Across the street from the U.S. Capitol, on the second floor of the Library of Congress, beneath a Plexiglas case, between a Suffragette’s scrapbook and a charcoal drawing of Selma Alabama, lay two documents attesting to the painful history of discrimination suffered by gay men and women.
The papers – a 1960 Petition for Writ to the U.S. Supreme Court appealing the case of a federal employee fired for being gay, and a 1966 letter from Civil Service Commission citing “revulsion” of gay men and lesbians as reason for dismissing them from federal employment – were culled from the archive of civil rights activist Frank Kameny, and testify to the 50-year struggle of gay Americans to be recognized as full citizens of the United States with unalienable, constitutional rights.
While there is nothing particularly impressive about the display itself, its collection holds startling promise, due to the fact the Library included then in its “Creating the United States” exhibit on the U.S. Constitution. The documents demonstrate the Constitution’s “living” nature, and its ability to be interpreted by successive generations to redefine concepts of citizenship and broaden the meaning of who is American. The objects were selected because as a group they represent the long march toward constitutional equality of women, the disabled, African Americans, and now gays and lesbians.
The Library’s public exhibition of gay civil rights memorabilia in the context of a shared American history is, to my knowledge, the first time a major American institution has presented LGBT history as a natural part of the American story. This exhibit is not about protest, sexual revolution, AIDS, or any of the things that make the LGBT community different. Rather, the exhibit seamlessly includes gay civil rights into the story of what unites Americans and makes us whole. Seeing gays included in this shared history is profound, and I recommend every gay man and women who lives in, or visits, D.C. see this exhibit.
I was lucky enough to be present on the day the papers were unveiled. I stood before the display with wide eyes and an open heart as I saw myself become part of the American story. But then something extraordinary happened. A tourist stepped forward to see what the commotion was. She paused, first over the Suffragette’s scrapbook, then the Braille copy of the Constitution, and then at Kamney’s papers. When she was done she looked back as if to ask, “what y’all looking at,” before moving on. You could see her mind work “…women, the blind, the gays…what’s so special here?”
Then it hit me, the exhibit’s significance is neither about a lesbian seeing herself woven into the fabric of our country, nor about an LGBT teen learning about the bravery of a previous generation of gay activists. The true significance of this exhibit is its ability to reach the person who gives little thought to LGBT rights, and show them that we, too, are part of a common story. I stood there as, again and again, tourists examined the contents of the case and moved on without a word, a look, a thought as to the idea that gays did not belong there.
That is the promise of this display. That across the street from the U.S. Capitol, on the second floor of the Library of Congress, before a Plexiglas case, someone will stand looking down at these two documents and, in a quiet moment, come to understand that we are all Americans and equal in the eyes of our Creator. And that moment will be truly historic.