Framk Kameny National Memorial Service Remarks

Rmarks by William Eskridge: The river that does not lose its name

by William N. Eskridge Jr.

{ITAL Editor's note: Bob Witeck reported the tribute was held in the Cannon Caucus Room on Capitol Hill which served as the venue for hearings held by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. HUAC gave a platform for members of Congress to skewer gays for "criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral or notoriouosly disgraceful conduct." The speakers included Charles Francis of Kaneny Papers Project, William Eskridge, Professor of Jurispurdence at Yale University, three members of Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton(D-DC), Barney Frank (D-MA), and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) along with John Berry, Director of the Office of Personnel Management.

Not speaking but also attending the program were David Cicilline (D-RI) and Jared Polis (D-CO). We also welcomed Virginia senator-elect Adam Ebbin and both Gautam Raghavan and Shin Inouye from the White House, and DC Councilmembers Jim Graham and David Catania.}

Memorial Service for Dr. Franklin Edward Kameny, U.S. House of Representatives, November 15, 2011

In his poem Aristotle, Billy Collins reimagines the cycle of life laid out by the Greek philosopher, namely, beginning, middle, and end. The poet compares the end of life with "the car running out of road, the river losing its name in the ocean."

Franklin Edward Kameny (1925-2011) drove himself and others very hard. On Oct. 11, 2011, his powerful automotive life force did indeed run out of road. But, contrary to the poet's lament, at his death Frank was not a "river losing its name in the ocean."

Notorious for much of his life as an "avowed homosexual" (as the late Chief Justice Rehnquist put it), Frank Kameny is a name that will not be swallowed up in the great ocean that is history. The reason is this: Frank was a leader-The Leader-of one of the great human rights campaigns in the twentieth century, namely, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Rights Movement.

To give you an idea of Frank Kameny's important role in this social movement, consider the variety of roles that he played:

�Frank was the Rosa Parks of the LGBT Rights Movement, namely, the uppity homosexual who would not sit in the back of the bus and whose defiance would galvanize thousands of colleagues to resist as well; and

�Frank was also the Martin Luther King Jr. of the LGBT Rights Movement, namely, the greatest grass roots organizer, the strategist, the inspirational wordsmith who commanded a minority political movement; and

�Frank was also the Thurgood Marshall of the LGBT Rights Movement, namely, the legal genius who best translated the social movement's norms and principles into constitutional arguments.

It is a stunning achievement that one person could have played all of these roles. It is jaw-dropping that such a person played these roles for a number of years with virtually no social, financial, or political support. And miraculous that Frank's central goal-completely equal treatment for LGBT citizens-now saturates the American culture that it has transformed.

Let me explain each role in more detail.

1. The Uppity Homosexual. Although the McCarthy Era is known for its anti-Communist witch hunts and purges, only handfuls of Communists were uncovered and expelled. Less well-known is that the McCarthy Era also targeted "homosexuals and other sex perverts" within the civil service. And thousands (not handfuls) of gay, bisexual, and lesbian civil servants were witch-hunted and dismissed from the federal civil service in the 1950s; thousands more were purged from state and local government service, especially from the public schools.

Almost all of the lesbian and gay government employees dismissed or persecuted during the 1950s went away, meekly into the night; at death, their names were indeed lost in the ocean of history. But meekness was not Frank's way, nor anonymity his fate.

Instead of accepting defeat and the end of his professional life, Frank Kameny vehemently and publically objected to his dismissal from the Army Map Service. Legally, he fought the government's arbitrary action all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. The liberal Warren Court unanimously rejected his petition for review in January 1961, a half century ago.

During the pendency of his constitutional and legal challenges to the validity of his dismissal from federal service, Frank Kameny was the most famous "homosexual" in America. In itself, this infamy required physical as well as moral bravery.

It was dangerous to be an openly gay person in the United States when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as President in January 1961. Such a "homosexual" or "sex pervert" was, literally, an outlaw, an enemy of the state who could be arrested for private sex with his boyfriend or committed lover. The "homosexual" was also, as a matter of medical consensus, a crazy person, namely, someone who tended to have a psychopathic personality disorder. In many states and the District of Columbia, "sexual psychopaths" (i.e., "homosexuals and other sex perverts") could be committed to mental institutions and subjected to electrical and pharmacological experimentation and torture.

Notwithstanding the threat of private as well as public violence against her, Rosa Parks bravely refused to sit in the back of the bus. Likewise, Frank Kameny bravely refused to sulk at home after his dismissal from federal employment. Parks sat down for equal treatment; Kameny stood up for it. Both changed the face of America.

2. The Political Grass-Roots Organizer. Frank Kameny was also the most determined, energetic, successful grass-roots politician for the LGBT rights movement-even when the activist gay community consisted of five to ten "avowed homosexuals."

Exactly fifty years ago today, on Nov. 15, 1961, Frank formally re-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington. Mattachine groups in the western United States, and an earlier chapter in Washington, DC were timid groups; they petitioned society for tolerance of the sad "homosexual." Frank would have nothing to do with a group that presented its members as pitiable creatures begging for society's tolerance. The new Mattachine Society of Washington was the first of the Mattachine chapters to defend gay people as honorable citizens worthy of full respect and completely equal treatment.

Reflecting this new philosophy, the motto for the Mattachine Society of Washington soon crystallized in Frank's mind: Gay Is Good. Not just tolerable-but good! (At the same time, the civil rights movement was celebrating Black Is Beautiful. So Frank Kameny was also the Stokely Carmichael of the LGBT Rights Movement.)

Frank and his tiny band of rebels picketed the White House and the Civil Service Commission, brought lawsuits and counseled accused "homosexuals," wrote letters, and lobbied or even bullied important public officials - from Attorney General Robert Kennedy to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to President Richard Nixon.

In addition to his bold, and well-justified, ideas and slogans, Frank Kameny was a political genius in his ability to stimulate publicity dramatizing the injustice of anti-gay discrimination and to use public events to create lasting organizations.

Thus, he was a candidate in 1971 for the non-voting seat the District of Columbia was awarded in the House of Representatives (the seat my Georgetown colleague Eleanor Holmes Norton now holds). Although he did not prevail in the race, he finished ahead of the vocally anti-gay candidate and galvanized the LGBT community to form the Gay Activists Alliance.

Frank also orchestrated the first gay rights zap, and it was a bold one. When the American Psychiatric Association (APA) held its annual meeting in Washington, Frank and a few colleagues marched into their plenary session, commandeered the stage, and announced to the shocked shrinks, in Frank's megaphone voice: You are the Enemy. You are our Oppressors. You have Persecuted us, and you have got to Stop!

And the next year they did. In 1973, after an unprecedented referendum by its members, the APA decided that homosexuality was no longer evidence of mental illness or defect. In one zap, and the ensuing campaign of education and protest, Frank Kameny had liberated lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals from the medical stigma of craziness.

3. Legal Pioneer and Rights Entrepreneur. Dr. Frank Kameny had a Ph.D. in astronomy, but his life's work ended up being that of a lawyer without a J.D. And his legal work was among Frank's greatest accomplishments, as it translated the Gay Is Good philosophy into constitutional discourse that is still revolutionizing American constitutional law.

In his 1960 petition to the Supreme Court, Frank objected that the federal government's civil service discrimination because of sexual orientation is a core violation of the equal protection guarantee. Specifically, he argued that both race and sexual orientation are discriminatory classifications that ought to be treated as presumptively invalid, and for the same reasons. First, and most important, both kinds of discrimination rest upon prejudice and stereotypes and are thereby irrational and have no place in a merit-based system. Second, both kinds of discrimination are unfair to minority persons penalized. Third, judges must enforce constitutional rights here, because the political process is happy to scapegoat rather than protect despised minorities.

This amazing document laid out the central constitutional logic of the gay rights movement for the next half century. The Supreme Court adopted part of Frank's analysis in Romer v. Evans (1996), when it struck down an anti-gay initiative that the Justices felt was inspired by nothing but "animus." The Court in my lifetime will confirm the remainder of Frank's brief, when it finally agrees that sexual orientation has never been a rational basis for government decision making.

At the same time Frank and his Mattachine colleagues were asserting equal protection guarantees that had been pioneered by the civil rights movement, Frank and his ACLU colleagues were asserting constitutional privacy guarantees that had been pioneered by women's reproductive freedom movements. Specifically, in 1967, Frank and his allies persuaded the ACLU to reverse its earlier policy and demand that the consensual private activities of gay people be afforded the same constitutional privacy protections the Supreme Court had afforded married straight couples. In Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the Supreme Court, once again, agreed with Frank's arguments and liberated lesbians and gay men from the outlaw status bestowed upon them by laws criminalizing consensual sodomy.

For decades, Frank Kameny inspired and actively participated in every major campaign for lesbian and gay rights-from repealing or invalidating consensual sodomy laws, to revoking state employment discrimination against gay people, to creating affirmative laws barring discrimination because of sexual orientation, to recognizing lesbian and gay marriages and families. In every campaign, the Gay Is Good idea has prevailed or soon will prevail.

In the wake of his and our greatest triumphs, such as the end of consensual sodomy laws, and on the brink of still greater ones, like same-sex marriage, Frank Kameny passed away.

"This is the end," concludes poet Billy Collins, "what we have all been waiting for, what everything comes down to, the destination we cannot help imagining, a streak of light in the sky, a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves."

  • Latest News

Enter To Win

Enter contests to win great prizes like CDs, DVDs, concert tickets and more

This Week's Issue

Download or view this week's print issue today!