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At Smithsonian, Gay Rights Is Out of the Closet, Into the Attic
Activist Frank Kameny's Memorabilia Are Now Signs of Progress

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"July 3, 1975," he says, "when the Civil Service Commission rescinded the ban on gay people."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.

It's difficult to know the importance or impact of the inclusion of this material in the Smithsonian's display. Smithsonian curator Harry Rubenstein says you can never be certain what will be controversial, but, "this is really mainstream in terms of our mission in political history."

But look around the display, at Rosie the Riveter, an early Teddy Bear, a pair of Keds sneakers and a Barbie doll, and gay rights signs seem like rather different objects. People may object to whether the museum gets the history of the labor movement right, or whether toys and pop icons are worthy to be seen next to Gen. George Washington's uniform. But gay stuff, whether it's a photograph in a newspaper or an exhibition in a museum, elicits a more visceral negative response. Rather than argue with the message, or the truth of the image or display, people tend to say, "I shouldn't have to see that." Or rather, "My kids shouldn't have to see it."

That reaction, if it comes, only reinforces the potency of Kameny's half-century-old strategy. It is still all about visibility. In that sense, the old picket signs that Kameny, a self-confessed "pack rat," stored all these years are still working (even in a museum) in their original way. Their presence there is the message.

We are an increasingly fractured and atomized society, and perhaps for that reason, there's an almost surreal power to canonical, culturally central, institutionally sanctioned displays such as "Treasures of American History." The authority and validity of institutions such as the Smithsonian (and academia and the mainstream media) are challenged on all sides, but inclusion in them is still assiduously pursued. The Smithsonian display of gay rights memorabilia is in that sense a major milestone -- even as the very idea of being gay tends to fade as a meaningful identity. Young people who would have called themselves gay a decade ago now announce that they don't like labels and will sleep with whomever they want, thank you.

If this had happened 10 or 20 years ago, one might have said that perhaps the open display of a "Gay Is Good" button (Kameny coined the phrase) in the nation's premier museum would help some confused or questioning youth to know that he or she is not alone. But that's just pablum now. Youth use the Internet, and except for gay kids from very conservative and isolated families, they don't lack access to information about sexuality. The genie that Kameny and others let out of the bottle will never go back in, and now people who object to (or hate) homosexuals are forced to fight tactical delaying wars on peripheral issues (keeping them out of the military, denying them marriage rights).

Curiously, the strategy of gay rights opponents is akin to Kameny's: He fought to make homosexuality visible in a positive way; they fight to keep it controversial, to keep it visible in a negative way. The success of his effort -- assimilation into society -- makes his memorabilia seem almost quaint; the success of their effort -- keep gay rights a subject that riles people -- reawakens the old power of his objects.

So if there's no controversy with this new display, perhaps the battle is over? Hard to say. Racism became taboo in public discourse, but it still functions in code words, jokes, attitudes and unspoken assumptions, so much so that people such as Don Imus, who insulted the black women on a basketball team, often act startled by their own seemingly unconscious channeling of the rhetoric. An anthropologist looking at our society would probably observe that hating people for their difference must be useful for some purpose, given the extraordinary lengths we go to preserve our animosities in elaborate and ritualized ways.

Homophobia will likely settle into the same marginal but powerful cultural habits, flaring into public controversy only when a superannuated comic uses a crude anti-gay slur, then repents, or a red-state senator is cashiered by his political party for the faintest whiff of homosexual desire.

It's a strange sort of progress. Perhaps people will pass by this little glass case in the Smithsonian, with children in tow, completely unruffled, maybe even amused. But in the middle school locker room and the U.S. military, symbolic lines will be maintained, and real cruelty perpetuated. The closet from which Kameny sought to liberate gay people gets smaller and smaller, reduced to a transitional stage in adolescence, or a canny career choice for emotive cable anchors and right-wing political operatives. But it, too, must be preserved if the demand of Kameny's sign -- first-class citizenship for homosexuals -- is to be deferred.

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