Historic Record

Commentary: OutRight: Excerpts from the Archives of Frank Kameny

Franklin Kameny was, as they say, a pioneer of the early days of the modern gay civil rights movement. Before even the 1969 Stonewall riot in New York, in days when 49 of 50 states banned sodomy (and meant it), when the police routinely raided gay bars and arrested patrons for dancing together or for no reason at all, when the America Psychiatric Association still considered homosexuality a mental disorder, when homosexuality was a disqualification from any federal employment, when the FBI was busy monitoring and harassing nascent gay political groups, Kameny was leading the very first demonstrations of homosexuals in front of the White House and generally giving the government hell for its anti-gay policies.

Now an octogenarian, Kameny has kept almost all of his letters and other documents and pictures from the early 1960s on. That’s very fortunate for anyone interested in the history of the movement. What’s worrisome, however, is that none of this precious material has yet found a permanent and safe home in a library or other collection where it can be made available to researchers and, most importantly, be preserved for posterity. An effort is underway to change that.

Some of Kameny’s archives have now been collected at a Web site called ”The Kameny Papers” (www.kamenypapers.org), set up run and by Charles Francis. Francis is raising money for the effort to preserve this original source material. The site is worth a visit if you have any interest in the subject at all. The pictures, including marvelous color photos of the original 1965 White House pickets, can be found under the ”Memorabilia” tab.

Much more interesting and often heart-breaking, however, is the material under the tab ”Correspondence.” Some highlights:

  • In 1961, Kameny founded the Mattachine Society in Washington, D.C., an association devoted to ending discrimination against gays. He wrote polite letters to members of Congress introducing himself, explaining the purposes of the Society, and offering to meet with them. Rep. Paul C. Jones (D-Mo.) responded by scribbling the following note on the letter and returning it to Kameny: ”I am unalterably opposed to your proposal and cannot see how any person in his right mind can condone the practices which you would justify. Please do not contaminate my mail with such filthy trash.”
  • Rep. Charles Chamberlain (R-Mich.), who now has a federal building named after him in Grand Rapids, responding to the same letter from Kameny with this: ”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.”
  • A letter from the APA in 1963, 10 years before it would remove homosexuality from its list of disorders, refusing even to meet with Kameny’s group or to ”publicize your meetings.”
  • Vice President Hubert Humphrey writing to Kameny in 1965 that federal civil rights laws are not ”relevant to the problems of homosexuals.”
  • A 1962 letter to an employee of the Library of Congress informing him that the library had ”received a report concerning you,” asking whether he had performed a homosexual act, whether he was attracted to other men, whether he had been in bed with men, and whether he ”enjoyed embracing them.” The letter concludes, ”I am quite shook-up over this matter” and requests an interview with the employee as soon as possible. I can only imagine how terrified the employee must have been.
  • A 1962 letter from Kameny to attorney general Robert Kennedy asking him to ”halt immediately” the FBI’s investigation and infiltration of Mattachine and the interrogation of its members.
  • A memorandum from the FBI (headed by J. Edgar Hoover at the time) urging that the Attorney General not respond to Kameny’s letter and justifying its harassment of Mattachine as part of the investigation of ”crimes perpetrated by sex deviates,” as homosexuals were commonly called at the time. Alas, large parts of the memo are blacked out.
  • A 1973 memo from Kameny to his supporters describing the sequence of events that led the APA to remove homosexuality from its list of disorders or, in his words, ”’curing’ us all, instantaneously, en masse, in one fell swoop, by semantics and by vote, rather than by therapy.”

There’s much more on the Web site.

Let’s hope the whole archives will be publicly available soon. You can help make that happen by donating to the effort.

For information on the Kameny Papers Project, contact Charles Francis at ccfrancis@aol.com. Dale Carpenter is a law professor. He can be reached at OutRight@metroweekly.com.