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A delectable, if backhanded, tribute to Kameny's accomplishments comes from Peter LaBarbera, an anti-gay activist. Protesting the Library of Congress's acquisition of Kameny's papers, LaBarbera wrote of Kameny, "He is brilliant but wasted his considerable intellect and talents on homosexual activism, which is a shame." Well, yes. Kameny might have had a brilliant scientific career -- if the government hadn't fired him for being homosexual. That was a shame.
Kameny, never a tall man, has shrunk 4 or 5 inches over the years. He used to revel in his vigorous stride but now walks, he says, "with little-old-man steps. I hate myself for it." The gay-rights agenda is dominated by marriage, the one major campaign that passed him by. Unchanged, however, is his voice, which has been compared, unfairly, to a foghorn (unfairly, that is, for the foghorn).
Also unchanged is his moral certitude, which is hard to compare to anything, and which almost transcends courage. "Courage," remarks Barney Frank, who has known Kameny for 26 years, "sometimes comes very close to a complete indifference to the opinions of those whom you hold in contempt. In Frank's case, that's a lot of people." It never seemed to have occurred to Kameny not to do what he did. "I was faced with a major issue," he says. "Something needed to be done, and it wasn't being done adequately."
In person, Kameny's tone remains today as stentorian, and sometimes strident, as in 1971, when he told the American Psychiatric Association's annual convention that psychiatry "has waged a relentless war of extermination against us." The voice in his voluminous correspondence strikes many of the same uncompromising notes. For example, in a 1968 letter he tells the House Un-American Activities Committee, "It is about time that our government called off its war upon us."
More striking in his correspondence, however, is an almost magisterial serenity. He exhibits an unshakable and unmistakably American confidence that all the great and mighty, no matter their number or power, must bow to one weak man who has the Founders' promise on his side. "We are honorable people who deal with others honorably and in good faith," he insisted to the Un-American Activities Committee. "We expect to be dealt with in the same fashion -- especially by our governmental officials." There you hear the pipsqueak, indomitable voice of equality.
For Kameny's papers to join Thurgood Marshall's and Daniel Patrick Moynihan's, and for his signs to join Jefferson's writing desk and Lincoln's inkwell, seems fitting. All of those men understood that the words of 1776 set in motion a moral engine unlike any the world had ever seen; and all understood that the logic of equality could be delayed but not denied. Kameny, like them, believed that the Declaration of Independence means exactly what it says, and like them he made its promise his purpose.
My partner, Michael, and I are among the millions who owe some large measure of our happiness to Kameny's pursuits. This Thanksgiving found me grateful that one pariah fought back, never imagining he could fail; even more grateful to live in a country with a conscience; most grateful of all to know that there are generations of Franklin Kamenys yet to be born.
© Copyright 2006 National Journal
Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and a frequent contributor to Reason. The article was originally published by National Journal.