Gay rights pioneer wants to be remembered for coining the phrase “‘Gay is good;’ new exhibit features signs from early gay rights protests
“If I am remembered for nothing else, I want to be remembered for coining “‘Gay is good.’ It sums up and epitomizes what I have worked for for half a century,” Franklyn Kameny told a private reception celebrating the opening of “Treasures of American History” at the Smithsonian Institution on the evening of Sept. 6.
The exhibition enshrines gays as part the American story.
The exhibition is a fitting coda for the 82-year-old Kameny, who’s firing from a federal job in 1957 for being gay set him on a path to becoming the pre-eminent advocate of gay rights literally the indispensable man in shaping the agenda and victories of the community in the modern era.
It is difficult for most Americans to understand what it was like to be openly gay during those early decades, says Dudley Clendinen, a former New York Times reporter and co-author of the seminal history of the gay rights movement, “Out for Good.”
“Only a few hundred souls in all of American were willing to make themselves known as homosexual or lesbian in that period because it was stigmata and ostracization for those who did. It was loss of employment, loss of respect, loss of dignity, loss of neighbors, loss of friends, loss of being a part of a large culture if you did,” he says.
Kameny had a Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard. Others with that credential were destined to play leading roles in the space race that was about to explode, but he was prohibited from joining that effort, much as gay Arabic linguists today are preventing from serving in the military.
“The Civil Service Commission had a gay ban fully as strong as the present military gay ban, the denial of security clearances, the sodomy laws the general discrimination in those days, if you were known to be gay, you never obtained or retained a job, or an apartment for that matter,” Kameny says. “In some places, like New York and Virginia, you technically weren’t even allowed into public places like bars.”
Kameny fought his firing, first before the commission and then in court. Penniless and often subsisting on little more than cans of beans, he learned enough law to write his own legal briefs and appeal the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
It was the first gay rights petition to reach that body. The court was not ready.
Kameny’s legal document contained the declaration that “the founding principles of the gay rights movement: that we were a legitimate minority like Jews or Negroes; that we were 10 percent of the population as Dr. Kinsey had suggested, that we had the same rights to citizenship as every other human,” notes Clendinen.
Those documents have stood the test of time.
Kameny founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, the first gay group in the city, and sent the group’s mimeographed newsletters to the president and congressmen. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover considered by many to have been a closeted gay man was so distraught that he sent agents to knock on Kameny’s door, requesting to be removed from the mailing list.
Kameny went on to serve on the founding boards of national LGBT groups for decades to come. He ran for Congress in 1971 and was the first openly gay person to have his name on the ballot for a federal office.
And most importantly, he inculcated his vision of equality into generations of gay men and women who have pressed forward with that work.
Clendinen says of Kameny, “He never gave up. He never relented. He never gave an inch. He never yielded a single shred of his dignity. And, as time passed, things changed.”
The scholar calls Kameny an authentic American hero. He is one of “the people who somehow have the grit, the imagination, the principle and the clarity of mind to look at everyday life and see the unfairness, the injustice, the immorality around them that the rest of us fail to see simply because we are accustomed to it and somehow have the energy and the determination to work to set those things right even if no one pays then, even if no one thanks them, even if it takes the rest of their lives,” Clendinen says.
Path to the Smithsonian
Kameny was a packrat, he saved literally everything, first in his attic and when that became filled, in other nooks and corners of his home. Last year key documents from his struggle for gay rights were donated to the Library of Congress. The memorabilia was accepted by the Smithsonian and now that lifetime of memories will go on display.
The National Museum of American History is closed for several years for a major renovation, but “150 of our most important and prized artifacts” from the historical collection a kind of greatest hits have been assembled and on view a few blocks away at the National Air and Space Museum. The location is fitting, just steps away from the path that Kameny was not allowed to take the iconic rockets that took man into space.
The exhibition trove includes the portable writing table that Thomas Jefferson used to write the Declaration of Independence, a dress worn by presidential wife Mary Todd Lincoln, and the ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz.”
Kameny’s humble button saying “Gay is good” and posters from the first picketing of the White House by a gay group, in 1965, share a display case with a pair of boxing gloves used by the immortal Joe Louis, and a Civil War era photo of a freed slave, standing on the Union side of the Potomac River, an American flag on her lapel.
“Our mission is to include all Americans and all American stories our struggles, our accomplishments, our dreams, our goals, our aspirations,” explains curator Harry Rubenstein. “The exhibit does a wonderful job of capturing the national experience.”
“Fifty years ago, in 1957, Frank Kameny was fired by the United States government for being gay. Tonight he walks into the Smithsonian Institution and into American history,” Charles Francis, who played a leading role in assuring transfer of Kameny’s horde of treasures, said at the opening event. “Tonight, those pickets truly become America’s picket signs, they’re not ours any more.”
Kameny told those gathered at the museum, the military gay ban has existed as policy for a very long time: “I ran into it personally on May 18, 1943, at the height of World War II, when three days before my 18th birthday I enlisted. They asked, I did not tell. I am proud of my military service, but I have resented for 64 years that I had to lie to my government in order to participate in a war effort which I strongly supported.”
He later became a leading advisor to soldiers charged with homosexuality and with those fighting to obtain security clearances. Ending the military ban is one of the few items that still remains on Kameny’s agenda from the 1950s.
Recalling those early days, Kameny said, “I became acutely aware of the fact that we and our homosexuality were on the receiving end of an unrelenting negative onslaught. To the psychiatrist we were diseased; to the clergy we were immoral and sinner; to the government we were criminals. And our own movement rhetoric was and much of it still is reactive and defensive rather than being proactive and assertive.”
He was watching the news on television in June 1968 and a group of black civil rights workers were chanting, “Black in beautiful.”
“I realized immediately that the psychodynamics there were identical to ours.”
Kameny tossed around ideas for a parallel slogan: “Homosexuality was too clinical. Someone suggested, “‘Gay is great,’ but that seemed a bit too colloquial. “‘Good’ seemed too bland, but it covered the waterfront generally, so as to speak, and for that it was finally chosen.
“I now had a slogan that did not reactively and defensively say, “‘Gay is not bad,’ the kind of thing that our movement still does, but proactively and affirmatively said “‘Gay is good.’ As, for an example, same-sex marriage will not damage the institution of marriage, it will enhance the institution of marriage,” Kameny said, his voice rising to a thunder.
The crowd responded with cheers and applause.
“No one had dared to say in public ever before, or really even to believe for the most part in themselves gay is good. Almost no one … agreed with him” at the time, says Clendenin.
Kameny recalled the early picketing of the White House and at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on the Fourth of July.
“If anyone had told us, as we scrambled around on someone’s living room floor, surrounded by posters, that the signs we were making would some day be in the Smithsonian collection, along with one of Thomas Jefferson’s desks, we would have thought he was insane,” Kameny said.
A smile crossed his lips as he added, “But here they are.”
This article appeared in the September 14 edition of the Dallas Voice.
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