2024-07-18 3:19 AM

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 53: Franklin Kameny & the Birth of Our Movement

It was by a remarkable and gracious coincidence that the first weekend after the passing of our gay movement’s greatest pioneer, Franklin Kameny, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was dedicated on the National Mall.

The ceremony included a viewing of the entirety of Dr. King’s 17-minute “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to 300,000 in the “Great March on Washington” of August 28, 1963, the year of the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Seven of the handful of original gay members of the Mattachine Society of Washington, led by Kameny, attended that historic rally and heard that speech. It was with its echoes ringing in their ears that in 1965, Kameny and a tiny cadre of fellow homosexuals carried out the first-ever organized picket line demanding homosexual equality held at the White House gates.

In his 1963 speech, Dr. King welcomed the racially-diverse makeup of the rally. “Many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom,” he intoned.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal,” Dr. King declared. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

That speech directly inspired the rise of our modern gay movement, led by Kameny (May 21, 1925-October 11, 2011), Lilli Vincenz, Barbara Gittings and a handful of others, as chronicled in the film documentary, “Gay Pioneers” (2004), produced by the Philadelphia Equality Forum.

Frank Kameny, I am proud to say, was my friend in recent years. He was arguably the single most seminal influence in the history of our movement, so claimed at a Rainbow History Project forum last week. Kameny was scheduled to speak at that forum before his untimely death at age 86 just two days before.

His was the strident, compelling force that led the effort against the 1950s McCarthyite anti-homosexual witch hunts in the government (David K. Johnson, “The Lavender Scare, The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government,” 2004).

He organized picket lines when no one else was doing it and carried on a relentless, lifelong fight for equality. He ran for public office and railed loudly against injustice in an era when no one, except in rarefied circles of literary or artistic elites, dared publicly declare their homosexuality.

His crowning achievement was his relentless, eventually successful campaign to get the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973. That signal achievement changed the public perception of homosexuality, laying the groundwork for growing public acceptance and affirmation since.

Kameny invented the slogan, “Gay is Good,” far more controversial in its time than it seems now. I defended it then against objections of dedicated gay friends who considered it too radical.

When I first met Frank, I was a young gay activist in 1970 in San Francisco. Dr. King’s speech permeating the national ethos, I’d made two life-changing decisions, entering seminary in 1966 and joining Kameny and his San Francisco counterparts prior to Stonewall in early 1969 to “come out” and join the struggle for gay, and human, liberation.

Our fight, I wrote in the editorial for the first Gay Sunshine newspaper, “should harken to a greater cause, the cause of human liberation, of which homosexual liberation is just one aspect.”

Regrettably, about that same time, the onslaught of the right wing, socially-engineered anarcho-hedonist counterculture hijacked our movement, dashing Dr. King’s appeal to the “content of character” in the process. We’ve had to live, and die, with the consequences of that since.

I reconnected with Frank in recent years, while his contributions became more recognized and appreciated. A milestone came when the many picket signs, leaflets, speeches and photographs he’d kept from his earliest activist days were formally received as a special collection at the Smithsonian Institution. He was honored at the White House by President Obama, and a photo of him and me with Vice President Biden hangs in my office.

Along with another other early activist and mutual friend, Lilli Vincenz, and her long-time partner Nancy Davis, I hosted Frank as my guest at the national dinner of the Human Rights Campaign in 2005, and often invited him to lunches at The Palm restaurant in downtown D.C.

Those many lunches were not only to enjoy his company, but to provide opportunities for my friends, especially younger ones, gay and otherwise, to meet and appreciate this genuine hero of our movement. Recently, of this “Gay Science” project, Kameny smiled and quipped, “I think we wind up in the same place.” I concurred.

To be continued.

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