An effort is under way to have gay activist Frank Kameny honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, from the White House.
Long-time San Francisco-based activist/blogger Michael Petrelis is unofficially spearheading the effort. He says Kameny is highly deserving.
“He is a civic-minded American who has brought America more freedom through his activism,” Petrelis said. “Listen, Frank is 86 years old. Before I was even born, he was doing gay activism work at a very dangerous time … if you want to go through all the things he’s done over the years, we’d be here for the next two hours.”
Widely considered one of the most influential figures in early gay liberation, Kameny was fired from the Army Map Service in 1957 for being gay. He protested it and argued his case to the Supreme Court. In 1961 he and fellow activist Jack Nichols co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington and by 1965, he was picketing at the White House and Philadelphia’s Independence Hall for gay rights, among many other activities over the years.
Petrelis says his friend Bob Roehr, a D.C.-based journalist, suggested the idea to Petrelis two years ago. It hadn’t occurred to Petrelis, but he immediately thought it was a great idea. He’s hoping some of the national LGBT rights groups — he mentions Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal and the Task Force — will pick up the effort. Several have commented on Petrelis’ site that they agree it’s a great idea, including Kameny colleague Charles Francis, London’s Peter Tatchell and law professor Art Leonard.
“Few people are as deserving of the Presidential Medal of Freedom as Dr. Franklin Kameny,” wrote Richard Sincere, president of Virginia-based Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty. “At a time when nobody stood up for the rights of America’s gay and lesbian citizens, Dr. Kameny rose to the task.”
The effort, though, has not been without controversy. When Petrelis floated the idea in the comments section of a recent Blade article about a new White House interim LGBT liaison, some said the community has more pressing concerns.
“Kameny’s been honored plenty over the years,” wrote New Jersey-based trans activist Rebecca Juro. “And this isn’t something [that] should be high on our community’s agenda. What should be top on the agenda is that we still live in a country where in 29 states you can still be fired or thrown out of your home just for being gay and in 35 just for being transgender.”
Kameny concedes his house is overflowing with accolades. One wall in his upstairs office is covered in plaques. There’s another mountain in a spare bedroom that haven’t been hung yet. A table in the dining room is full of freestanding trophies and mementos such as White House pens used to sign significant gay-related legislation. A spare D.C. street sign designating three blocks of 17th Street N.W. in his honor is propped up on a living room sofa.
Kameny says he would be highly honored if the White House chose to award him the medal, which comes in the form of star medallion surrounded by gold eagles attached to a blue-and-white ribbon.
“It would be very nice,” Kameny said. “It would sort of tie up what has been a very long effort and it would leave me feeling very content. I’m deeply appreciative of Michael Petrelis’ effort.”
The White House has been noncommittal on the matter. Outgoing White House LGBT liaison Brian Bond told Petrelis that Kameny’s name was “in consideration.”
“He sent me about 25 words in the tersest of statements back in 2009 when I first proposed the idea, then I’ve never heard from him ever again about this,” Petrelis says. White House spokesperson Shin Inouye said in an e-mail this week, “the best we can do is point you to the website.”
Lesbian tennis legend Billie Jean King has been awarded the Medal of Freedom. Harvey Milk, the slain pioneering member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was awarded the medal posthumously.
Kameny says he hopes he’s most remembered for coining the phrase “gay is good.”