Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Gay activism: personality vs. process

Recently, I am told, the African American community has begun a beneficial process of moving beyond the cult of personality surrounding such individuals as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. The new emphasis is on process, not personality. Real change will come as many feel called to participate, and not just leave the matter to a few grandstanders.

The situation in the GLBT community has veered between two extremes. Many important contributors to the success of the gay and lesbian movement, such as Jeannette Foster, Don Slater, Arthur Warner, and Barbara Gittings, have gone to their graves without being able to enjoy anything like the recognition they deserve.

We have seen signs of a correction, as Stuart Timmons’ solid biography of Harry Hay showed some years ago. By the same token, there are indications that this correction may have gone too far.

A recent news release prompts my thoughts:

“Franklin Kameny home becomes D.C. landmark”

>Washington Business Journal - by Tierney Plumb Staff Reporter
>The home of Franklin Kameny, a longtime activist for gay rights, was
>designated by the Historic Preservation Review Board as a local landmark at
>a hearing on Thursday.
>The site, located at 5020 Cathedral Ave. NW, is the first gay, lesbian,
>bisexual and transgender site listed in D.C.’s inventory of historic sites.
>During the 1960s and the early 1970s, Kameny’s home and office served as a
>meeting ground for planning gay civil rights campaigns and strategies.
>Kameny still lives in the 54-year-old residence.
>The home functioned as the headquarters of the Mattachine Society of D.C.,
>which was co-founded by Kameny in 1961 to fight for equal rights for
>The two-story, brick neo-Colonial style house sits in the Palisades section
>of the city.
>The site was nominated by the Rainbow History Project, which promotes the
>arts, history and culture tied to D.C.’s sexually diverse community, and the
>D.C. Preservation League.
>The nomination will be passed along to the National Register of Historic
>Places with a positive recommendation for listing later this year.

It seems an extraordinary step to place a house on a list of historic sites even while the honoree is still living there. The case of the Jimmy Carter Center has been cited as a parallel. Yet surely it is not, as presidents are sui generis.

Who then is Frank Kameny to deserve this signal honor? He is an 84-year old gay activist prominent in DC LGBT circles. He holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University.

In October 1957 Kameny was fired from his job as a government astronomer. His homosexuality made him “unsuitable” for employment. After an initial period of disorientation, Kameny decided not to take the dismissal lying down, but to strike back. On its face this response was admirable, but it proved problematic in the sequel. Without any legal training, he undertook to counsel others in a similar plight, sometimes representing them at hearings. Yet government policy regarding “perverts” was set in stone--or so it seemed at the time. Kameny’s arguments were inevitably dismissed.

Initially, undertaking these interventions was understandable and praiseworthy. As time went on, though, it became clear that the effort was misguided. Kameny slogged on all the same.

When business firms continue to offer a product that is supposed to achieve a particular effect and does not, that is called false advertising. In all candor, the result is fraud.

Why did Kameny persist in what was, to put the best face on it, the equivalent of tilting at windmills? A friend suggests a plausible defense: “The way I heard it, many of his ‘clients’ came to him before they had actually lost their jobs, and his counseling was designed to try to prevent them from succumbing to the well-known guilt-ridden tendency toward being intimidated into answering improper questions.” In those ultracloseted days it seems unlikely that this initiative would have been commonly adopted by anyone who still had his or her job. In fact, Kameny’s main activity consisted of counseling people when the procedure to terminate had already begun. Given the obstinacy of the government in those days, it was folly to expect a turn-around. At all events, my friend goes on to say: “if a procedural error were discovered in the course of contesting the discharge, the discharge might have been reversible.” I doubt that this ever occurred. In fact my interlocutor concedes that “[getting one’s job back] would have been rather unlikely, but not impossible, and I don't know if anyone did. However, the very fact of resistance may have helped lay the groundwork for eventual change in government policy.”

Eventually government policy did change, and there are no longer witch hunts against homosexual personnel in government employment. However, that change was the result of a fundamental shift in society’s attitudes, and not the product of personal activity on the part of Frank Kameny. To suggest the latter is to succumb to the personalist fallacy I noted at the outset.

In DC Kameny formed a branch of Mattachine, then the leading gay-rights group. In its heyday Kameny’s group never numbered more that five or six members, and was dependent on the Mattachine Society of New York.

Kameny had not been part of the initial group gay activists who started the present movement in California in 1950. By the 1960s the energy of the pioneers had begun to flag; it was after all a discouraging era of conformity.

Kameny and other firebrands chafed at what they felt was an excessively gradualist approach. At first, though, there was not much change. From 1965 to 1969, carrying out the suggestion of two New York activists, Kameny organized a decorous set of demonstrations called the Annual Reminder,held in Philadelphia on July 4. Following a strict dress code, men had to wear coats and ties; women dresses. These events were hardly revolutionary. And yet on this slender peg rests the claim by one of Kameny’s supporters that he inaugurated a “new period of militancy in the homosexual rights movement.” Some, with Kameny’s tacit approval, have expanded this claim by promoting him to the status of the First Gay Activist.

To be sure, Frank Kameny had a marked talent for publicity. He invented the slogan “gay is good.” taking “black is beautiful” as his model.

False modesty has never been a stumbling block for Kameny. When asked in a 2006 interview if he had been intimidated in his confrontations, he replied: " I'm right and they're wrong -- that's been my underlying premise my whole life. Over the years and the issues I've taken on, I have not sought to adjust myself to society. I have adjusted society to me and society is much better off for the adjustments I've administered." In an email he remarked, without irony, that he was infallible.

The gay movement experienced a tremendous upsurge of energy thanks the the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969. Residing in Washington D.C. Kameny had nothing to do with that spontaneous event. Yet he seems to be seeking to attach his wagon to a star by claiming to have enjoyed some unusual prescience in prefiguring the shift towards a more insurrectionary mode. To reiterate, that is the personalist fallacy.

By all means let us honor those who deserve to be honored. But let us remember that this was a movement in which there were many, many participants, all contributing their bit to the “heroism of everyday life.”



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