Preserving gay civil rights history

Posted on 07 Sep 2006 at 2:40pm
By Dale Carpenter OutRight

Franklin Kameny’s treasure trove of correspondence, photos and other documents sheds light on community’s progress

Franklin Kameny was, as they say, a pioneer of the early days of the modern gay civil rights movement.

Before even the Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969, in the days when 49 of 50 states banned sodomy, and meant it; when the police routinely raided gay bars and arrested patrons for dancing together, or for no reason at all; when the American Psychiatric Association still considered homosexuality a mental disorder; when homosexuality was a disqualification from any federal employment; when the FBI was busy monitoring and harassing nascent gay political groups Kameny was leading the very first demonstrations of gays and lesbians in front of the White House and generally giving the government hell for its anti-gay policies.

Now an octogenarian, Kameny has kept almost all of his letters and other documents and pictures from those days, from the early 1960s on. That’s very fortunate for anyone interested in the history of the movement.

What’s worrisome, however, is that none of this precious material has yet found a permanent and safe home in a library or other collection where it can be made available to researchers and, most importantly, be preserved for posterity.

An effort is underway to change that.

Some of Kameny’s archives have now been collected at a Web site called “The Kameny Papers” (http://www.kamenypapers.org/), set up and run by Charles Francis. Francis is raising money for the effort to preserve this original source material.

The Web site is worth a visit if you have any interest in the subject at all. The pictures including marvelous color photos of the original 1965 White House pickets can be accessed by clicking the “Memorabilia” tab to the left on the home page of the site.

Much more interesting and often heart-breaking however, is the material under the tab “Correspondence,” also to the left on the home page. These materials have been photocopied and are presented in their original form.

Some highlights:

– In 1962, Kameny incorporated the Mattachine Society in Washington, D.C., an association devoted to ending discrimination against gays.

He wrote polite letters to members of Congress introducing himself, explaining the purposes of the society, and offering to meet with them.

Rep. Paul C. Jones, a Democrat from Missouri, responded by scribbling the following note on the letter and returning it to Kameny:

“I am unalterably opposed to your proposal and cannot see how any person in his right mind can condone the practices which you would justify. Please do not contaminate my mail with such filthy trash.”

– Rep. Charles Chamberlain, a Republican from Michigan who now has a federal building named after him in Grand Rapids, responded to the same letter from Kameny with this:

“Your letter of August 28 has been received, and in reply may I state unequivocally that in all my six years of service in the United States Congress I have not received such a revolting communication.”

– The American Psychiatric Association in 1963, 10 years before it would remove homosexuality from its list of disorders, sent a letter refusing even to meet with Kameny’s group or to “publicize your meetings.”

– Vice President Hubert Humphrey wrote to Kameny in 1965 that federal civil rights laws are not “relevant to the problems of homosexuals.”

– A 1962 letter to an employee of the Library of Congress informed him that the library had “received a report concerning you,” asking whether he had performed a homosexual act, whether he was attracted to other men, whether he had been in bed with men and whether he “enjoyed embracing them.”

The letter concludes, “I am quite shook-up over this matter” and requests an interview with the employee as soon as possible.

I can only imagine how terrified the employee must have been.

– A 1962 letter from Kameny to Attorney General Robert Kennedy asks Kennedy to “halt immediately” the FBI’s investigation and infiltration of Mattachine and the interrogation of its members.

– A memorandum from the FBI (headed by J. Edgar Hoover at the time) urges the Attorney General to not respond to Kameny’s letter and justifying its harassment of Mattachine as part of the investigation of “crimes perpetrated by sex deviates,” as gays and lesbians were commonly called at the time.
Alas, large parts of the memo are blacked out.

– A 1973 memo from Kameny to his supporters describes the sequence of events that led the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of disorders or, in his words, “”‘curing’ us all, instantaneously, en masse, in one fell swoop, by semantics and by vote, rather than by therapy.”

There’s much more on the Web site.

Let’s hope the whole archive will be publicly available soon. You can help make that happen by donating to the effort. To do that, contact Francis at ccfrancis@aol.com.

Dale Carpenter is a law professor. Some of his past columns can be read at www.indegayforum.com.

E-mail OutRight@aol.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, September 8, 2006.

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