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Signs of Progress
Franklin Kameny Keeps Mementos of His Activism in the Attic, Not the Closet

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?"

It was also a time when someone like Kameny -- an astronomer for the Army Map Service, who fought in the front lines during World War II and earned his PhD from Harvard -- could be and was fired in 1957 for being gay. Executive Order 10450, signed by President Eisenhower in April 1953, mandated that "sexual perversion" -- "That meant us," says Kameny, green eyes narrowing -- was grounds for firing a federal employee and for barring the hiring of a homosexual.

Incredulous, Kameny fought the dismissal, eventually petitioning the Supreme Court. In a 61-page brief he wrote himself ("The court had a major footnote in their response objecting to its length," he says), Kameny called the government's anti-homosexual policies "a stench in the nostrils of decent people." The high court refused to hear his case in 1961.

Shortly after, he formed the Mattachine Society of Washington, the country's first "civil-liberties, social action organization dedicated to improving the status of the homosexual citizen through a vigorous program of action," according to a Mattachine brochure in his attic.

"If society and I differ on something, I'm willing to give the matter a second look. If we still differ, then I am right and society is wrong; and society can go its way so long as it does not get in my way," Kameny said back then, according to the book "Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America." "But if it does, there's going to be a fight. And I'm not going to be the one who backs down. That has been an underlying premise of the conduct of my life."

From 1965 to 1969, in what became a yearly Fourth of July protest in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Kameny led the picket line in a three-piece suit. The protesters -- the women in dresses and heels, the men in jackets and ties -- looking so polished that passersby thought they were actors pretending to be homosexuals.

For nearly half a century, Kameny made regular news within gay activist circles -- Kameny did this, Kameny did that. But the name Franklin E. Kameny is not as recognizable as Harvey Milk, the slain San Francisco city supervisor, or Larry Kramer, the writer and AIDS activist. In his formal, buttoned-up manner, Kameny projects the stereotypical air of a Washington busybody (and, as a member of the Oldest Inhabitants of the District of Columbia, he's very much a city history buff). He never again worked as an astronomer -- his passion since age 6 -- but for decades worked as a "self-characterized paralegal." In the course of the 1960s, '70s, '80s and into the early '90s, he became, not by choice but by circumstance, the authority to whom gays seeking security clearances turned.

Through it all, Kameny, a self-described "pack rat" and proud of it, has stored documents, posters, letters, fliers, articles.

He is regarded as the first openly gay person to seek public office, running in 1971 for the District's nonvoting seat in the House of Representatives. ("Two, four, six, eight, gay is just as good as straight," his supporters chanted as they marched down Pennsylvania Avenue the day before the election.)

Kameny, together with the Mattachines, confronted the American Psychiatric Association and won the battle to get homosexuality delisted as a mental illness in 1973. On the national stage and especially on the local stage, he fought anti-sodomy laws for decades. "The District's sodomy law was repealed effective on Sept. 11, 1993," he says, "and that concluded a 30-year 1-month 4-day 11-hour effort on my part.

"The one thing that I want to be remembered for, if only one," he says, "is that in 1968, inspired by the slogan 'Black Is Beautiful,' I coined the term 'Gay Is Good.' "

In last month's gay pride parade in Washington, where colorful and creatively designed posters read "I {heart} my gay son," "Lesbian of Faith" and "Let us tie the knot," Kameny was greeted, with hugs or kisses or handshakes or salutes, by all of the District's elected officials who participated, including David Catania and Jim Graham, the District's two openly gay council members.

To the ruling class of gays in Washington, Kameny is a one-man institution -- patriarch, ambassador and also field general, taking on all manner of lawmakers, clerics and pundits who opposed gay rights.

He lives alone. On Fridays he stops by Lambda Rising to get his copy of the Washington Blade. He never misses an episode of cable TV's "Queer as Folk" and "Six Feet Under" (the latter features the off-and-on relationship of two gay men) and keeps himself occupied with meetings and events for organizations such as the Gay and Lesbian Activist Alliance and his neighborhood association. He has no family, except for his 77-year-old sister, Edna, who lives in Long Island. He has remained -- except for a love affair with a man named Keith in what he refers to as the "golden summer of 1954" -- steadfastly single. (But don't think for a minute that he wants your help or needs your sympathy, because he's taking "quite good care" of himself, thank you.)

In May, some of Kameny's friends and admirers threw him a lavish 80th-birthday party with 160 guests at David Greggory, a downtown restaurant. The walls were decorated with Kameny's picket posters.

Charles Francis, a public relations consultant and co-chair of the Republican Unity Coalition, organized the birthday party, and hopes Kameny's collection will someday have a place in the Smithsonian's American History Museum -- Kameny's posters, he says, should be displayed alongside those of the suffragettes.

"Those posters, we all knew, are more than just posters. They have a chi force, a presence," Francis says. "They have an importance, not just as a gay thing but as an American thing. So I told Frank, 'Let's use your posters in the party.' Those posters are so powerful because gays had never spoken out publicly before, had never stepped forward lawfully and constructively into the public square."

"Frank is the closest thing we have to the philosopher king of the gay rights movement. He represents the continuum of knowledge in the history of the movement itself," says Dudley Clendinen, co-author of "Out for Good." He was asked to formally introduce Kameny at the party, and described him as "part Galileo, part Thomas Jefferson, part Brad Pitt, part Mr. Magoo."

"He is someone who stood for what he believed to be right -- against law, organized religion, medical authority and the tide of public opinion all his adult life. It has been almost half a century," Clendinen says, weeks after the party. "The battles against the ps ychiatrists and the sodomy laws have been won. Church doctrine is changing and public opinion has changed enormously. Kameny hasn't changed, but the culture has, and he is one of the reasons."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company