Signs of Progress

Franklin Kameny's home holds a large collection of memorabilia from the early gay rights movement. Kameny was fired from the Army Map Service in 1957 for being gay.
Franklin Kameny's home holds a large collection of memorabilia from the early gay rights movement. Kameny was fired from the Army Map Service in 1957 for being gay. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 23, 2005

Once upon a gay time, before the Stonewall riots in New York, before gay marriage, gay adoption and gay real estate, before "Will & Grace," "The L Word" and cable channels called Logo and Here!, before everyone had a gay relative, there was a man who led a picket line in front of the White House. It was 1965, and the man was Franklin E. Kameny.

"So here we are!" says Kameny, a lifetime later, in his foghorn of a voice. "This is what you wanted to see!"

Boxes of personal papers, official documents, newspaper clippings dating back to the 1950s. Stack after stack of black-and-white posters ("First Class Citizenship for Homosexuals," "Homosexual Americans Demand Their Civil Rights") that he and others brandished at the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department in the 1960s.

The man in the three-piece navy blue suit with a dark blue tie is starting to sweat, just enough that you begin to wonder if a summer afternoon might not be the best time for an 80-year-old to spend nearly three hours in his dusty Northwest Washington attic. But he doesn't mind. He's a vigorous figure -- head stern, jaw locked, shoulders slightly forward.

"People have been asking me, 'What are you going do with all of this?' " says Kameny, his left hand resting on a stack of posters. The posters are written in precise, bold script, and Kameny, who speaks in precise, perfectly constructed sentences, wouldn't have had them any other way. ("Let's make it a tentative 1:30 p.m. meeting, subject to confirmation," he'd said about this interview.)

"People have been legitimately telling me, 'For heaven's sake, you're 80 years old now. Figure out what you're going to do with them.' . . . One of the things I still have to do," Kameny says, laughing, "is write a will."

The modern gay rights movement has been around long enough to worry about losing the artifacts of its history. The AIDS epidemic cut a broad swath through the generation most likely to recall and collect the essential ephemera of the middle 20th century, and the transition of the closeted homosexual to the proudly "queer," a term that makes room for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders. Social barriers still limit the inclusion of gay history in mainstream museums and archives. More than a few movers and shakers in W ashington's gay community have recently feared that Kameny's trove could accidentally become rubbish once he's gone, if someone doesn't step in and preserve it. Lately, something of a scramble has emerged:

The Stonewall Library & Archives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California; the New York Public Library; the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library (named after the country's first openly gay U.S. ambassador), to name just a few, are all interested in acquiring Kameny's collection.

"You're talking about a pioneer here, and what he's been keeping all these years are . . . well, they're absolutely historic," says Greg Williams, head of the collection committee at ONE, the country's largest (and best-organized, scholars say) gay archive.

If Kameny decides that his papers belong in Washington, the Library of Congress and the District's Rainbow History Project would certainly be pleased.

"I think they belong here in Washington -- Frank's home," says Deacon Maccubbin, owner of the gay bookstore Lambda Rising, on Connecticut Avenue, who has considered Kameny a mentor since they first met in 1969. "But, in the end, I would like Frank to make the decision."

A great deal of what's in Kameny's attic makes up a living memorial to those paranoid early years of the Cold War, when "gay" meant "happy" and you called a homosexual a homosexual if you had manners, or "a moral risk" or "an undesirable" or "a sexual misfit" if you didn't. It was a time when the question "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" could be followed or preceded by: "Information has come to the attention of the Civil Service Commission that you are a homosexual. What comment do you care to make?"

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