October 10, 2013 at 10:00 am EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Kameny’s ashes still not buried 2 years after death
Frank Kameny, gay news, Washington Blade

Activist Frank Kameny died on Oct. 11, 2011. His remains have not yet been buried. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A memorial site recognizing the legacy of the late D.C. gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny was scheduled to be unveiled Friday, Oct. 11, in Chicago on the second anniversary of his death while plans for the burial of his ashes in Washington remain stalled.

New information behind that unusual turn of events emerged this week from one of the parties in a dispute over ownership of the planned interment site for Kameny’s ashes in D.C.’s historic Congressional Cemetery.

Marvin Carter, executive director of the local LGBT charitable group Helping Our Brothers and Sisters (HOBS), said his attorney told him an agreement reached about two months ago in which HOBS would transfer ownership of the cemetery plot to the Kameny estate was awaiting the signature of Timothy Clark, Kameny’s friend, housemate and principal heir to the estate.

“The last update I got was we are all in agreement but Ackerman Brown cannot find Clark to sign the paperwork,” Carter told the Blade.

Carter was referring to the D.C. law firm Ackerman Brown, which has represented Clark in legal matters pertaining to the estate since shortly after Kameny died in his home of natural causes on National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11, 2011. In his will, Kameny left his house and all other possessions except his voluminous gay rights papers to Clark. He bequeathed his papers to the Library of Congress. Kameny’s house sold last year for $725,000.

Glen Ackerman, managing partner of Ackerman Brown, emailed a statement to the Blade this week disputing Carter’s assertion that Clark can’t be found.

“Ackerman Brown is in regular contact with Timothy Clark, the personal representative of the Estate of Frank E. Kameny and all negotiations on behalf of our client have been in good faith,” the statement said. “The decision regarding interment of Frank Kameny’s ashes rests solely with Mr. Clark and he is discharging his duties with full knowledge of the past negotiations. Neither Marvin Carter nor his attorney have ever discussed the placement of a monument in lieu of the cemetery plot with Ackerman Brown.”

Ackerman noted that the status of the negotiations between Ackerman Brown and HOBS over the ownership transfer of the cemetery plot had not changed since July. At that time, Ackerman’s law partner, Christopher Brown, said a “tentative agreement” had been reached to end the dispute that has prevented Kameny’s ashes from being interred for nearly two years.

“The tentative agreement was reached on July 9 and the estate is awaiting further input from HOBS’ counsel that is necessary to finalize the transaction,” Brown said in a July 24 statement to the Blade.

“The estate has always been, and remains willing to work with gay community representatives who knew Frank Kameny in organizing a burial service and appropriate gravesite at which members of the community could pay tribute to Kameny,” Brown said in his July statement.

Earlier this year, Carter said HOBS dropped a previous condition that called for the Kameny estate to pay HOBS for the cemetery plot that HOBS purchased with money donated by members of the LGBT community.

“We are not asking for a dime from the estate,” Carter told the Blade in an Oct. 4 interview. “The delay is not on our end.”

Carter said that once the tentative agreement was reached the two parties asked Congressional Cemetery President Paul Williams to draft the documents needed to finalize the ownership transfer of the cemetery plot.

When contacted by the Blade last week, Williams said he could not provide details but suggested the long-awaited resolution to the dispute was in the hands of Clark and his attorneys.

“We have put forth a proposal to the estate and we’re waiting to hear back,” he said. “That’s about all I can say. We’re just waiting to hear back.”

Timothy Clark, gay news, gay politics dc

Timothy Clark (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Clark said in August, one day prior to Brown’s statement to the Blade, that he understood an agreement had been reached over the cemetery plot. He said he was thinking about when to arrange for a burial ceremony and that he would welcome suggestions from Kameny’s friends and fellow activists about the details for such a ceremony.

Clark didn’t respond to a phone message from the Blade this week.

HOBS and a group of Kameny’s friends and colleagues in the LGBT rights movement initially scheduled an interment ceremony for Kameny at Congressional Cemetery for March 3, 2012. At the time, Charles Francis, a Kameny friend who helped Kameny organize his papers to facilitate their donation to the Library of Congress, arranged for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to provide a military headstone for the gravesite that recognized Kameny’s service in the Army in World War II.

With money raised by HOBS, Francis and Kameny’s friends and fellow activists Rick Rosendall and Bob Witeck also arranged for the purchase of a separate headstone for the gravesite bearing the inscription “Gay is Good.” Kameny, who coined that slogan in the 1960s to advance the cause of gay rights, said it was something for which he wanted to be remembered as much if not more than any of his other accomplishments.

But just as both stones were placed at the gravesite, Witeck announced that the burial of Kameny’s ashes had been cancelled after the estate told the cemetery it would not release Kameny’s ashes until it obtained legal ownership of the burial plot from HOBS. Cemetery officials later removed the headstone and “Gay is Good” marker and placed them in storage, saying it was inappropriate for them to remain in place while the ownership of the gravesite was in dispute.

Michael Bedwell, a longtime friend and gay activist colleague of Kameny’s who helped select the gravesite, said the removal of the two stones displaced an important and historic site where people could go to reflect on Kameny’s accomplishments, which he said improved the lives of LGBT people.

“It is a disgrace that people don’t have a place to pay homage to him two years after his passing,” Bedwell said. “I feel those stones should be returned to the site even if the ashes are not interred there at this time.”

Tension between the Kameny estate and Carter, Francis, Witeck and Rosendall increased in the months following the cancellation of the burial when the estate sued the four men on grounds that they removed without permission items from Kameny’s house shortly after his death. The four said they removed the items for safekeeping at a time of confusion following Kameny’s death when Clark, who was living in the house at the time, gave them permission to enter the house to sort through Kameny’s belongings. They said they planned to return the items, some of which were papers slated to go to the Library of Congress.

Rosendall said this week that the men were accompanied by local attorney Michele Zavos when they entered Kameny’s house shortly after his death. Zavos had worked for Kameny and prepared his will, Rosendall said.

Zavos on Wednesday confirmed that she was present during that visit. She said Clark gave them permission to enter the house and that he understood that Rosendall and the other men wanted to look through Kameny’s papers and other historic items to take steps to preserve them.

According to Zavos, it was during that visit that Rosendall, Francis and Witeck found the original signed copy of Kameny’s will and turned it over to Zavos, who read and explained its provision to Clark.

“Tim was completely aware of what we were doing,” she said.

Rosendall added that he was especially troubled when Clark told the Blade in an interview in March 2012 that someone placed an anonymous letter in the mail slot at Kameny’s house where Clark was living that used a racial slur and denounced him for being the beneficiary in Kameny’s will.

“And that’s just horrible for anybody to say,” Clark said in the 2012 interview. “It said, ‘The nigger got everything.’”

When the Blade asked to see the letter, Clark claimed it was so upsetting to him that he discarded it in the trash before realizing it may have been better to keep it and have others help him discover the person who wrote it.

Rosendall, however, said Clark’s disclosure of the letter at a time when the Kameny estate was making public statements accusing him, Carter, Witeck and Francis of improperly taking items from the house could have raised suspicions that they may have been responsible for the anonymous hate letter.

“I was not under any impression that he had made an explicit accusation,” Rosendall said this week. “The whole point was he throws that out there as red meat and there is an implication that somebody else that he was talking about was to blame for it.”

The Blade requested a response from Ackerman to Rosendall’s statements about the hate letter. The Blade further asked Ackerman if anyone besides Clark saw the letter and could corroborate its existence. Ackerman emailed the following statement: “The questions you ask regarding the letter are not relevant to this firm’s representation of the Estate of Franklin E. Kameny and any comment on this topic would be inappropriate.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

  • If the alleged racist letter that none of us has seen is so irrelevant, why did Ackerman and his client bring it up in the March 2012 Blade interview, other than to make Mr. Clark look like an aggrieved party and implicitly to smear the people he sued, all of whom had helped Frank Kameny in a pro bono capacity for his benefit and the preservation of his legacy? Ackerman never phoned or emailed me to ask if I had anything belonging to the estate before suing me. There was no reason the matter could not have been resolved amicably and all involved saved the trouble and expense of a lawsuit. Instead, I was questioned in probate court about a picket sign of Kameny’s that was given to me in 2006, five years before his death, as if I had taken it posthumously. I had shown nothing but compassion to Mr. Clark and certainly did not deserve such treatment. I was pleased to be vindicated in that courtroom. I only wish that the agreement over transfer of the cemetery plot would be finalized at long last so that so many people who benefited from Frank’s legacy can have an appropriate place to pay their respects, as Michael Bedwell suggested. As far as I am aware, all this would take would be a moment of grace and a signature on a document. As someone who worked with Frank for 33 and one-half years, I would welcome that development. As it is, I feel I was punished for doing the right thing in helping to preserve the legacy of my colleague and friend whose pioneering work left this country a better and more free place for so many of us. It is time to end unnecessary disputes with those who helped Frank the most in his final years, and the ball appears to be in Mr. Clark’s court.

  • Our heroic icon deserves better. It is shameful that two-years after Frank’s death, his remains have not been properly buried. A request to all of the parties in this matter. PLEASE resolve your differences and honor Frank by interring his remains before 2013 is over.

  • To Michael Petrelis: I know how easy it is to conclude that “all of the parties” need to resolve their differences. But it appears from the above article that there is only one party that needs to act in order for Frank’s remains to be buried–and that is for Tim Clark to sign the agreement transferring the cemetery plot, and then for him to make burial arrangements for the ashes, which are in his possession. My own personal involvement in the legal dispute ended in the spring of 2012 when my case was resolved in probate court under Judge John Campbell. If it had been up to those of us who were sued by the estate, Frank’s remains would have been buried a year and a half ago.

  • To clarify an error in the article, I was not one of those who selected the Congressional Cemetery plot for Frank. The confusion apparently arises from the fact that I had offered to give one that is next to his protégé Leonard Matlovich first to Frank himself a few months before he passed, then, after his death, to those who decided on a different location in the row behind Leonard. Conflicting statements from various parties aside, what’s indisputable is that there is still no proper memorial in DC for the man on whose shoulders we all stand two years after his death. We want to believe that the young man who has claimed to be so grateful to Frank for all he did for him in his life and for making him wealthy in his death has only the best intentions. But amplifying the above, neither his permission nor Frank’s ashes are required for anyone to create a memorial to Frank anywhere. Millions more visit Lincoln’s Memorial in Washington every year than his actual gravesite in Springfield, Illinois. Frank himself participated in such a project when he carried a rainbow flag at the head of a procession into Congressional Cemetery in 1987, during the weekend of that year’s gay march on Washington, for a large ceremony to dedicate a proposed memorial there to Harvey Milk conceived by Leonard Matlovich even though Milk’s ashes had been spread at sea. Milk’s onetime partner, Scott Smith, had given Leonard a number of Milk mementoes that were placed in a wooden urn to be interred after a suitable stone memorial was created. Unfortunately, it never came to fruition due to lack of funding after Leonard’s death the next year.

    While mementoes of Frank could be interred in lieu of his ashes, nothing is required. The point is more what he brought to our lives, and the respect and gratitude we want to bring to a place representing him just as people do for Lincoln . . . and Leonard and Frank’s longtime compatriot Barbara Gittings whose memorial bench is just across the lane in Congressional Cemetery.

    We trust Mr. Clarke would not be so petty as to claim ownership of the Veteran’s Administration gravestone, and even IF the “Gay Is Good” grave marker was purchased with money donated in Frank’s memory, this non-lawyer can imagine no more viable claim to it than to the plot itself. Those who contributed that money did it in good faith trust of those to whom they gave it in Frank’s memory—not his estate. The decision is theirs, of course, but I urge those in possession of the plot deed to abandon their admirable attempts to achieve an agreement with Mr. Clarke, and ask that the “Gay Is Good” marker be reinstalled as a cenotaph so that people will have a place to come and honor Frank. Subsequently, if no agreement can be reached with Mr. Clarke about ownership of the veteran’s marker and disposition of the ashes, I’m confidant many would be eager to contribute to the purchase of another marker bearing Frank’s name just as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, DNC Treasurer/philanthropist Andrew Tobias, philanthropist/activist Tim Gill and his husband Scott Miller, historian and author Dr. Lillian Faderman, Brig. General Tammy Smith, and cofounder of the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays Gil Gerald made possible Frank’s Legacy Walk beautiful memorial in Chicago whose dedication last Friday it was my honor to attend. Thank you.

  • Rick Mangus

    Let Frank get his rest and stop acting like a bunch of stupid queens!

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