Forty Years On | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Forty Years On

Frank Kameny takes the long view on the gay-rights movement

Forty years ago, the New York City Police Department staged a late night raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in Greenwich Village lacking a liquor license. This utterly routine event produced a reaction unlike anything New York’s finest had ever witnessed from lesbian and gay bar patrons, whom they had persecuted for decades without ever encountering a particle of resistance.

In the immortal words of Storme DeLaverie, a cross-dressing lesbian and a famous night club performer, “The cop hit me, and I hit him back.” This had never happened before.

Whether or not Ms. DeLaverie was the lesbian who sparked the most famous riot in gay history remains a matter of fierce dispute. But what happened next is a matter of record: a wildly unlikely collection of drag queens, gay teenagers, and their instantly-revolutionized elders suddenly rose up against their oppressors. First they threw coins at the cops (“This is your payoff”); then rocks; then someone shouted “gay power” and someone else lifted a parking meter out of the ground to use it as a battering ram against the barricaded door of the Stonewall. “The homosexuals were usually very docile, quiet people,” remembered deputy police inspector Seymour Pine. “But this night was different…I had been in combat situations, but there was never any time that I felt more scared than that.”

In the twinkling of a mascara-shaded eye, the streets of New York gave birth to a revolution whose echoes would eventually be heard in every country in the world. The riots were given scant coverage in the daily press, but the New York Daily News did produce one brilliant headline about it, as accurate as it was concise:
                                  
    Homo Nest Raided;
    Queen Bees are Stinging Mad

Within weeks there was an explosion of organizational activity, as lesbians and gays finally followed the path of the soldiers in the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement to claim their rightful place inside America. One month after the riot, the newly created Gay Liberation Front produced one of its first pamphlets. This was its headline:

    YOU THINK HOMOSEXUALS ARE REVOLTING
    YOU BET YOUR SWEET ASS WE ARE.

One of the most important reasons why progress would come so rapidly was a man named Frank Kameny. A World War II combat veteran with a Harvard Ph.D in astronomy, Kameny started his own battle for equal rights twelve years before the Stonewall Riot, when he was fired from the U.S. Army Map Service in 1957 because he was gay. Kameny filed the first federal law suit to challenge the executive order banning gays from employment by the federal government and all of its contractors, an order that had been signed by Dwight Eisenhower in 1953. Four years later, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear Kameny’s case, but he remained unbowed. Over the next two decades, he would be responsible for most of the intellectual and strategic framework for the burgeoning gay movement.

In 1963, Kameny and five friends, including Jack Nichols, who became his essential co-conspirator, formed their own (unidentified) gay contingent to participate in Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. In 1964, Kameny convinced the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to take the case of another federal employee who had been fired because he was gay; until then, even the ACLU had explicitly supported the constitutionality of anti-sodomy laws and Eisenhower’s executive order banning gays from the government.

Then Kameny took what would be his most important step of all. He decided to make his own scientific examination of the psychiatric literature that described homosexuality as a pathology.
 
“As we got into things it became very clear that one of the major stumbling blocks to any progress was going to be this attribution of sickness,” Kameny told me many years ago. “An attribution of mental illness in our culture is devastating, and it’s something which is virtually impossible to get beyond. So the first thing was to find out if this was factually based or not. I had no idea what I was going to find. So I looked, and I was absolutely appalled.”

Everything Kameny encountered was “sloppy, slovenly, slipshod, sleazy science–social and cultural and theological value judgments, cloaked and camouflaged in the language of science, without any of the substance of science. There was just nothing there…. All psychiatry assumed that homosexuality is psychopathological.”

“It was garbage in, garbage out.”

This discovery led Kameny to a revolutionary pronouncement in New York in 1964–nearly as shocking to gay people as it was to everyone else: “I take the stand that not only is homosexuality not immoral, but that homosexual acts engaged in by consenting adults are moral, in a positive and real sense, and are right, good and desirable, both for the individual participants and for the society in which they live.” 

A year later, the New York chapter of the Matachine society, one of the earliest gay groups, endorsed Kameny’s view with a two thirds vote–over the vociferous objections of a reactionary gay minority, who refused to believe that their orientation was not an illness.

In 1968, Kameny coined the phrase “Gay is good”–after seeing Stokely Carmichael declare on television, “Black is beautiful!”

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association adopted the view Kameny had promoted with others that homosexuality should be removed from its list of psychiatric disorders. This was probably his single most important accomplishment.

So it was especially appropriate last week that Frank Kameny, now 82, was standing to the president’s left in the Oval Office when Barack Obama signed a memorandum modestly improving the rights of domestic partners of federal employees. And it was Kameny to whom the president handed the pen he had used to sign the memorandum.

This was not an event Kameny had anticipated when he led the first gay picket line outside the White House in 1965, demanding an end to discrimination against gay employees. “FIFTEEN MILLION U.S. HOMOSEXUALS PROTEST FEDERAL TREATMENT” read the placard carried by Jack Nichols, an artifact now part of the political history collection of the Smithsonian’s National History Museum, which accepted Kameny’s 70,000 documents and pieces of memorabilia three years ago.

“This whole thing felt like a story book,” Kameny said about last week’s event. “Everybody lived happily ever after. The president was very well briefed: he was aware that he and I–in different years–share Harvard University in our background.”

Unfortunately, although Kameny’s name was mentioned in the pool report written about the Oval Office event, neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post mentioned Kameny’s presence at the ceremony–an oversight akin to leaving Martin Luther King Jr. out of the story when Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (even though that law was vastly more significant than Obama’s modest memorandum).

Why was Kameny ignored–except in the caption of a page one photograph of the ceremony on the front page of The Washington Times? Because no ordinary political reporter in Washington knows anything about gay issues, and, therefore, none of them has any idea who Kameny is–even though Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas finally got his paper to profile Kameny (for the first time) four years ago. 

The ignorance of the White House reporters is regrettable but understandable, and when FCP contacted Scott Wilson of The Washington Post to ask him why he had left Kameny out, he at least had the good grace to apologize for being too ignorant to have realized how important Kameny was. “I wish I could do it over,” Wilson said.

On the other hand, when New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters wrote last Sunday about “Why the gay movement has no national leader” in the Week in Review section, his omission of Kameny a few days after his appearance at the White House was unconscionable. When FCP castigated Peters in an e-mail for leaving Kameny out of his story, Peters replied, “I am very familiar with who Mr. Frank Kameny is. But the fact of the matter is that if you were to ask Americans if they recognized his name, the vast, vast majority would not be able to say yes.” 

Which, of course, is because of the incompetence of generations of reporters like Mr. Peters.

What the Washington reporters who missed Kameny’s presence in the Oval Office focused on instead was the dissatisfaction of other gay leaders with Obama’s failure so far to redeem his promises from the campaign trail, especially his repeated pledge to end the military’s idiotic policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

But here again the MSM has completely ignored the main reason for unhappiness within the gay movement: a widespread belief that Obama could suspend the policy all by himself, even though it was enacted by Congress in 1993.

The Palm Center, a unit of the Institute for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the main source of most of the hard data about the disastrous effects of the current DADT policy. Its director is Aaron Belkin, who recently told an interviewer, “I think that issue after issue after issue, when it comes to gay rights, there is quite a divide between candidate Obama and President Obama.”

The Palm Center’s senior research fellow is Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, the definitive volume on this subject, which was published last spring to great acclaim. The book proved that the current DADT policy was based entirely on prejudice, rather than on any hard data proving that allowing gay people to serve openly would damage the military.

During the Obama transition, the Palm Center put together a team of legal scholars who concluded that the president could suspend Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell through a stop-loss order–but no one reading The New York Times or The Washington Post would know that.

“At first the White House wasn’t 100 percent sure they could do this,” said veteran gay activist Ethan Geto. “But they have since concluded that the president can do this.”

“People said, ‘We don’t want to Clintonize Obama,’” Geto continued, referring to the political damage Clinton suffered from his efforts to end the ban on gays in the military in 1993. “But 2009 is tremendously different from 1993. The culture has had a massive change; the reality is, every major poll in this country shows that an overwhelming majority of American voters support immediate repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. So there is no political trap for Barack Obama here, in doing something unilaterally like a suspension of the policy.”

The other move that enraged many gay activists was the filing the government made in court in defense of the Defense of Marriage Act–even though Obama reiterated in the Oval Office last week that he favors the law’s repeal. Activists were particularly furious that the filing compared gay marriage to incest–another fact no New York Times reporter has managed to mention so far in any of their stories about DOMA.

Interestingly, the sexual orientation of an MSM reporter seems to have no effect whatsoever on his competence in discussing these issues. Jeff Zeleny is an openly gay White House correspondent for The New York Times. But when he was asked about this subject by Gwen Ifill on PBS’s Washington Week, Zeleny was unable to articulate a single sentence about the substance of any of gay issues currently facing the president–except to say that gay leaders were disappointed that Obama had failed to extend healthcare benefits to the spouses of federal employees.

As the man who has been fighting these battles longer than everyone else, Frank Kameny naturally takes the longest view on the matter. He said he is “very, very concious” of the criticism of the president–but he does not agree with it.

“That abominable brief that was filed in the DOMA case in California does have them embarrassed in the White House,” said Kameny. “And a lot of people have been blaming Obama for that. Obviously it’s self-evident that something like that was written by some two-bit, lower-level flunky. A lot of people seem to visualize it being written at a conference in the Oval Office presided over by Obama. Well, it’s nonsense.”

Kameny noted that a bill to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is moving through the Congress, and it already has more than 140 co-sponsors in the House. On the Defense of Marriage Act, the president “has indicated very clearly–and unmistakably restated on Wednesday afternoon–that he wants it to be repealed–but he can’t repeal DOMA until they put a bill on his desk from over in the capital. He can bring certain elements of pressure on Congress, but ultimately Congress is Congress, and it’s its own master.”

“Meanwhile he has a hideous economic mess to straighten out,” Kameny continued.  “And of course the whole far right and the conservatives are opposed to him tooth and nail. So he has to deal with all of that. So I’m willing to sit and wait.”
 
“I can understand why people are reacting as they are. But I’m not part of that kind of counter-reaction.”