Thursday, June 25, 2009

OPM's Overdue Apology

Fifty-two years ago, the U.S. government fired a Harvard-educated astronomer because the man was gay.

That injustice transformed Dr. Franklin Kameny, a World War II veteran, from a 9 to 5 government worker into a fiery crusader for justice and equal rights. Along with a few other pioneers, Kameny organized the first pickets outside the White House in which demonstrators demanded civil rights for homosexuals.

Now, more than a half century after he lost his job for no reason other than that his sexual orientation was disdained by the powers-that-be, the U.S. government has apologized to Frank Kameny.

The director of the Office of Personnel Management, John Berry, wrote a letter of apology and read it aloud in a lunch-hour ceremony attended by members of the OPM's gay employees group. The ceremony included excerpts from the documentary film, Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community, and the room was decorated with photographs of Dr. Kameny taken over the course of his career.

Kevin Naff has the full text of Berry's letter in his Washington Blade blog:

Dear Dr. Kameny: In what we know today was a shameful action, the United States Civil Service Commission in 1957 upheld your dismissal from your job solely on the basis of your sexual orientation. In one letter to you, an agency official wrote that the Government “does not hire homosexuals and will not permit their employment...” He went on to say that “the homosexual is automatically a security risk” and that he “frequently becomes a disruptive personnel factor within any organization.”

With the fervent passion of a true patriot, you did not resign yourself to your fate or quietly endure this wrong. With courage and strength, you fought back. And so today, I am writing to advise you that this policy, which was at odds with the bedrock principles underlying the merit-based civil service, has been repudiated by the United States Government, due in large part to your determination and life’s work, and to the thousands of Americans whose advocacy your words have inspired.

Thus, the civil service laws, rules and regulations now provide that it is illegal to discriminate against federal employees or applicants based on matters not related to their ability to perform their jobs, including their sexual orientation. Furthermore, I am happy to inform you that the Memorandum signed by President Obama on June 17, 2009 directs the Office of Personnel Management—the successor to the CSC--to issue guidance to all executive departments and agencies regarding their obligations to comply with these laws, rules, and regulations.

And by virtue of the authority vested in me as Director of the Office Of Personnel Management, it is my duty and great pleasure to inform you that I am adding my support, along with that of many other past Directors, for the repudiation of the reasoning of the 1957 finding by the United States Civil Service Commission to dismiss you from your job solely on the basis of your sexual orientation. Please accept our apology for the consequences of the previous policy of the United States government, and please accept the gratitude and appreciation of the United States Office of Personnel Management for the work you have done to fight discrimination and protect the merit-based civil service system.
This has been a busy month of well-deserved honors for Frank Kameny. Last week, President Barack Obama presented him with the pen used to sign the executive memorandum that grants some (very thin) benefits to the same-sex partners of gay and lesbian employees. (That ceremony was featured in a front-page photo in the Washington Times.) A small step toward equal treatment under the law is better than no step at all.

H/T: Towleroad.

Update: Also, Dale Carpenter offers some more details at The Volokh Conspiracy.

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