News outlets over the past week — both LGBT and mainstream — have reported the death of Frank Kameny, the legendary Washington-based activist universally regarded as one of the most influential pre-Stonewall homophile movement leaders.
Kameny died Oct. 11 at age 86 at his home in Northwest Washington and the news accounts have relayed oft-noted biographical facts that have taken on increasingly mythic proportions over the years: his firing from the Army Map Service in 1957 for being gay, the 1961 founding of the D.C. Mattachine Society, the “gay is good” slogan he coined, his role in convincing the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder, the Clinton-signed presidential executive order that permitted gay people to be given security clearances, the repeal of D.C.’s anti-sodomy law, his decades of work with the local Gay Activists Alliance (GAA; later GLAA) and more.
But once the dust settles — memorial services are planned for Washington and San Francisco on Nov. 15, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the D.C. Mattachine chapter — what will Kameny’s legacy be? Never one to shy away from taking credit, might his bluster and longevity have created a sense of myth about him? Or could his D.C. home base over so many years (he arrived here in 1956 and never left) have skewed perceptions of his efforts among local activists who may not be aware of the contributions of Kameny’s peers in other cities, especially on the West Coast? And where does Kameny fit in among other pioneering activists of his era? The Blade spoke to several gay historians, Kameny peers — both here and around the country — and friends to find out.
Kameny among peers
Kameny’s World War II-era generation is, of course, reaching its later years and many of the pre-Stonewall homophile activists — legendary figures such as Barbara Gittings, Harry Hay, Del Martin, Jim Foster, Jim Kepner, Jack Nichols and Hal Call — have died.
San Francisco’s Phyllis Lyon, who married her late partner Del Martin in 2008 after more than 50 years of joint activism, says she’s doing well (she’ll be 87 next month), still drives and has “no intention” of leaving her home, though life, obviously, has been a lot different since Martin’s 2008 death, just two months after they got married. She speaks highly of Kameny but admits to being fuzzy on specifics.
“Well, I think he did a lot of very good things, definitely,” she says. “I do remember Frank and I was very sorry to hear that he had died but it was different in those early days. I guess you could say the lesbians and gay men weren’t always buddy buddy buddy buddy back then. We worked together some, but in essence we also worked mostly with our own sexes.”
Things were somewhat different in Washington. Though she eventually moved on and did other things with her life, Lilli Vincenz, 73, was an early Washington-based activist who was in the Mattachine Society here and joined Kameny in his legendary White House protest in April 1965. She also knew — as did Lyon — the late Harry Hay, who started the first Mattachine Society in Los Angeles in 1950, which Kameny regarded as the start of the modern gay rights movement in the U.S. (a 1920s Chicago-based group was quickly shut down by police though a gay “emancipation group” started in 1897 in Berlin and lasted decades before being shut down by Hitler’s Nazi regime).
“Well, they had a slightly different approach,” Vincenz says of Hay and Kameny. “Frank was here taking advantage of Washington and being close to all the big government agencies, so that was his focus.”
Paul Kuntzler, who was just 20 when he met Kameny at the Chicken Hut in early 1962, was always “the kid” of the group. He says, as was Kameny’s contention, that the D.C. Mattachine Society was accomplishing things gays in other U.S. cities — chapters also existed in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles at the time — weren’t doing.
“A lot of them were just content to do more research and education,” Kuntzler says. “Originally I thought Harry Hay was very brave and I think originally they were very active, but they kind of got disinvolved.”
Kuntzler says it started with Hay’s group in 1950, the second wave was in Washington in the early ‘60s, then Stonewall, the 1969 New York riots that catapulted gay rights issues into the mainstream consciousness.
In Kuntzler’s estimation, Kameny is “the most influential and most important person in the history of the gay rights movement. The only other person I’d put in that league would be Barbara Gittings who died in February 2007. She was an intellectual heavyweight, but not quite up there with Frank. But she was very powerful and influential.”
San Francisco-based activist Michael Petrelis, who in 2009 launched an effort to have Kameny awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor, agrees. He lived from 1990-1995 in Washington and, though they sometimes clashed on issues of AIDS activism, saw Kameny as a grandfather of sorts.
“Some of my pushy personality, my pushy activism, comes from Frank,” Petrelis says.
But how does Kameny’s legacy sit with gay historians? Depends whom one asks.
Gay scholar John Lauritsen, who wrote two essays for the 2002 anthology “Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in a Historical Context,” says Kameny should certainly be admired for his contributions but that he was only one type of activist whose efforts should be put in context. Lauritsen, during a phone chat from his Boston home, says he was active in the homophile movement since 1960 and knew Kameny and Gittings in the ‘70s when they would meet at various conferences.
“Our politics were much different,” Lauritsen says. “I was much more radical. But Frank was always friendly to me … I would say I admired Kameny. He was a very good public speaker … but I think one has to give credit to the scholars and Kameny was not a scholar … I think he was more a good publicist perhaps. I’m not sure he really did invent the saying ‘gay is good,’ that’s been debated, but at least it was a catchy slogan and it played a role in the movement at the time.”
Kameny could be a polarizing figure. Though even his detractors in the gay world eventually came to mostly acknowledge his accomplishments, in the early years there was much debate about the appropriate plan to gain traction with the movement.
“In those days, people felt he was rather reckless and far too militant,” says writer David Carter who interviewed Kameny about 45 times over the last several years for a biography he hopes to publish. “It’s funny though, after Stonewall, he was held up as a symbol of not being militant enough but that was more of a caricature of Frank.”
Michael Bronski, whose book “A Queer History of the United States” came out in May, teaches women, gender and LGBT studies at Dartmouth. He praises Kameny’s work but agrees, Kameny wasn’t working alone and it’s important to remember others.
“It’s vitally important to remember Frank and to give him credit for all this, but the ‘50s were really an incredible time … It’s unfair, I agree, to try to rank people mostly, unless the ranking happens by simply looking at the facts, but does the average gay person reading the Advocate really know who Harry Hay was or who Harvey Milk was? They think of Sean Penn or they might say, ‘Harvey Milk, wasn’t he married to Madonna in the ‘80s?’ Not knowing about Frank is a huge loss and it’s a loss that needs to be corrected. But I don’t think this is just an LGBT problem, it’s an American problem in general.”
Bronski is quick to point out, though, that Kameny is part of a small list of pre-Stonewall iconoclasts.
“Harry Hay, Del and Phyllis, Barbara Gittings — there aren’t many whose names come to the forefront because a lot of the work (others) did was very quiet, so somebody like, say, Randy Wicker, who founded the Oscar Wilde bookstore and the Mattachine Society in New York before Stonewall, that was a different kind of a thing.”
Paul Boneberg, executive director of the San Francisco-based GLBT Historical Society, is more unequivocal.
“There is no greater gay activist than Frank Kameny,” Boneberg says. “He is one of the heroic founders of the modern era.”
Boneberg agrees with Bronski — the pre-Stonewall movers and shakers list is quite small.
“He’s part of a very small group,” Boneberg says. “He and a few of the early activists really founded the GLBT movement and the community is what it is because of people like Frank and what’s extraordinary is that his work in the ’50s and ‘60s continued right up until this year. It was really a lifetime of service to the queer community. … What we’re seeing is the passing of the queer community’s greatest generation. That World War II generation that he was part of. He was just an extraordinary individual and it’s a great loss to the community.”
Malcolm Lazin, executive director of the Equality Form and executive producer of the PBS documentary “Gay Pioneers, unequivocally this week called Kameny “the father of the LGBT civil rights movement” in a press release. The term hasn’t been widely used but may become more common as Kameny’s contributions are assessed.
And where might LGBT rights be today if Kameny hadn’t done what he did?
“I think on one level, what Frank did moved us ahead incredibly far,” Bronski says. “But if Frank didn’t exist, would somebody else have done it? Possibly. You know Frank wasn’t the only person to get arrested and lose his job. It’s conceivable and actually likely that somebody else would have had the courage to do that, but in no way do I say that to diminish what he did, but did the movement depend on Frank? I don’t think so. Did Frank move the movement forward? Sure.”
Kameny on Kameny
And what did Kameny himself think of his place in the history books? Outtakes from an Aug. 16 interview pertaining to the push for a presidential Medal of Freedom for him, found him waxing nostalgic for several of his peers.
“Just about all these people are gone,” Kameny said. “One of the first I would name would be Barbara Gittings, whom I miss very, very much. Another would be Jack Nichols. One by one they have all gone.”
Kameny also mentioned several activists whose work has been more D.C.-centric.
“On much less a level, but still someone who goes all the way back would be Craig Howell and coming much later onto the scene and I first got to know him in college in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but I would also say Rick Rosendall. That’s just off the top of my head. Many of them have just all died off one after another and I’m very, very sorry to see some of them go, but that happens.”
Kameny phoned the next morning to say he was “embarrassed I overlooked Paul Kuntzler. He goes back to the very beginning of my involvement in 1961 right after we formed the Mattachine Society … he was perhaps the last one going back to the ‘60s who’s still around.”
Comparing Kameny’s life and work to Harvey Milk’s — the first openly gay man to be elected to public office when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — is apples and oranges, many say. If Milk’s story is more widely known, it’s undoubtedly because it’s been told several times, most memorably, perhaps, in a 2008 Academy Award-winning film. That he died young (he was murdered at age 48) perhaps gave him a JFK-like stature among gays that captured their consciousness.
“They were just from very different times,” Boneberg says. “Harvey is separated almost a whole generation and he would have acknowledged that. … It’s hard for people today to imagine how difficult it was to stand up and be out back then. Time is such a huge factor. That first generation stood alone and said, ‘I will not take this.’ Frank did that. [Drag legend] Jose [Sarria] did that. It’s just something later people have not had to do because there were already other people standing. It’s very hard for people to grasp. There were profound legal consequences and people who were gay were literally destroyed.”
Even Cleve Jones, a friend and contemporary of Milk and an activist in his own right, says their lives are too different to warrant much comparison.
“Harvey and all of us who came after the Stonewall rebellion, all of us were marching down a road that had already been paved by people like Frank, Barbara [Gittings], Phyllis and Del … the Stonewall generation was still in the closet when Frank was doing his work, so you can’t really compare them.”
Milk, of course, suffered. But those close to him say Kameny suffered in other ways — less dramatic, but also difficult.
“He lived in poverty,” Kuntzler says. “He got some inheritance money from his mother and he eventually bought [his] house, but it was a struggle. I gave him money for his fax machine. People helped him out, but he lived basically in poverty, there’s no question about it.”
Marvin Carter, a local gay volunteer with Helping Our Brothers and Sisters who’d known Kameny for years, started helping him the winter before last during several extreme blizzards the region suffered.
“There’d been a few calls here and there before, but that’s when we really started to see the extent of the situation,” Carter says. “He was snowed in and had no groceries. … It was really a bad situation.”
But was some of that by choice? Obviously in recent years Kameny was elderly, but why didn’t he work much — at least for income — in the ‘70s and ‘80s? Couldn’t he have secured a position doing the work he loved for an organization like Human Rights Campaign or National Gay & Lesbian Task Force?
Kuntzler says Kameny was “very stubborn” and single minded in his activist philosophies.
“He was very independent, very much his own person. It would have been very hard for him to acquiesce to someone else’s vision,” Kuntzler says. “He absolutely sacrificed.”
Bronski agrees, but with a caveat.
“Yes, he made that sacrifice, but it’s important to remember that he made it on his own. There wasn’t a vote on it. We should all be thankful and we can’t expect other people to do the same. It’s a matter of self sacrifice, but yes, from what I’ve heard he did actually live in fairly impoverished conditions.”
Time, of course, has a way of putting individuals’ contributions into perspective. In the meantime, Kameny’s colleagues are remembering him fondly.
“In my opinion, his legacy is already established,” Vincenz says. “He was a tutor to me and I was very thrilled to work with him. … I saw him as a zealot, very effective. He also had such a kind heart. I was reading not long ago his lovely eulogy to Barbara and it was just beautiful.”
Kuntzler remembers a rabble-rouser who “delighted in antagonizing.”
“He was never violent, it was all intellectual,” he says. “And he was very self assured. He didn’t question it at all. He truly felt that he was right and they were all wrong.”