Social Studies December 2006

A Pariah's Triumph—and America's

Once in a blue moon a reporter meets a man who changes the world by the sheer force of will, character, and vision. Frank Kamney is such a man.

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.

Subject: "Interrogatory."

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japes that make fools of us all, the Library of Congress's sinister interrogation of its gay employee now reposes as a historical document in, yes, the Library of Congress.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.
  • Presented by

    Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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