At Smithsonian, Gay Rights Is Out of the Closet, Into the Attic

Gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny, 82, and one of the protest signs he carried almost 50 years ago. It's on display at the Smithsonian.
Gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny, 82, and one of the protest signs he carried almost 50 years ago. It's on display at the Smithsonian. (Above: By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post; Below: National Museum Of American History)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 8, 2007

The obvious question gets the obvious answer: Of course Frank Kameny, a pioneer of the gay rights movement, had no inkling that the protest signs he carried more than 40 years ago would end up in the Smithsonian. But there they are, hand-lettered, with little stains from their staples discoloring the faded white cardboard. Two of them, plus three campaign buttons, are now in the same case as Joe Louis's boxing gloves, near the glass closet that holds Jackie Kennedy's inaugural gown and in the same shrinelike exhibit known as "Treasures of American History" that also has Thomas Jefferson's writing desk and the ruby-red slippers that Dorothy wore on her way to meet the Wizard.

Kameny, now 82, was on hand Thursday evening to see the very functional tools of his early activism officially made totems of American history. Although the objects are part of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History's collection, the reception was held at the National Air and Space Museum, which is offering space for the must-see icons while the history museum itself is closed for renovation.

It was a coincidence, but a fortunate one, that a man who trained as an astronomer, who earned a PhD from Harvard before he was fired by the government in 1957 for being gay, was honored amid rockets and planes and depictions of the solar system.

"At the time I was fired, the whole space program was just beginning," says Kameny. He might have volunteered as an astronaut, he says. "I might have gone to the moon."

Instead, he got busted in Lafayette Square across from the White House (a gay cruising ground), lost his job, lost any hope of ever using his formal education as an astronomer and became, instead, an activist. He remembers living on 20 cents' worth of food a day during the darkest years. And he remembers every victory with precision.

"December 15, 1973," he says, "when we were cured en masse by the psychiatrists." Kameny played a huge role in persuading the American Psychiatric Association to stop treating homosexuality as a mental disorder and remove it from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual

"July 3, 1975," he says, "when the Civil Service Commission rescinded the ban on gay people." He played a major role in that one, too. He also mentions Executive Order 12968, signed by President Bill Clinton, which allowed gay people to get security clearances. He also remembers the repeal of the District's anti-sodomy law in 1993.

"He ate baked beans, but he didn't despair," said Dudley Clendinen, co-author of "Out for Good," a history of the gay rights movement that contains several chapters in which Kameny is the central character. Clendinen spoke at Thursday's reception, calling Kameny an "authentic hero" of American culture.

One chapter in Clendinen's book (written with Adam Nagourney) is devoted to Kameny's run for the District's non-voting congressional seat in 1971. It was, for most people, a quixotic effort by an obscure activist promoting a distasteful cause, with no hope of winning. But it had in it all the essential elements of a civil rights strategy that was remarkably prescient and ultimately effective. It was all about visibility, proving to the world that there were unapologetically homosexual people, and proving to closeted homosexuals that they were not alone. The goal wasn't so much a congressional seat, but publicity.

Kameny's campaign was well covered by local media, and it presaged an age when gay issues were increasingly discussed in public. News coverage was often hostile, generally condescending and frequently mocking. "Deviate," "pervert" and "homosexual" were essentially interchangeable terms.

Which makes it all the more bracing to look at the signs in the Smithsonian exhibition. One reads, "First Class Citizenship for Homosexuals"; another, "Discrimination against homosexuals is as immoral as discrimination against Negroes and Jews." A photograph from 1965 shows Kameny's supporters carrying the placards, or ones just like them, in front of the White House. That was four years before the Stonewall riots, a series of confrontations with police in New York that are often cited as the foundational event of the gay rights movement.

The picture captures well-dressed men and women in orderly procession, a snapshot of a historical moment that conveys none of the fear and loathing and the very physical danger one risked by making such a declaration in 1965. Seen side by side with the crowd that gathered at the Air and Space Museum -- well dressed and orderly -- it suggests the degree to which the gay rights movement has come full circle, from an early and essentially conservative request for basic equality to a final and essentially conservative request for complete equality.

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