The freight elevator opened with a shudder. It sounded like a death rattle. Gloved attendants pushed the sheet-covered gurney down a long corridor, stopping at the doors to a vault. The doors opened onto a room of drawers and lockers surrounding a platform —like a morgue.
We gathered and held our breath as the attendants rolled back the shroud. Where one might expect a pair of legs were wooden sticks. Nicked and numbered, the sticks were not attached to a corpse but a neat pile of well-aged picket signs, hand-lettered, “First Class Citizenship for Homosexuals.” Frank Kameny stood silent, at near attention. And this man was rarely silent. The pickets, carried in 1965, were delivered at that moment in 2006 from his attic to the nation’s — the vault of the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution.
The pickets were placed on the platform. The Smithsonian curator laid them alongside the writing table where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence; the inkwell used by Lincoln when signing the Emancipation Proclamation; and the pin worn by Alice Paul who went to jail picketing the White House for women’s suffrage. “Frank, this is where the pickets fit into American history,” the Smithsonian curator said.
Last week, Washington, D.C.’s gay community lost a warrior-general and a good friend, Franklin E. Kameny. Even more, America lost a man who helped create the United States. Yes, create the United States. For the past six months, Kameny’s 1961 petition to the Supreme Court has been on display at the Library of Congress in its exhibition: “Creating the United States,” chronicling how citizens have steadily expanded American liberty under the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Like the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress placed Kameny’s papers among the great stories of abolition, women’s suffrage and civil rights. He was the first to consistently anchor the gay and lesbian fight for civil equality — not in angst, alienation or radical ideology, but in the words of Thomas Jefferson and the Constitution, itself.
Kameny’s petition to overturn his firing by the federal government in 1957 for being homosexual, was denied, but it began a revolution in culture and law. After Kameny, no longer would gay and lesbian Americans, in isolation, supinely accept second-class status. “We are throwing down the gauntlet!” he declared.
Kameny’s petition to the Supreme Court became a faintly remembered footnote until rediscovered and re-interpreted for our time. Kameny wrote: “In World War II, petitioner did not hesitate to fight the Germans, with bullets, in order to help preserve his rights and freedoms and liberties, and those of others. In 1960, it is ironically necessary that he fight the Americans, with words, in order to preserve, against a tyrannical government, some of those same rights, freedoms and liberties, for himself and others.”
Today, Paul Smith, the Supreme Court attorney in Washington, D.C., who represented Lawrence, in the case Lawrence v. Texas, 2003 (and won) wrote, “It is astounding to see Kameny, in 1960, making the same arguments that have now caused the invalidation of sodomy laws, the protection of LGBT civil servants from discrimination, and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Kameny yells up the attic ladder: “Hey, I’m coming up now. I’m coming up!” Well into his 80s, he climbed into the attic to join me in a dusty netherworld of political papers. Boxes by the score overflow with single-spaced, multi-page typewritten letters and carbons, newsletters, transcripts, umpteen boxes of Washington Blades, every gay publication from “Drum” to “One” and two black typewriters that looked like anvils. “News Release: Homosexuals to Picket White House,” “Homosexuals to Picket Pentagon,” “Homosexuals to Picket State Department.” In a far corner, lay the pickets, one proclaiming “Homosexuals Ask for the Right to the Pursuit of Happiness.” The man saved everything. He never moved. He never discarded. He never denied gay history. Today, some 70,000 items gleaned from this attic are organized for appreciation and research at The Library of Congress. Go there.
Kameny hated how LGBT history was so often deleted. Tom Brokaw felt the force of Kameny’s ire with the publication of his pop-history, “Boom! Voices of the Sixties” (Random House, 2007). Brokaw somehow neglected to mention the Stonewall riots or any reference whatever to gay and lesbian Americans and the impact they, too, had on the decade. Kameny wrote, “Mr. Brokaw, you have de-gayed the entire decade!”
Speaking for his comrades, Kameny wrote, “Mr. Brokaw, [in your book] you deal with the histories of countless individuals. Where are the gays of that era: Barbara Gittings; Jack Nichols; Harry Hay; Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon; Randolfe Wicker; Harvey Milk; and numerous others?” Kameny continued, “Mr. Brokaw, the whole thing is deeply insulting. You have de-gayed an entire generation. … Gay is Good. You are not. Sincerely, Frank Kameny.”
Unpack Frank’s trademark blast, and you can hear the voice of a leader fiercely committed to those who came before him like Harry Hay, colleagues and friends like Nichols, Martin, Wicker and Gittings; an LGBT community that had suffered so; and his place in history, too.
Everywhere Frank appeared in the last months of his life, he happily reminded people — whether at the Library or his last HRC dinner or as an honoree at the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community — his life did have “a storybook ending.”
“They mulled over my appeal for 52 years! Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry issued a formal apology on behalf of the government. Things have come full circle.”
“Oh, if only John Macy (Berry’s predecessor and Frank’s arch foe so many years ago) were alive to see this,” he cackled.
Charles Francis is founder of the Kameny Papers Project.