Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Frank Kameny: A Life of Consequence

Dr. Franklin Kameny
Most people live their lives while history happens around them. A few people live their lives to make history happen.

Frank Kameny was one of those amazing few who make history happen.

Kameny died yesterday at age 86. He was a pioneering advocate and activist for equal rights for gay citizens and he passed away -- ironically or poetically -- on National Coming Out Day, observed each year on October 11.

I first met Frank Kameny about 20 years ago, when he was one of the speakers on a large panel assembled by Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty in the District of Columbia city council chambers to discuss the platform of the upcoming national march for gay and lesbian rights, which eventually was held in April 1993. Kameny, though a diehard liberal whose views were forged in the fires of the New Deal and World War II, railed against the proposed platform's venturing into issues barely peripheral to the core questions of gay equality - things like "universal health care" and "sexism in medical research," as well as a laundry list of New Left demands that were, in large part, eventually discarded from the final platform statement.  Some of the people at that meeting rolled their eyes and openly wondered why this crotchety old man (he was just 66 years old at the time) was bothering them with his retrograde actions.  Someone actually asked me why he had been invited.  I said he was invited because, were it not for him, the rest of us would not be here.

Later in the 1990s, Frank and I ended up on the same email discussion list. He weighed in on the issues of the past fifteen years in the same way he had lived his life: with ferocity and passion and a refusal to accept any situation simply because "that's the way it's always been done." He scoffed at "tradition" as a reason for anything, pointing out that if we had continued to maintain the traditions of our ancient ancestors, we'd be living in caves and roasting our enemies over firepits.

It was his fundamental perseverance that brought him -- and all gay and lesbian people in his wake -- to the point we are today.

Imagine this: When Frank Kameny was fired from his job as a government astronomer simply because he was gay, he was the first person to have the audacity to stand up and demand to get his job back, suing the government and writing his own brief requesting certiorare from the U.S. Supreme Court. (That petition is available on in a Kindle edition.)

He and colleagues organized the Mattachine Society in Washington a few years after that group first emerged in Los Angeles. Because meetings of homosexuals were illegal in those days, he personally (and audaciously) invited the local police and FBI to attend.

He and friends were the first to march in front of the White House to demand equal rights for gay Americans.  They also took their placards to march in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia during tourist season, a move steeped in symbolism.  ("We hold these truths to be self-evident:  that all men are created equal...")

When sexual relations were still illegal between persons of the same gender -- that is, when sodomy laws were still on the books and the Supreme Court had not yet ruled, in Lawrence v. Texas, that they were unconstitutional -- Frank went on the radio and solicited everyone in the listening audience, including, he specified, any law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and elected officials, to engage with him in an act of sodomy of their choice. No one ever took him up on his invitation (at least not that he revealed), and he was never arrested for that brazen act of solicitation to commit a felony.

In his lifetime, Frank Kameny moved from a world in which the government and all private employers could fire you for being gay; in which marriage of gay people was illegal everywhere; and where it was illegal for patriotic gay Americans to serve in the military.

Half a century after he took up the cause, sodomy laws have been wiped off the books; six states and the District of Columbia, plus numerous foreign countries (including Spain, Portugal, and South Africa) allow gay people to marry; and the notorious Don't Ask Don't Tell policy that banned gay servicemembers has been repealed.  Eventually, the government formally apologized for treating him so cruelly.

All this happened, in large part, because of Frank Kameny's dogged determination and insistence that "no" is not the right answer to demands for equality and freedom. He did not do it alone -- that credit belongs to hundreds and thousands of ordinary folks who themselves realized that "no" is unacceptable -- and he would have been the first to admit that his own efforts, by themselves, were insufficient.

But, boy, were they necessary.

Last year I had dinner with Frank and some friends. While we were waiting to be seated, I pulled out my voice recorder and asked him a few questions about his life. That interview resulted in three articles for, one of which was cited this morning in the Washington Post's obituary of Frank. (In fact, I learned of his death last night shortly after 10:00 o'clock, when a Post reporter called me up to ask for my reaction to the news. That is not the gentlest way to find out a friend is dead.)

One question I asked him was one that had troubled me for a long time. After he lost his job with the government and became a full-time activist, I wondered, how did he make a living? How did he earn enough to make ends meet? Here's his reply, from the raw transcript, most of which has not been previously published:
That’s a good question.

Incidentally, you know, a few months ago, last June, after mulling it over for 52 years, what was the Civil Service Commission, now the OPM [Office of Personnel Management], gave me a beautiful, full-page letter apologizing for their shameful (their word) act in firing me. I was tempted to ask, apropos of your question, for 52 years’ back pay.

... The firing occurred at the very end of ’57, maybe the very first months of ’58, and the next two years or so were very difficult. There was a period of eight months in ’59 when I was living on 20 cents of food a day, which even at ’59 prices was not much.

I had a degree in physics, optics, my bachelor’s degree is in physics, my master’s and Ph.D., as you probably know is in astronomy. I got a series of jobs over the next decade, three or four of them, in that. However, because of the Eisenhower 1953 executive order 10450, which we finally persuaded Clinton to reverse – and that’s a whole [other] story – over the next 40 years, but because of that I was unable to get a security clearance, which meant that I had a number of edgy jobs, companies that went out from under me.

Meanwhile, however, I began to get increasingly involved, starting in ’61, with the gay movement of the time, and got moving, and through most of the Sixties, it amounted [to] -- speaking figuratively -- I was a physicist from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon on weekdays, and I was a gay activist in the evenings and on weekends. But the activism gradually took over things.

The Seventies were very, very difficult financially. At the very end – ’78, ’79, ’80 – my mother gave me some stocks and they gave me an income. I wasn’t rolling in wealth, but the Eighties and through the Nineties, I was comfortable.

My mother died in ’97 and then left me some additional funds. But then I just -- I was going to invest those bonds or something, and I would have been very comfortable, again not rolling in wealth but OK. Just about that time ... what has been called the dot-com bubble burst and all at once in early 2000, I ended up with very little. Most of a million dollars just disappeared and the ten years since then -- it’s almost exactly ten years-- financially speaking, has been a nightmare.

People have helped out. They’ve been generous. It’s very edgy. It’s been very, very, very difficult and awkward.

A lot of money came in from getting my papers over to the Library of Congress. That brought in some other money, but still, I don’t sleep soundly at night.

Obviously, as you know, I’m good at some things, but a financial wizard I’m not. I don’t know how it’s all going to work out. Hopefully, something will come along.
Thus it is that Frank Kameny, once an outcast from polite society -- or so the government would have had you think -- had his home in Northwest Washington designated as a historical landmark; his papers have been enshrined in the Library of Congress; his gay-rights memorabilia are in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution; and a street near Dupont Circle bears his name.

I've noted elsewhere that, even on some issues of concern to gay people, Frank and I seldom saw eye-to-eye.  He was, after all, a New Deal liberal and I'm a libertarian.  But where we could agree was that all Americans deserve to be treated with equal dignity and respect regardless of their sexual orientation.  Gay is good, Frank said, paralleling the 1960s slogan "Black is beautiful."

Gay is good -- a fitting epitaph for a man who did what is right in spite of the odds, even at the cost of substantial personal sacrifice.  He will be missed by those who knew him.  Those who did not know him, but who benefited from his efforts, should wish they had.

Here are the links to my interview with Frank Kameny:
Gay-rights pioneer Franklin Kameny remembers his civil disobedience – Part I
Gay-rights pioneer Franklin Kameny remembers his civil disobedience – Part II
World War II veteran Franklin Kameny remembers his experience with 'don't ask, don't tell'
Among the many tributes to Frank appearing in print and on line today, I noticed two reminiscences by our mutual friends, Jon Rowe and John Corvino. The Huffington Post also has a piece that intriguingly links Frank Kameny with the Talmud, written by James Peron, president of the Moorfield Storey Institute.

Plans for a memorial service have not yet been released, but it has been suggested that the (non-religious -- Frank insisted) service coincide with the previously planned 50th anniversary party for the Mattachine Society of Washington on November 15.

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