny is one of the leaders we’ve “lost to AIDS.” But Frank Kameny has come forward to deny that he has AIDS or that he is dead. He even says he will turn 82 on Monday, May 21.
Dr. Kameny was fired from his job as an astronomer at the Army Map Service in 1957 when they discovered he was gay. This began his twenty year fight against Civil Service regulations which barred gays from federal employment. He co-founded Washington’s Mattachine Society in 1961 and was part of the first picket line of gays and lesbians at the White House on April 17, 1965. And even though Frank is “not dead,” you can still read a fitting tribute by Jonathan Rauch. Kameny’s papers were recently donated to the Library of Congress.
Richard J. Heakin (1954-1975)
October 13th, 2006
Our local afternoon paper, the tiny but intrepid Tucson Citizen ran a great article yesterday about Richard J. Heakin, Jr., a gay man who was visiting Tucson from Nebraska. In June 6, 1975, the 21-year-old was attacked and killed by four teenagers while leaving a local bar near downtown.
Outraged that the 15- to 17-year-old killers received only probation for what was termed a hate crime, Tucson pressed for change and introduced anti-discrimination laws, new organizations and pride events celebrating the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community.
Then a Tucson committee decided on a memorial and tried to reach the Heakin family. But a dishonest friend supposedly said they wanted nothing to do with it, the family later learned.
The family remained in the dark about the impact Richard’s death had in Tucson. It led to Tucson becoming one of the first communities in the nation to pass anti-discrimination laws based on sexual orientation a few months after his death. It also led to the establishment of Wingspan, one of the largest LGBT community centers in the country for a city our size. (Tucsonans like to point out that Phoenix doesn’t even have one.) And every year, on June 6, Richard’s death is remembered with a gathering at the Richard Heakin Memorial in Tucson’s Presidio Park.
And now, thanks to the Internet, Richard’s family has learned about the great impact his death has had in our community. His niece tapped his name into a search engine, and a whole world opened up for her and her family.
Heather Ryan typed into an Internet search engine the name of an uncle four teens beat to death in Tucson and discovered a world unknown to the family…
While Lori Ryan, Heakin’s sister, was at bingo, her daughter spent the night at their Missouri home tracking down e-mail addresses that resulted in a phone number exchange, which led to a talk with Rowan Frost, one among the group that tried to reach the family years ago.
“We probably still would not have known if she hadn’t . . . gone on the Net,” Ryan, 49, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Making that phone call made all the difference.”
So came the tender and thrilling moment when Ryan received a mass of newspaper clippings about various events commemorating her brother. She booked a flight to Tucson so she could get to know the city that has spent decades keeping his name alive.
She wasn’t emotional as she walked up to the shaded memorial bearing her dead brother’s name Thursday, but Lori Ryan seemed tentative nonetheless.
It was understandable.
It was the first time Ryan or anyone from her Nebraska family had been to Downtown’s Presidio Park to see the 4-year-old plaque bearing the name of her older brother, Richard J. Heakin Jr., a victim of hate and intolerance….
“I never realized his death made such a difference,” said Ryan, 49, several hours after her plane landed at the airport. “It’s incredible to know that people who didn’t know him went through all this.”
Most gay communities celebrate Pride during June to commemorate the Stonewall riots. But Tucson waits until October, when the temperature will more reliably remain below 100. This year’s Pride is this weekend and Richard Heakin’s family will be in attendance. The original grand marshal of the parade even stepped aside so Lori Ryan could have the honor.
Kahlil Gilbran once wrote, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” Some of our greatest advancements are born through terrible loss. Richard Heakin’s senseless death more than thirty years ago brought about a great transformation in a small city in the desert. This weekend, we will celebrate our pride in ourselves and in our community’s transformation. And we will remember the suffering.