The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs this week approved a memorial headstone for the late gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny, clearing the way for the installation of the headstone at D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery in time for a possible Veterans Day tribute to Kameny.
The approval of the headstone, which will recognize Kameny’s status as a World War II combat veteran, comes just over four years after the nationally recognized LGBT rights advocate died of natural causes at his Washington home on Oct. 11, 2011.
It also follows a sometimes acrimonious dispute between the person Kameny named as heir to his estate, Timothy Clark, and several of Kameny’s longtime friends and gay rights colleagues over plans for a Kameny memorial site and ownership rights to the plot at Congressional Cemetery where Kameny’s ashes were initially planned to be interred.
VA officials gave final clearance for what they call a memorial marker headstone after Clark provided them with a letter disclosing the disposition of Kameny’s ashes.
According to a VA spokesperson, regulations based on federal law require that the disposition of the remains or ashes of a veteran be known by the Veterans Affairs Department’s National Cemetery Administration before a decision can be made on whether to issue a memorial stone like the one approved for Kameny’s memorial site.
Glen Ackerman, managing partner of the D.C. law firm Ackerman Brown, which represents the Kameny estate on Clark’s behalf, said in a press release that the firm was happy to work with Congressional Cemetery President Paul Williams; the local LGBT charitable group Helping Our Brothers and Sisters (HOBS), which purchased the cemetery plot where the Kameny headstone will be installed; and Kameny’s sister, Edna Kameny Lavaie, in facilitating the approval of the headstone.
“All Ms. Kameny had to do was tell me what she needed,” Ackerman said in an email to the Blade. “Communication is key!”
He was referring to concerns raised by Kameny’s sister as well as Williams and HOBS President Marvin Carter about a statement released by Ackerman Brown in February 2014 that Clark had scrapped plans for interring half of the ashes at Congressional Cemetery and instead had interred Kameny’s ashes in an undisclosed location. The three expressed concern that Clark’s decision not to reveal any additional information about the disposition of the ashes would result in the VA turning down their application for the headstone.
“Mr. Clark has decided to inter the ashes at an undisclosed location,” the 2014 statement by Ackerman Brown said. “Mr. Clark asks the community to respect his wishes and his privacy.”
But Ackerman also said at that time that Clark and the Kameny estate would be open to plans by the LGBT community for a Kameny memorial. He told the Blade in an email last week he was disappointed that Congressional Cemetery, HOBS and Edna Kameny Lavaie didn’t initially consult with the estate before filing their joint application for the headstone.
Following news that the Kameny headstone had been approved, the parties on both sides of the dispute said they were hopeful that all impediments to a Kameny memorial were behind them and the community would soon have a place to pay tribute to Kameny and the more than 50 years he dedicated to LGBT equality and civil rights.
Jessica Schiefer, an official with the VA’s National Cemetery Administration, told the Blade on Tuesday that her office was “expediting the process” of issuing the memorial marker headstone for Kameny.
She said the NCA received a written statement from the estate that the ashes had been scattered – a development that meets the requirements for approval of the memorial marker stone.
“I was not told where they were scattered but it was provided in writing that they were,” Schiefer said.
Ackerman said he was informed the stone could be delivered to Congressional Cemetery as soon as Nov. 7.
Williams said HOBS and the cemetery were considering plans for a possible ceremony at the Kameny memorial site on Veterans Day, which falls on Nov. 11. He said HOBS, which owns the cemetery plot, would likely take the lead in organizing the ceremony but the estate would also be invited to take part in the event.
Williams said that in addition to the headstone, a footstone purchased by HOBS bearing the words, “Gay is Good,” a phrase that Kameny coined in the late 1960s, would also be reinstalled at the memorial site. The Gay is Good stone as well as an earlier version of a VA-approved headstone had been installed at the site shortly after Kameny’s death. They were removed at the time the dispute surfaced between the estate and HOBS over ownership rights to the cemetery plot.
That dispute has been resolved, Williams said, with HOBS retaining ownership rights to the memorial plot.
Ackerman has said his law firm was also interested in organizing a memorial service to commemorate the installation of the stones.
Last week, after Blade coverage of the four-year delay in securing a headstone and before news surfaced that the Veterans Affairs Administration had approved the Kameny headstone, several gay activists, including Jose Ucles, offered to donate funds needed to purchase a private headstone.
Williams this week said that after expressing his deep gratitude for those offers he is asking potential donors to consider contributing to a fund for the construction of a National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Veterans Memorial, which is also set to be installed in Congressional Cemetery.
A non-profit organization formed by LGBT veterans had hoped to have the memorial in place by Veterans Day this year. But problems in raising the needed funds for construction of the memorial have postponed installation until at least next year, Williams said.