Frank Kameny’s Brief for Gay Rights

In 1961, Frank Kameny, the pioneering gay-rights activist who was fired from his government job because of his homosexuality, asked the Supreme Court to intervene. The court ignored him and his appeal was forgotten—until now.

Frank’s Supreme Court petition has resurfaced and is now in print via Amazon Kindle, courtesy of Charles Francis and the Kameny Papers project. It’s short; read it. At the very least, buy it (proceeds go to benefit Frank). It is a staggering document, not just of historical value but still, 50 years later, a summa of what the gay civil-rights movement is (or should be) about.

Later in the 1960s, with the emergence of the countercultural left and the counter-countercultural response from the religious right, gay rights became a left-wing movement. (As one activist put it in the 1970s: “Never forget, what this movement is about is fucking.”) Frank, from the start, set his sights much, much higher, drawing a straight line from the Declaration of Independence and the Founders to gay individuals’ right to be left alone and choose their own destiny. The natural home for Kameny’s rhetoric and argumentation is the libertarian right, not the left. The voices he channels are those of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson:

In World War II, petitioner did not hesitate to fight the Germans, with bullets, in order to help preserve his rights and freedoms and liberties, and those of others.  In 1960, it is ironically necessary that he fight the Americans, with words, in order to preserve, against a tyrannical government, some of those same rights, freedoms and liberties, for himself and others.

In a more rational country, gay equality would have been a conservative cause.

When I say the document is staggering, I’m thinking of passages like this:

Petitioner asserts, flatly, unequivocally, and absolutely uncompromisingly, that homosexuality, whether by mere inclination or by overt act, is not only not immoral, but that for those choosing voluntarily to engage in homosexual acts, such acts are moral in a real and positive sense, and are good, right, and desirable, socially and personally.

Imagine the vision and courage it took to say that…to the U.S. Supreme Court!…in 1961! He’s saying that being gay shouldn’t just be tolerated. It shouldn’t even be merely accepted. It should be admired!

Half a century later, when 43 percent of Americans still tell Gallup that homosexuality is morally wrong, and when many gays are still reflexively hostile to the classical liberal tradition, the country is still struggling to catch up with Frank; but now, at least, we can all recognize this amazing man for the prophet he was. See for yourself.

14 Comments for “Frank Kameny’s Brief for Gay Rights”

  1. posted by Lymis on

    The link at the end of the article doesn’t seem to work. I get a 404 error.

  2. posted by BobN on

    In a more rational country, gay equality would have been a conservative cause.

    In a more rational country, gay equality would have been a bipartisan cause. And it was, at least to some degree, until Reagan made his pact with the devil. Stop claiming that “equality” is some sort of conservative goal. It rings false as the GOP has blocked the equality of every “special interest” group that has come along.

  3. posted by Jorge on

    Oh, give it a rest already, BobN. There is nothing wrong with an honest assessment of a historical figure and the movement that followed. Mr. Rauch already stated that things moved in a different direction. Stop being such a sourpuss every time a post here leans even a little wistfully rightest.

    Personally I think the second exerpt here leans strongly social conservative rightest.

    • posted by BobN on

      There is nothing wrong with an honest assessment…

      I’m sure I would agree, should one happen to pop up.

      A little “wistfully rightest” is fine. Heck, I’m sad that the right abandoned us in the 70s. I’ve got no problem with anyone getting all misty-eyed about what might have been. But let’s be clear, a right-centered gay-rights movement was in the cards by any stretch of the imagination.

      • posted by Jorge on

        You mean Mr. Rauch is lying?

        Now you’re conceding just about everything he’s said. I think you should save the warmongering for later.

  4. posted by BobN on

    damn… wasn’t

    I really need to re-read after revising.


  5. posted by Wilberforce on

    Thanks BobN. I agree.
    I also note how they use they libertarian right as if it were more than the intellectually bancrupt, bait and switch tactic of the republican party. And then trying to claim Jefferson and Paine for today’s right wing? Please. There is no shame.
    Finally, other than the courage of saying it to the Court, I don’t understand Kameny’s claim that gay sex is admirable. Come on. Sex is sex, whether gay, straight, or indifferent. Admirable traits include kindness and integrity. Sex is a biological function. Saying it’s admirable is like being proud of the hairy legs. I didn’t earn them, so why make a fuss?

  6. posted by Wilberforce on

    Let me put in my three cents.
    I was raised by a business republican. If they were a tad selfish, they were also educated people with whom you could argue and find common ground.
    The Reagan revolution brought in millions of unedcated hicks. Ever since, the party has been laughable, filled with people who don’t know jack about American culture, history, or values. A perfect example is the witless claims you regularly see on this site. It’s too pathetic.

  7. posted by Houndentenor on

    Politics aside, it’s good to be reminded that there were people fighting for gay rights before the Stonewall Riots of 1969.

  8. posted by George on

    My lover and I were only a few minutes earlier saluting our predecessors when I happened upon Jonathan’s piece about Frank Kameny.
    I’m not as aware of our history as I’d like to be, and I don’t recall much about his fight to be free, but as Houndentenor noted, it’s nice to read about someone fighting for our rights before Stonewall. I agree that sex isn’t any more admirable for being gay sex, but it sure is a delight.
    I appreciate those who fought before us, and it might just be that we are all just trying to keep up with Frank.

  9. posted by Wilberforce on

    Houndentenor and George,
    Thanks, you guys, for returning to topic. I get distracted sometimes. It’s wonderful to remember brave queens. But I also like to think about our great people: Turing, von Stueben, Lincoln, etc…

    • posted by Houndentenor on

      I’m more prone to get sucked into a tangential argument than anyone I know. I guess it makes gay conservatives feel better to imagine a world where the right was for gay rights. It’s rather silly to argue over alternate realities. If I wanted to do that I’d find a board and argue over which Green Lantern was the best. (Hal Jordan, duh!)

  10. posted by Justin on

    “In a more rational country, gay equality would have been a conservative cause.”

    Don’t we have to take the world as we find it? You are talking like there is some Platonic form of conservatism floating around in the sky. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, conservative is as conservative does. Conservatives in this country are by far the largest, most influential antagonists of gay equality. There is no denying that. Saying that those people aren’t true conservatives is like saying extremists and terrorists aren’t true Muslims. They would certainly beg to differ!

  11. posted by Tom Jefferson on

    I am not sure I accept the notion that the brief is ‘conservative’ or that gay rights ought to be ‘conservative’.

    The 1961 brief is indeed brave and bold, but it seems to make the sort of basically liberal ‘civil rights’ arguments that were made made around the same time for racial, religious and ethnic minorities. Then, these arguments were generally supported by liberals and opposed by conservatives.

    Yes, in the late 1960s – 1970s a more angry and confrontational ‘radical’ bent to civil rights movements [as well as the opponents to civil rights] started to become more common and got more news publicity.

    I think that — in general – American political culture started to get much, much more cynical, meaner and polarized during this era.
    I blame the electoral system, frustration/fear with the pace of change, and the fact that (at least in the short term) it worked or got someone something that they wanted (money or power or attention).

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