A Pariah's Triumph—and America's
What one employee at the Library of Congress did for the gay rights movement
The memo is dated June 28, 1962. Reading it, one can scarcely believe that it was written as recently as 44 years ago.
From: Director of Personnel, Library of Congress.
To: Nevin R. Feather, a library employee.
The library, it begins, "has received a report concerning you." It "has been reported" that "you had permitted a man to perform a homosexual act (fellatio) on you. 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." Enjoyed embracing! "Is this report true?"
At the bottom of the page, appended as a hurried note, is a plea for help. "I must admit I am quite shook-up over this matter," Nevin Feather wrote to Franklin Kameny. "Please advise me."
The disposition of Nevin Feather's case is lost to history, but the memo is not. In one of those cosmic japes that make fools of us all, the Library of Congress's sinister interrogation of its gay employee now reposes as a historical document in, yes, the Library of Congress. There it joins company with the diaries of George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, the papers of Thurgood Marshall and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and 16,000 other document collections spanning 60 million pages.
Accompanying Feather's interrogatory are about 70,000 other of Kameny's papers, which were formally donated to the library in October. "His papers document the evolution of the gay-rights movement from its marginal beginning to broader acceptance in the political and social arena," says John Haynes, a historian with the library's manuscript division. Meanwhile, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History acquired the picket signs carried in the nation's first gay civil-rights demonstration, which Kameny organized and led in 1965.
The bestower of these documents and mementos is alive and well at 81 and, naturally, pleasantly surprised. "We would never have imagined," he said in a recent interview. "If anyone had told us, when we were scrambling around on our hands and knees on somebody's living room floor with poster board making signs, that those very signs would end up in the Smithsonian with Thomas Jefferson's desk and Abraham Lincoln's inkwell, we would have thought they were nuts."
I am no impartial observer. In fact, I donated some money to help finance the gift of Kameny's papers. Still, I believe my judgment is reliable when I say that once in a blue moon a reporter meets a man who changes the world by sheer force of will, character, and vision, and that Frank Kameny qualifies. Consider the record.
In 1957, the U.S. Army Mapping Service fired Kameny over allegations of homosexual activity. That he held a Harvard Ph.D. in astronomy and was a front-line combat veteran of World War II mattered not at all. As the chairman of the U.S. Civil Service Commission would later put it in correspondence to him, "If an individual… were to publicly proclaim that he engages in homosexual conduct, that he prefers such relationships, that he is not sick or emotionally disturbed, and that he simply has different sexual preferences… the commission would be required to find such an individual unsuitable for federal employment."
Disgraced, Kameny was unable to find another job in his field. For a time, he found himself living on 20 cents of food a day. Instead of slinking away, however, he appealed his firing up through the executive branch and then to the congressional Civil Service committees. Failing, he sued the government. He lost. And then? Here is what he did.
* In 1961, he organized the Mattachine Society of Washington, a pioneering gay-rights group. Under its auspices, he bombarded the government with letters, receiving replies like "Please do not contaminate my mail with such filthy trash" (from a member of Congress), and "Your letter of August 28 has been received, and in reply may I state unequivocally that in all my six years of service in the United States Congress I have not received such a revolting communication."
* Beginning in the early 1960s, he represented dozens of civil servants attempting to save their jobs or to obtain security clearances. Partly as a result, in 1975 the civil service lifted its ban on employing homosexuals. Bans on security clearances lasted longer but also fell.
* In 1971, he ran for the District of Columbia's newly created delegate seat, becoming the first openly gay person to run for Congress (and possibly the second to run for any public office). Announcing his candidacy, he said, "This is OUR country, OUR society, and OUR government—for homosexuals quite as much as for heterosexuals. We are homosexual American citizens." He promised, "You will be hearing much from us in the next 30 days, and long thereafter." Today there are more than 350 openly gay elected officials in America. One of them, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., is about to become chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.
* In 1965, Kameny's Washington Mattachine Society issued a path-breaking public declaration that "homosexuality is not a sickness, disturbance, or other pathology in any sense." In 1973, after years of protest and persuasion by Kameny and others, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the list of mental disorders, perhaps the largest mass cure ever effected.
* Beginning in 1963, Kameny campaigned tirelessly for the revocation of D.C.'s sodomy law. The repeal was signed in 1993. It took, he says, "30 years, one month, four days, and 11 hours."
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.