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.”
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.”