The gay activist Frank Kameny died at his home in Washington DC on October 11, 2011; he was 86, The passing of Frank Kameny, whom I knew for some 30 years, has elicited copious tributes, many richly deserved.
As I am about to make some critical remarks, let me first state a few facts. A native New Yorker, Frank Kameny early developed an ambition to become an astronomer. Yet his academic progress at Queens College was interrupted by his being drafted.. He served in World War II in the Netherlands and Germany, returning to complete his education with a Ph.D. in astronomy at Harvard University (1956).
He then secured employment in the Army Map Service in Washington DC. Only a few months after starting this job he was arrested after a public sexual encounter and labeled a “sexual pervert.” He was then fired by the federal government (1957). At the time, under an executive order signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953,“sexual perversion” was grounds for dismissal from government employment. Frank Kameny contested his firing through level after level of legal appeal, until the US Supreme Court declined to hear his case in 1961.
He was never again to hold a regular job in his field. As with some other early gay activists, he spent most of his life in poverty. Finally, two years ago, he received a formal apology--but no back pay--from the United States Office of Personnel Management, which formally apologized for his dismissal.
With some others, in 1961 he started the Mattachine Society of Washington, an offshoot of the major California gay-rights organization that Harry Hay had founded in 1950. He thus came to a movement that already existed, though it remained relatively small until the Stonewall events of June 1969.
In a 1999 book “Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America.” Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney summed up his personality in this fashion:
“Franklin Kameny had the confidence of an intellectual autocrat, the manner of a snapping turtle, a voice like a foghorn, and the habit of expressing himself in thunderous bursts of precise and formal language,” the authors wrote. “He talked in italics and exclamation points and he cultivated the self-righteous arrogance of a visionary who knew his cause was just when no one else did.”
Here is a pithy statement from Frank himself: “If I disagree with someone,” he said, “I give them a chance to convince me they are right. And if they fail, then I am right and they are wrong and I will just have to fight them until they change.” In the course of many exchanges, though, I found that (like many people) he was very reluctant to admit that he was wrong, when he clearly was. At times he seemed even to merit the derisory label of the Pope of the Potomac.
After his loss and his subsequent dedication to the cause of gay rights, Frank Kameny recognized that the American Psychiatric Association’s classification of homosexuality as a sickness posed a serious obstacle to the advance of the movement. He was among those who lobbied for the reversal of this stigmatizing provision. Finally, in December 1973, the association’s board of trustees approved a resolution declaring that homosexuality, “by itself, does not necessarily constitute a psychiatric disorder.”
I turn now to some critical remarks that address more directly some of the exaggerations that have begun to circulate since Kameny's death. Regrettably, some of these fibs stem from Frank’s irrepressible yearning for self-publicity.
He was not in fact one of the Founders of the modern American gay movement. That honor belongs to a small, courageous group of residents of Southern California, headed by Harry Hay who started the Mattachine Society in 1950. Other prominent individuals in this first cohort in Los Angeles included Lisa Ben, Dorr Legg, and Don Slater. When eleven years later, Kameny and Jack Nichols started their own Mattachine group in Washington, DC, they were echoing what Hay had done.
As he saw it, Kameny’s first priority in the gay cause developed when he sought to counsel federal employees who had lost their jobs because of their sexual orientation. Even though he was not legally qualified, Kameny requested substantial payments for this representation. As far as I know, none of the discharged employees got their jobs back by this intervention. Naturally, some bitterness ensued.
Kameny did not organize the first public gay picket, as he maintained; that was done by New York activist Randy Wicker when on September 18, 1964 he organized a picket of the army induction center (Whitehall) in New York City.
Kameny claims to have coined the expression “gay is good” in 1968. My recollection is that the phrase was in common use before Kameny adopted it. At all events, it is based on Stokely Carmichael’s “black is beautiful." One reason that the claim seems improbable--though not impossible--is that in 1968 Frank (like many others) preferred "homosexual" or "homophile," not "gay," then regarded as a slang term.
His most sweeping claim is that he rescued the gay movement from the doldrums in the 1960s by introducing a more assertive style, one that demanded radical innovation. This assertion is unlikely on a number of grounds. First, no one could have been more radical than Harry Hay who started the movement in 1950. A number of courageous individuals rallied to the cause in those days, but Kameny was not among them. It took a later arrest, and his meditation on the results, to bring him out of his shell.
Kameny's actions in the 1960s were relatively tame, in keeping with the generally conformist nature of the times. For example, at the July 4 Reminder Day observances that he organized with Barbara Gittings in Philadelphia, he insisted that men wear jackets and ties and women dresses. The idea of the Reminder had originated with Craig Rodwell, not with Frank.
It was the Stonewall Rebellion that ushered in a new phase of radicalism. By his own account Kameny was not at that life-changing event in Greenwich Village in 1969. Yet he improbably sought to claim responsibility for it because of some flyers that had been distributed for his Reminder Day gathering. As I have noted, that observance had a very different character, much more subdued and conformist.
The truth was that in those days, and in fact ever since, Frank Kameny was an assimilationist. That is, he believed that gay rights could be attained by adjusting American customs and conventions, not by overthrowing them. There is nothing wrong with this position per se, but it sorts ill with his claim to have been a radical firebrand.
In short, Frank Kameny told some tall tales, most of them it seems about himself.
After posting some of these remarks on another site, a friend admonished me that I should not say such things at the time of a person's death. Perhaps so, but in many emails to Frank himself I offered the same criticisms. In my view, his responses were inadequate.
APPENDIX. As these incisive comments from Stephanie Donald (from her site) may be a little hard to find, I take the liberty of reproducing them here.
"The Death of a Gay American Icon: Frank Kameny 1925-2011"
Even when Frank Kameny was still alive his actual place in history was much debated and I even participated in the controversy.
Was Frank a pioneer in gay rights or was he an assimilationist?
I’m sure that future generations will debate these issues and more but for now the fact of the matter is that I lost a friend yesterday on National Coming Out Day. How ironic could that possibly be?
Frank was a World War II veteran who, once discharged from the military, went back to school and earned his PhD and went to work for the Army corps of Engineers as an astronomer.
However, in 1957, Frank was arrested in Lafayette Park in Washington D.C. for “immoral acts”, photographed and released. At first it didn’t seem that anything would come of the incident and for many weeks things seemed pretty much normal.
But as they say, all good things must come to an end. A member of the civil service commission came around to ask Kameny about his arrest and Frank didn’t lie.
Perhaps when history reflects upon Dr. Franklin Kameny they will place him upon the mantle with George Washington and the story of the cherry tree because Frank couldn’t tell a lie and he paid dearly for it through the years.
For those of you who take it for granted now, back in the 1950s, the government declared that homosexuals couldn’t hold security clearances because (wait for this ridiculous reason) because if foreign agents found out they could blackmail the person into revealing secrets because of their homosexuality.
Frank was fired instantly and spent the next 20 years trying to get that rule changed. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order declaring that homosexuals may hold even the highest level security clearance with no prejudice.
Frank stood next to Jimmy Carter when the order was signed.
In those years between 1957 in the McCarthy era when homosexuals were actually considered lower than communists, unless of course you happened to be communist and homosexual like my friend David McReynolds, Frank met up my other good friend, Jack Nichols, and the two embarked on the greatest adventure two friends could hope for. The started the Washington D.C. chapter of the Mattachine Society in 1961.
In those years Frank met many civil servants who were terrified of losing their jobs because of their “dirty little secret” and during those years the police often didn’t even arrest people in gay bars but just photographed them and released them. The next morning those pictures and their names would appear in the Washington Post and the Evening Star newspapers for the entire world to see.
Frank became a . . . paralegal expert and confidant, friend and morale expert to dozens of people at the meetings of the Mattachine.
I guess one of the things I didn’t like about what Frank did was to charge these people for filing their civil service appeals because there was virtually no chance for those appeals to be successful and he never told those he helped (and charged them the equivalent of what attorneys of the day were charging to represent their clients) that he had never won a single case. He gave them hope when there was literally none for them and there are some people I’ve run into through the years who held a grudge against him for the money they spent in futility.
But I suppose that when one looks at all those years that Frank spent in selfless service to the gay rights movement that he deserved to get at least a little back from our community.
And selflessly he did give and fought through many of the hardest years that homosexuals existed in the United States.
While he, Jack Nichols, Lige Clarke, Barbara Gittings, Kay Lahusen, Randy Wicker and so many others marched and asked for others to march with them the thousands of other homosexuals who huddled in dark bars, gathered in the bushes of Lafayette Square and led double lives to hide their sexuality ran and hid while a few brave souls like Frank stood in the light and with a warm smile said, “Gay is good!”
It took people like Frank to show that if you stood up and admitted that you were gay to the world that your life wouldn’t come to an end. He was a leader in every sense of the word and an icon to everyone who knew him even to the end.
In 1977 his struggle to end the witch hunt against gay and lesbian civil servants ended with an executive order from President Jimmy Carter even if he didn’t get a formal apology until June 24, 2009 when John Berry, also an openly gay man, serving as the Director of the Office of Personnel Management, formerly apologized to him for his firing from civil service.
I remember having a telephone conversation with Frank one time about what might have happened if he hadn’t been fired from his job in 1957. It was one of those wistful, “What if’s?” ramblings about how things might have turned out.
“I wanted to be part of NASA,” he said with straightforward tone. “I would have pushed to be one of the first people to land on the moon!”
I’ve never been one who believed that planting the American flag on the moon was a good idea. I always thought that it implied ownership even though the United States had signed a treaty with the Soviet Union and other nations stating that just because we got there first it didn’t mean or imply any ownership of the moon but still, it seemed like a nightmare of nationalism and I mentioned to Frank during the course of our conversation. He agreed off-hand but didn’t say anything else.
“What would you have taken to moon, Frank?” I asked coyly.
“I would have taken a copy of the Bill of Rights and a copy of Donald Webster Cory’s “Homosexuality in America!”
By Stephanie Donald
UPDATE (October 20): The CNN website published a eulogy of Kameny by David Carter, said to have been working for five years on a biography of him. This is how the piece begins: "America has lost her greatest leader in the fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality: Franklin E. Kameny," That is opinion, not fact. Very much to the contrary, Harry Hay was our greatest leader. In addition, when did Kameny ever stand up for transgender equality? That claim is anachronistic. Saying things like that comes from unreflecting acceptance of current rhetoric, retrojecting it back into the past.
The piece goes on to make other hyperbolic assertions.
If Carter has been working on the book for five years, and this piffle is the best he can come up with, then we might as well forget about it. He will never finish.
For many years the standard narrative of the homophile era (1950-69) was that there was an early radical phase under the guidance of several daring leaders, most of whom were or had been members of the Communist Party USA. Then in 1953 a counterrevolution occurred and an era of retrenchment and social acquiescence set in, a development only reversed by Stonewall in June of 1969. There are a number of difficulties with this received view, among them the discovery that 1953 was not as much of a watershed as has been thought. A good deal of the early radicalism persisted.
In order to promote the radicalism of his hero, Carter erases the genuine radicalism of the founding years. He also tries to make Kameny more innovative than he was. After all, he came into the picture during the period of supposed homophile acquiescence, an acquiescence well symbolized by the dress codes of Reminder Day. As Stephanie and I have pointed out he was an assimilationist, and such he remained.
Not only was Kameny less innovative than is claimed, he had a propensity for purloining the ideas of others and passing them off as his own. Reminder Day was the brainchild of Craig Rodwell.
Kameny was certainly not as courageous as Harry Hay, Chuck Rowland, Dorr Legg, Don Slater and many others who preceded him. They were the ones who smoothed the path for our "greatest leader."
To be sure, Kameny "fought poverty," fighting it by pretending that he was poor when he wasn't, sending his minions out on a quest for money. That cannot be said of Don Slater, Jack Nichols, JIm Kepner and many others who endured poverty without complaining.
And by the way, how did Kameny come to own a large house in an upscale district of Washington DC? I don't own a house, and I would wager that most of the people who are involved in this discussion do not. But the saintly Franklin owned a house.
Let us see if we can summarize the key points at issue. These are, I remark parenthetically, ones that should be central to David Carter's biography. Whether they will turn out to be such is anyone's guess.
1. In the decade since its launching in Southern California, the Mattachine meme had gone viral. Its reinscription in Washington DC in 1961 must be evaluated in this context of dependency. Outside of the federal triangle, Washington DC in those days was essentially a sleepy Southern town, unsuited to the fostering of any purportedly "revolutionary" movement. In fact, the Kameny group never consisted of more than seven or eight members, quite small in comparison with the contemporary MSNY--as I remember from the early sixties when it met on West 40th Street in Manhattan.
2. The nature of Kameny's finances needs to be examined and thoroughly aired. It appears that for a number of years a substantial portion of his income was supplied by the not inconsiderable fees he charged to his "clients" with regard to employment grievances. In some cases, it seems that sexual favors were part of the payment plan. These matters raise ethical issues that cannot be readily dismissed.
3. How did Kameny come into possession of the upscale residence at 5020 Cathedral Avenue N.W.? He seems to have moved in there in 1962, when he could scarcely have afforded to purchase such an abode. How did he acquire title?
4. What is one to make of Kameny's tendency to purloin the ideas of others, with the claim that he alone originated them?
5. To what extent is Kameny appropriately described as an assimilationist?
Labels: gay activism