The letters included in Gay Is Good: The Life and Letters of Gay Rights Pioneer Franklin Kameny, edited by Michael G. Long, are notable not only for their searing intelligence but for their bravery in an uphill battle being fought for basic human rights for gay people in the middle of the last century. Kameny was in no way an apologist or a middle-of-the-road man. He insisted, often quite forcefully, on staking his claim for equal rights for gay and lesbian people everywhere.
In 1957, Kameny was discharged from the U.S. Army because of his homosexuality. Kameny protested his firing and even took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961. Although the court denied his petition, it is notable as the first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation.
Kameny took to task some of the top political figures of the time, the homophobic pundits, and even some of his fellow activists for their ideas, attitudes, and actions. (He consigned Phyllis Schlafly to hell.) But as strongly worded as his letters are, each is thrilling for its fresh take and viewpoint on gay rights.
The excerpts below are all copyright © 2014 by Syracuse University Press Syracuse, N.Y.
Less than two months after the Supreme Court denied his petition, Kameny turns to his “court of last appeal” — President John F. Kennedy. Using Kennedy’s call for “The New Frontier” and sacrificial service to country, Kameny implores the president to ensure the protection of civil liberties for homosexuals. Indeed, this letter, coupled with his Supreme Court petition, is the best evidence of this period for showing Kameny’s broadening and deepening interest in the civil rights of all homosexuals in the United States.
May 15, 1961
Dear President Kennedy:
I write to you for two reasons: (1) To ask that you act as a “court of last appeal” in a matter in which I believe that you can properly act as such; and (2) perhaps much more important, to bring to your attention, and to ask for your constructive action on, a situation involving at least 15,000,000 Americans, and in which a “New Frontier” approach is very badly needed. These people are the nation’s homosexuals — a minority group in no way different, as such, from the Negroes, the Jews, the Catholics, and other minority groups. ...
In World War II, I willingly fought the Germans, with bullets, in order to preserve and secure my rights, freedoms, and liberties, and those of my fellow citizens. In 1961, it has, ironically, become necessary for me to fight my own government, with words, in order to achieve some of the very same rights, freedoms, and liberties for which I placed my life in jeopardy in 1945. This letter is part of that fight.
The homosexual in the United States today is in much the same position as was the Negro about 1925. The difference is that the Negro, in his dealings with this government, and in his fight for his proper rights, liberties, and freedoms, has met, at worst, merely indifference to him and his problems, and, at best, active assistance; the homosexual has met only active hostility from his government.
The homosexuals in this country are increasingly less willing to tolerate the abuse, repression, and discrimination directed at them, both officially and unofficially, and they are beginning to stand up for their rights and freedoms as citizens no less deserving than other citizens of those rights and freedoms. They are no longer willing to accept their present status as second-class citizens and as second-class human beings; they are neither.
Statistics on the sharply rising numbers of homosexuals who are fighting police and legal abuses, less-than-fully-honorable discharges from the military, security-system disqualifications, and who are taking perfectly proper and legal advantage of military policies and prejudices and draftboard questions to escape the draft, etc., will, I believe, bear me out.
The winds of change are blowing. A wise and foresighted government will start NOW to take constructive action on this question.
Your administration has taken a firm and admirable stand, and has taken an active interest in the maintenance of the civil liberties of minority groups, and in the elimination of discrimination against them. Yet the federal government is the prime offender in depriving the homosexual of his civil and other liberties, and in actively discriminating against him. May I suggest that the homosexual is as deserving of his government’s protection and assistance in these areas as is the Negro, and needs that protection at least as much — actually much more? The abuses, by constituted authority, of the person, property, and liberties of American homosexuals are flagrant, shocking, and appalling, and yet not only is not a finger raised by the government to assist these people, but the government acts in active, virulent conspiracy to foster and perpetuate these abuses.
This is an area in which a sophisticated, rational, and above all, a civilized approach is badly needed. Short of a policy of outright extermination (and, economically, personally, and professionally, the government’s actions are often tantamount to this), the government’s practices and policies could not be further removed from such a sane approach. We are badly in need of a breath of fresh air here, Mr. Kennedy — a reconsideration of the matter, divorced from the old, outworn clichés discredited assumptions, fallacious and specious reasoning, and idle superstition. The traditional new broom, with its clean sweep, is badly needed.
Under present policies, upon no discernible rational ground, the government is deprived of the services of large numbers of competent, capable citizens — often skilled, highly trained, and talented — and others are forced to contribute to society at far less than their full capacity, simply because in their personal, out-of-working-hours lives they do not conform to narrow, archaic, puritan prejudice and taboo.
In my own case, extensive technical trading — a Harvard Ph.D. in Astronomy — is going completely to waste, entirely as a result of the government’s practices and policies on this question. While the nation cries out for technically trained people, I, two years ago, as a result of the government’s acts and policies, was barely surviving on twenty cents worth of food per day. Is this reasonable?
You have said: “Ask not what can your country do for you, but what can you do for your country.” I know what I can best do for my country, but my country’s government, for no sane reason, will not let me do it. I wish to be of service to my country and to my government; I am capable of being of such service; I need only to be allowed to be so. Thus far, my government has stubbornly and irrationally refused to allow me to be so, and has done its best to make it impossible for me ever to be so. This is equally true, actually or potentially, of millions of homosexuals in this country — well over 10% of our adult population. Not only the society in which they live, but the government under which they live, have steadfastly and stubbornly refused to allow them to serve and to contribute. ...
Action by the government, on this question, is needed in four specific areas (listed here in no particular order) and a fifth general one. These are: (1) the law, and the mode and practices of its administration and enforcement, and the abuses thereof; (2) federal employment policies; (3) the policies, practices, and official attitudes of the military; (4) security-clearance policies and practices in government employment, in the military, and in private industry under government contract; and (5) the education of the public and the changing of their primitive attitudes. No constructive action has ever been taken in any of these areas.
Yours is an administration which has openly disavowed blind conformity. Here is an unconventional group with the courage to be so. Give them the support they deserve as citizens seeking the pursuit of happiness guaranteed them by the Declaration of Independence.
You yourself said, in your recent address at George Washington University, “that (people) desire to develop their own personalities and their own potentials, that democracy permits them to do so.” But your government, by its policies certainly does not permit the homosexual to develop his personality and his potential. I do not feel that it is expecting too much to ask that governmental practice be in accord with administration verbiage.
At present, prominently displayed at the entrance to each of the Civil Service Commission’s buildings is an excerpt from another statement of yours, in which you said, “let it be clear that this Administration recognizes the value of daring and dissent.” I have demonstrated that I have the daring to register public and official dissent in an area wherein those directly involved have never before dared register with dissent. May I ask that my government show equal daring and dissent in “coming to grips” with this question in a proper and constructive fashion. Let more than mere lip service be given to laudable-sounding ideals!
I can close in no better fashion than by quoting Thomas Jefferson:
I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and constitutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered, and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
His words could not be more aptly quoted in this regard. Let us, as we advance into the Space Age, discard the policies and attitudes, and “laws and constitutions,” the customs and institutions of the Stone Age. ...
Thank you for your consideration of the matters presented here. I look
forward to your reply.
Kennedy did not reply.
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