As Kameny is remembered this week by friends and colleagues, we’re reminded of a haunting piece of federal history tucked into his personal papers: the government’s firing of gay federal workers.
In 1957, Kameny was fired from his job with the Army Map Service in Washington after a run-in with police in Lafayette Park, a gay cruising area across from the White House. The then-Civil Service Commission booted him. After protesting with allies in front of the White House and the commission office downtown, Kameny tried to take his case to the Supreme Court as a violation of civil rights based on sexual orientation, but his petition was turned down.
Back then, it was illegal to be gay and work for the government. At the office, federal employees were in the closet. But their private lives were subjected to McCarthyesque scrutiny.
Take the case of Nevin R. Feather, a Library of Congress employee who received a letter on June 28,1962, from Robert M. Holmes, the government’s director of personnel and personnel security officer.
“It has been reported that during 1961 you disclosed to representatives of another government agency that, on a couple of occasions, you had permitted a man to perform a homosexual act (fellatio) on you,” Holmes wrote to Feather, in a letter digitized by the Kameny Papers Project.
The letter’s heading: “Interrogatory.”
“Also, that you related that you find members of the male sex attractive, that you have been in bed with men; and that you have enjoyed embracing them.”
Holmes asked whether the report was true — “If it is not true then how do you account for its existence?” — and admitted to being “quite shook up over this matter.”
“The letter would come to you at home from a person [in the government] you did not know,” said Bob Witeck, an old friend of Kameny’s who worked at the State Department and on Capitol Hill in the 1970s, when it was a little easier to be out of the closet.
“It would demand that you show up on this date at this time and this place,” Witeck said. “It was a third-party accusation on flimsy evidence, completely out of the blue. It was like saying you were a Communist.”
Kameny helped many federal employees who faced firing navigate the bureaucracy, friends said Wednesday.