The president of D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery says he’s hopeful that a memorial headstone for the late gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will be installed at the cemetery in the near future.
But Paul Williams, who has headed the historic cemetery since 2012, said yet another obstacle surfaced earlier this year in a four-year effort to establish a memorial site for Kameny in Washington.
Kameny died of natural causes at his D.C. home on Oct. 11, 2011. He was 86. His passing came a short time after the Library of Congress accepted the donation of his voluminous collection of papers detailing his work on behalf of LGBT equality over a period of more than 50 years.
According to Williams, the Veterans Affairs Department informed him it could not approve an application that he and Kameny’s sister, Edna Kameny Lavaie, submitted for the headstone until it learns of the disposition of Kameny’s ashes.
Williams said he reluctantly told VA officials neither he nor Lavaie knew the whereabouts of Kameny’s ashes or “cremains,” as the VA describes them, because the man Kameny named in his will as his heir has declined to disclose that information.
In a development that stunned LGBT activists, Timothy Clark, who Kameny named as personal representative of his estate, disclosed through his attorneys in February 2014 that he decided to inter Kameny’s ashes at an undisclosed location.
Clark’s statement came after the local LGBT charitable group Helping Our Brothers and Sisters (HOBS) purchased a plot at Congressional Cemetery with the intent that Kameny’s ashes would be interred there. Kameny friend and associate Charles Francis, who played a lead role in arranging for Kameny’s papers to be donated to the Library of Congress, also arranged for a Veterans Administration authorized headstone for the cemetery plot in honor of Kameny’s role as a World War II combat veteran.
The headstone was installed at the cemetery site along with a footstone with the words “Gay is Good,” a slogan Kameny coined in the 1960s, before both stones were removed when a dispute between the Kameny estate and HOBS in 2012 led to uncertainty over whether the ashes would be interred at the site.
Williams said VA officials requested that the veterans headstone be removed because it was designed to be placed only at a site where the remains of a veteran were interred.
“The decision regarding interment of Frank Kameny’s ashes rests solely with Timothy Clark, the Personal Representative of the Estate of Franklin E. Kameny,” said the 2014 statement issued by the D.C. law firm Ackerman Brown on behalf of Clark.
“Mr. Clark has decided to inter the ashes at an undisclosed location,” the statement said. “Mr. Clark asks the community to respect his wishes and his privacy.”
The statement represented a change from earlier statements by Clark, including one he made to the Blade that he planned to release half of the ashes for burial at a memorial site at Congressional Cemetery while keeping the other half for his personal reflection.
Glen Ackerman, managing partner of Ackerman Brown, said at the time his firm released the statement on behalf of Clark in 2014 that the estate would welcome inquiries by anyone interested in establishing a public memorial for Kameny.
In an email to the Blade last week, Ackerman said neither Congressional Cemetery nor Kameny’s sister contacted the estate at the time they submitted their application for the headstone.
“It would have been nice if Edna Kameny and Paul Williams would have worked with the Estate prior to ordering the headstone,” he said. “It is interesting that the public continues to initiate actions that affect the Estate without communicating with the Estate.”
He added, “The public continues to diminish Frank’s choice. Timothy Clark is Frank’s choice. Dr. Kameny chose Mr. Clark to administer his Estate.”
Jessica Schiefer, an official with the National Cemetery Administration, an arm of the Department of Veterans Affairs, told the Blade that a federal law governing the issuance of headstones for deceased veterans places restrictions on when such stones can be issued.
She said that in cases like Kameny’s, where a stone is to be placed at a site where the remains are not interred, a stone known as a memorial marker stone cannot be issued by the department if the ashes are interred at another location or if they are being held in someone’s home or another location.
Under regulations based on a federal statute, she said, a memorial marker stone for Kameny could only be issued if his ashes were “scattered without interment of any portion of the ashes.”
Williams said another Veterans Affairs Department official gave him a different version of the department’s requirements. He said he was told in writing that the department only needed to know the disposition of the ashes as a condition for issuing the memorial marker stone.
He said that if the Veterans Affairs Department turns down the application for the official veterans headstone Congressional Cemetery would work with HOBS to solicit contributions from the community to purchase a private headstone for the Kameny memorial site at the cemetery.
Such a stone would likely cost between $2,000 and $3,000, he said.
The Kameny memorial site is located just behind the gravesite of the late gay rights leader and U.S. Air Force Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, who, with Kameny’s assistance in 1975, became the first active duty military service member to come out of the closet and challenge the military’s ban on gay service members. Matlovich died in 1987.
A collection of historical documents and photos highlighting Kameny’s lifelong work on behalf of LGBT equality complied by gay activist Michael Bedwell, a longtime friend of Kameny’s, can be viewed here.