Remembering Frank Kameny

I was in San Francisco yesterday, about to go on stage to deliver a National Coming Out Day lecture, when I learned of the death of Frank Kameny. He was 86, and he died peacefully at home, apparently of heart failure.

Frank is a giant of the gay rights movement, and I hope his passing gets the attention it deserves—both to honor a great man, and to remind everyone of important but neglected chapters of our history. When Dr. Franklin Kameny was fired from his government job in 1957 for being gay, there was no national gay civil rights movement. It took pioneers like him to make it happen.

A Harvard-trained Ph.D. and World War II veteran, Frank lost his job as an Army Map Service astronomer for being a homosexual. Unsure of his future employability and outraged by the injustice, he petitioned all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. That firing and subsequent refusal sparked a tireless lifetime of activism.

(Incidentally, in 2009 the Federal Office of Personnel Management finally issued Frank a formal apology for the firing. In his inimitable style, he promptly replied that he was looking forward to his five decades of back pay.)

In 1961 Frank co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington D.C.—a “homophile organization” based on the original group in California.  Soon thereafter, in 1963, he began a decades-long campaign to revoke D.C.’s sodomy law. He personally drafted the repeal bill that was passed 30 years later.

In 1965, he picketed in front of the White House for gay rights. Signs from that demonstration, stored in his attic for decades, are now in the Smithsonian’s collection.

In 1971, he became the first openly gay person to run for Congress. (He came in fourth, which itself was a kind of victory given the anti-gay sentiment of the era.) He was instrumental in the battle that led to the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973. He continued to fight over the decades against employment discrimination, sodomy laws, the military ban—unjust discrimination in all its forms.

Even in his 80s, Frank continued to send off pointed letters in pursuit of justice. He was fond of reminding me and other “young” activists, whenever he heard us complaining amongst ourselves, “Don’t tell us. Tell them. Contact the people who can do something about it.” (Even now I can hear his booming, irrepressible voice.) He served as an invaluable moral elder to me and multiple generations of gay activists, whom he constantly reminded of the slogan he coined in 1968: “Gay is good!”

One of my favorite personal experiences with him happened shortly after the 2004 documentary “Gay Pioneers” was released. Frank came to Detroit to speak at a screening of the film, and he visited my house for dinner. Frank was not much of a drinker, but when I offered after-dinner drinks in my living room, he asked if I had any peach schnapps. Oddly enough, I did, so I poured him some. Then some more, and more again, not really keeping track. Finally, when it was time to leave for the film, we all stood up…

…and Frank proceeded to trip over my coffee table and fall flat on the floor.

Everyone gasped. A news headline flashed before my mind: “Young gay writer kills veteran gay activist with cordial.” But then Frank laughed, spryly jumped up, and boomed in his unforgettable voice, “Too much peach schnapps!!!”

We proceeded to the movie, and as usual, Frank delivered a brilliant, commanding, rousing speech.

As soon as I fly home, I’ll be raising a glass of peach schnapps to Frank Kameny. Always remember: Gay is good.

Power (I’m Afraid) to the People

Leaders in the gay rights movement do us all a disservice — gay and straight alike — when they stir up passions over non-issues.  Yesterday’s argument in California’s Supreme Court over standing in the Prop. 8 case is the latest example of whipping people into a needless frenzy that will ultimately feed cynicism.

The case was not about any gay rights issue.  In the course of the proceedings over appealing the district court’s decision overturning Prop. 8, a fascinating and unique issue arose about whether the proponents of an initiative have standing in federal court to appeal it.  This question came up because neither the Governor nor the state Attorney General chose to appeal, leaving the proponents as the only ones willing to carry the burden.  However, under federal court rules, parties must have proper standing to bring the case to the court of appeal.  The federal courts have very limited jurisdiction over cases, unlike state courts.

Normally, some part of a state’s government will defend a citizen-initiated law if necessary.  But both the Governor and the Attorney General felt the court got it right, and declined.  The proponents, therefore, stepped in.  However, some cases have said initiative proponents don’t have standing in the federal courts.  But no case dealt with the issue here, where there is no one to defend an initiative except the proponents.

There is a far more at stake in this case than just gay equality.  In California, the courts have consistently ruled that the legislature — and the executive and the judiciary — have only derivative powers.  Those powers do not come from God, but from the people, who are the ultimate source of all government.  The Prop. 8 appeal brings that into the spotlight.  If the government will not defend a law passed by the people using their superior legislative power, and the proponents of that law cannot, themselves, defend it, then, in fact, the government is superior to the people, and can veto their efforts.

It is, of course, convenient for those of us who believe strongly in equality, to have the appeal die for want of a champion.  That is what made Ted Olson’s life so hard yesterday, as the justices hammered him about his theory.  Olson  is nothing less than a superstar, and watching him defend what is ultimately an indefensible position was a marvel.  We cannot be grateful enough to have him on our side.

There are certainly some significant legal questions around the edges of what he was proposing, and it was a joy watching him try to tempt the judges with those.  But Justice Carol Corrigan called him out for “nibbling” at these distractions.  The real issue in this case is whether the government can nullify a vote of the people by denying them a voice in the federal courts.  If this is a gay issue, it means that gay rights requires placing our complete and total trust in the government, now and forever.  We’re fortunate in this case that our interests are aligned with those of California’s current politicians.  I’m very skeptical about this as a permanent rule, though.

I have no doubt at all that Prop. 8 is a violation of the federal constitution, and that the district court’s ruling will finally be upheld.  But the easy win will come at too great a cost.  The corruption and overreach in California’s legislature in 1911 that led to the initiative is never far from my mind.  Even when I agree with the political branches on the merits, as I do here, I think it is too dangerous to aggrandize the government at the expense of the people’s ultimate authority over government.  While I think the majority vote was invalid under the federal constitution, I’d rather give that majority its voice in the courts now, and maintain for the future the ability to control the state government if that ever becomes necessary again.

And when “we” ultimately lose this case (I will not be surprised to see a 7-0 vote in favor of the proponents), I hope the anger is not directed at the courts.  That is the risk of the fund-raising tactics that drive these non-issues — that the anger and fear our leaders are stirring up will be misdirected.  The Prop. 8 case, itself, is our issue as lesbians and gay men.  The standing case is our issue only to the extent we are citizens who have an interest in how much power we have granted to our government.

Are NPR and Maggie Gallagher Missing the Boat?

Andrew Sullivan is excerpting a fascinating debate he titles, “Embracing the Bias,” about the dilemma NPR faces over its surprising to no one tilt toward the left.  One of the key bones of contention is whether NPR should just say outright, yes, we are sort of leftish, but unlike Fox News, we’ll own up to our bias and honestly try to be fair rather than just asserting it.

As much as I’d like to endorse that kind of full disclosure, it presupposes, as the lawyers say, a fact not in evidence.  Lesbians and gay men should be more attuned than most to the fact that in a whole lot of cases, people don’t recognize their own bias.  On the contrary, they can understand what others view as bias as some sort of natural order.

When Maggie Gallagher takes umbrage at being called a bigot or worse, she is sincerely expressing her view that the world she grew up in and understands is entirely neutral and correct.  Her incredulity comes from the notion that such a uniform history of acknowledging heterosexual marriage holds no bias against homosexual couples.

And, speaking historically, she is not wrong. I don’t think the long, confounding and ongoing development of marriage came out of a bias against same-sex couples, it just came out of an ignorance of their existence.  It took all of that history, culminating late in the 20th Century, for lesbians and gay men to fully assert their public presence, much less their need for the same legal recognition of their relationships that heterosexuals take for granted.

But just because there was no intent to discriminate against same-sex couples in, say, the 16th Century doesn’t mean that the effect of that unawareness isn’t discriminatory today.  Gallagher has set herself up as the ambassador of that obliviousness.  If history isn’t biased, how could she and her followers be?  What is wrong with people?

What Gallagher can’t see (or won’t acknowledge) is what a gathering majority can no longer blind itself to.  Lesbians and gay men do exist, do fall in love, do form relationships, do raise children.  The law’s neglect of them is now clear to anyone who wants to see it.

But those who keep their blinkers on do, in fact, begin to look biased, look like they really don’t want to see something that is right in front of their eyes.  Perhaps that isn’t really bigotry or hate, but it looks so willful, so harsh, so mean.

Maybe it is always hard for us to recognize our own biases, too easy to mistake them for justice when, in fact, their injustice is only still coming into view.  It would be so nice if Gallagher and NPR and everyone could stand back from their deeply held beliefs and examine them fully.  But history proves that’s hard.

On a lot of subjects, now, we don’t know what bias is.  How can we expect people to admit something we don’t have agreement on the boundaries of?  If NPR doesn’t see their bias as bias, they can do no more about it than Gallagher can, and will be missing many of the same cultural shifts that are happening right under their nose.