Kameny’s protest was not the first time he protested discrimination by his government. After his firing, he petitioned the Supreme Court for relief. He wrote:
Not only are the government’s present policies on homosexuality irrational in themselves, but they are unreasonable in that they are grossly inconsistent with the fundamental precepts upon which this government is based. . . . we may commence with the Declaration of Independence, and its affirmation, as an “inalienable right” that of the “pursuit of happiness”. Surely a most fundamental, unobjectionable, and unexceptionable element in human happiness is the right to bestow affection upon and to receive affection from whom one wishes. Yet, upon pain of severe penalty, the government itself would abridge this right for the homosexual.
Those words in Kameny’s 1961 request for a hearing are considered the first of their kind to use the Declaration of Independence's opening words to make a civil rights argument for LGBTQ Americans. The Supreme Court not only ignored Kameny; it denied his petition without explanation. And it was that rejection that led to the protest in front of the White House four years later.
Forty-four years later, in 2009, Kameny was inside the Oval Office standing next to President Barack Obama, who handed the gay rights icon one of the pens he used to sign an executive order granting benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees. Charles Kaiser, author of “The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America,” told me about the conversation he had with Kameny after that visit. “I called Frank the next day and said, ‘How does it feel, Frank?’ — this man who had led a lonely picket line of 11 people outside the White House in 1965,” Kaiser recounted during an interview for my Washington Post podcast. “And Frank said, ‘I feel like the frog who turned into the prince.’” Kameny passed away in 2011.
After running for the Democratic presidential nomination against Biden, Buttigieg’s elevation Wednesday is something Kameny could have only dreamed of: America’s first openly LGBTQ Cabinet secretary-designate. A gay married man who is not only embraced by his government, but also called upon to serve in it. Just as they were on Buttigieg’s historic presidential campaign, he and his husband, Chasten, represent our nation’s promise and ideals.
That’s not to say that the arc of the moral universe has fully bent toward justice. While the Supreme Court made it illegal to fire someone for being LGBTQ, there is still a need to pass the Equality Act to codify the high court’s ruling. And we must not forget or ignore the violence and murder mercilessly stalking transgender women, particularly Black and Latinx transgender women.
One of the signs Kameny carried in front of the White House rests in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It reads, “Homosexual Citizens Want to Serve Their Country Too.” The nomination of Buttigieg is yet another reward for the sacrifices of Kameny and the other founding fathers and mothers of the LGBTQ rights movement. It is another step in the forward march from second-class citizenship to integral participants in the American story.
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