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Kameny’s storybook ending

Vindication after decades of struggle

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Frank Kameny (center) at the Library of Congress’ ‘Creating the United States’ exhibit looking at his 1961 Supreme Court brief flanked by historian John Haynes (left) and Charles Francis. (Photo by Charles Francis)

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.

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Rick Rosendall

    October 20, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    Wonderful. Thanks so much, Charles.

  2. laurelboy2

    October 20, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    Everyone can open his or her own door by exercising good judgment regarding his/her actions and behaviors. As such, everyone can be his/her own trailblazer. While Kameny may have taken his actions public, no one really needed him to do their work for them.

  3. Marvin Carter

    October 20, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    Excellent article, Charles.

  4. Kris McLaughlin

    October 20, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    Thanks for sharing. Kris

  5. Deacon Maccubbin

    October 21, 2011 at 11:07 am

    Thank you for that touching and inspiring reminiscence, and for the crucial role you played in preserving Dr. Kameny’s papers and our history.

    • Charles Francis

      October 22, 2011 at 12:36 am

      thank you, Deacon. Frank so loved dropping by Lambda on Fridays!

  6. Mike Silverstein

    October 21, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    Among the happiest moments in Frank’s storybook ending were the last two Capital Pride parades, when he rode as a guest of honor. Time and time again, young people – some sixty years younger than Frank – came up to the convertible to shake his hand and thank him for all he had done for them. Someone put a rainbow colored lei around him, and he sat atop the backseat of the convertible as thousands yelled his name and he waved back and threw candy at the crowd. And when those parades were over, there was a sense of peace and joy around him.

    And thank you, Marvin Carter, for all that you have done – and are still doing – for this great man.

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Sondheim’s art will be with us for the ages

Iconic work explored sadness, rage, irony, and love of humanity

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Stephen Sondheim (Screen capture via CBS)

“The only regret I have in life is giving you birth,” his mother wrote in a letter to Stephen Sondheim.

The only regret so many of us feel now is that Sondheim, the iconic composer and lyricist, died on Nov. 26 at his Roxbury, Conn. home at age 91.

He is survived by Jeffrey Romley, whom he married in 2017, and Walter Sondheim, a half-brother.

F. Richard Pappas, his lawyer and friend, told the New York Times that the cause of death was unknown, and that Sondheim had died suddenly. The day before he passed away, Sondheim celebrated Thanksgiving with friends, Pappas told the Times.

“Every day a little death,” Sondheim wrote in “A Little Night Music.”

This isn’t the case with the passing of Sondheim. Whether you’re a Broadway star or a tone-deaf aficionado like me, you’ll sorely miss Sondheim, who the Times aptly called “one of Broadway history’s songwriting titans.”

Like multitudes of his fans, I don’t remember a time in my life when a song from a Sondheim musical hasn’t been in my head.

When I was a child, my parents repeatedly played the cast album of “Gypsy,” the 1959 musical with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents. My folks loved the story of the show, which was loosely based on the life of the burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Ethel Merman belt out “Everything’s Coming Up Roses!” When I need to jumpstart my creative juices, I remember that “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”

In college, I felt that “Company,” the 1970 musical with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by George Furth, spoke to my generation. 

As was the case with Sondheim’s musicals, “Company” didn’t have a conventional plot, happy ending, or tidy resolution. It takes place during Bobby’s 35th birthday party. Bobby, who is single, is celebrating with his friends (straight, married couples). Bobby likes having friends but doesn’t want to get married.

Sondheim didn’t come out as gay until he was 40. Yet, even in the 1970s, it was hard not to think that Bobby in “Company” wasn’t gay.

Once you’ve heard Elaine Stritch sing “The Ladies Who Lunch” from “Company,” it becomes indelibly etched in your brain.

Who else but Sondheim could have written, “And here’s to the girls who play/smart-/Aren’t they a gas/Rushing to their classes in optical art,/Wishing it would pass/Another long exhausting day/Another thousand dollars/A matinee, a Pinter play/Perhaps a piece of Mahler’s/I’ll drink to that/And one for Mahler!”

In September, I, along with legions of other theater lovers, were thrilled when Sondheim told Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show,” that he was working with David Ives on a new musical called “Square One.”

In his musicals from “Follies” to “Sweeney Todd” to “Sunday in the Park with George,” Sondheim, through his lyrics and music, revealed the internal depths of his characters and the sadness, tenderness, bitterness, rage, irony, wit, and love of humanity. Sondheim’s wordplay was so brilliant that he did crossword puzzles for New York magazine.

Over his decades-long career, Sondheim won every award imaginable from the Pulitzer Prize for “Sunday in the Park with George” to the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded to him by President Barack Obama in 2015). He received more than a dozen Tony Awards for his Broadway musicals and revivals as well as a Tony Award for lifetime achievement in 2008.

Thankfully, Sondheim’s art will be with us for the ages.

A remake of “West Side Story,” directed by Steven Spielberg with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, premieres this month.

Sondheim is a character in the Netflix film “tick, tick BOOM!,” directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The movie is based on an autobiographical posthumous Jonathan Larson (the composer of “Rent”) musical. Sondheim is supportive of Larson’s work.

Thank you Stephen, for your art! R.I.P.

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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Publish trans employment stats

Not enough corporations that march in Pride are hiring non-binary staff

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On Nov. 10, the top-tier consulting firm McKinsey published a report on discrimination toward trans people in the workplace. The report came out with numbers that we have all known true for a long time and lead to one conclusion: Trans people have a harder time finding jobs, holding them down, and advancing in their careers. 

Specifically, McKinsey cited the fact that cisgender people are twice as likely to be employed as trans people, and that more than half of trans employees are uncomfortable being out at work. Meanwhile, cisgender employees make 32% more than trans employees in the workplace, even if those trans employees hold the same positions or higher positions. 

On top of this, trans people are 2.4 times more likely to be working in the food and retail industries, which pay entry level wages that are much less than decent pay. 

These statistics are true based on a number of factors. For one, many trans people have a harder time passing at work, and people who don’t pass well face worse job prospects. (As a side note, on top of that, the study pointed to the fact that many trans people exert undue emotional and psychological energy into trying to pass really well and not be discriminated against, which takes a toll on their mental health.) 

So what is a concrete step that corporations can take to make the trans experience in the workplace better? It’s time that corporations step up their game by publishing and making transparent the number of trans employees that they actually hire. Such numbers can be published in any kind of company document: a pamphlet, online report, or even annual shareholder’s report. As it is, most corporations do not publish numbers on LGBT employees. 

“Rainbow capitalism” is a term we know all too well: major corporations and multinationals flaunting a rainbow and trans pride flag during the month of June, but seemingly doing little to hire more trans people or give back to the community during other months. 

Every corporation surely has the time and company-wide infrastructure to get statistics on their trans employees. All they need to do is implement a company-wide survey to new hires. This takes extremely little effort and time in the grand scheme of company workings. 

If major corporations like McKinsey, Bain, Deloitte, defense contractors, and hundreds of other huge companies published statistics on trans employees, they would be held accountable for their actions and words.

If these statistics were to be published today, we would probably find out that not enough corporations that march in Pride parades are hiring trans and gender nonconforming employees. 

Turning the numbers against corporations will ensure that these same corporations finally live up to their words about workplace inclusion and diversity. It won’t cure everything about the issue of being trans in the workplace, but it’s a step in the right direction. 

Isaac Amend (he/him/his) is a trans man and young professional in the D.C. area. He was featured on National Geographic’s ‘Gender Revolution’ in 2017 as a student at Yale University. Isaac is also on the board of the LGBT Democrats of Virginia. Find him on Instagram @isaacamend.

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Should we be scared of Omicron?

A reminder to stay vigilant against latest mutation

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It’s Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend when I sit down to write this column. The craziness in the world continues but other than the scare of the new COVID mutation, which has been named Omicron, there isn’t one headline to grab attention. Instead, there are many, including some manufactured by the news media to gain viewers or sell papers. Some like the car rampaging through the Christmas parade is frightening but incidents like this seem to be happening all too often.  

The stock market went down 1,000 points on Friday because market players freaked out about the new COVID mutation coming out of South Africa. However that didn’t seem to stop people from spending their money on Black Friday. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) was again on the attack this time against fellow Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) accusing her of being a Muslim terrorist. She apologized, or pretended to, but again the Republican leadership wouldn’t condemn her statements. These things seemed to be grist for the news media with no one else unfortunately really voicing concern. 

Boebert’s comments were taken as old hat. They are disgusting, offensive, and dangerous, but as long as her constituents reelect her we will have to live with them. She is joined by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.),  Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), and Paul Gosar  (R-Wyo.) who represent the worst in Congress and the worst of the American people. Yet again until their constituents throw them out we have to live with their stupidity and the absurdity of their being where they are. 

The new COVID mutation out of South Africa is potentially a game changer. But it will be important for scientists to look at this carefully to determine how quickly it spreads and whether or not the current vaccines will offer any protection against it. Countries around the world, including the United States, have quickly instituted travel bans for South Africans and those in countries surrounding it. The World Health Organization at this time has suggested this should not be done as it will have limited impact on its spreading and could have severe and detrimental economic impact on countries whose people are being banned. One thing we must learn from this is how important it is to ensure everyone all over the world has access to vaccines as we know the more people who are inoculated the harder it is for the virus to mutate. It is not time to panic yet and by Sunday there was some reporting this new mutation may not be any more difficult to deal with than the current ones and not lead to any more severe illness. The takeaway from all this is we need to keep vigilant, get vaccinated and get booster shots, and make sure we vaccinate our children. Continue to wear masks indoors and wash our hands. 

Now the other interesting stories last weekend were about what will happen in the Senate in the weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays. Remember the House of Representatives passed President Biden’s Build Back Better bill as a reconciliation measure, which means it can pass the Senate with a simple majority. That would mean every Democratic senator and the vice president. The focus is on two senators: Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sinema (D-Ariz.). In reality we need to look at a number of others who will fight to either take out or put something into the bill the House passed. It is clear it will not pass in the current form and then it has to go back to the House again. 

Another issue that will be taken up is the debt ceiling. It may be a little easier than thought because as recently reported, “After taking a hard line and refusing to negotiate with Democrats during the last standoff over the debt limit, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is quietly looking for a way to get the issue resolved without another high-profile battle.” Then there is the budget and since none is passed Congress will have to pass another continuing resolution since the one they passed in September expires on Dec. 3. 

So for the next few weeks there will be a focus on the Senate to see what they do and how obstructionist Republicans want to be. Seems while things change, they somehow remain the same.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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