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November 3, 2006
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Volume 34
Issue 44
 
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Pre-Stonewall activist commits papers to posterity on the web
Pre-Stonewall activist commits papers to posterity on the web
"The Kameny Papers" include half a century's worth of letters, government correspondence, testimony and photographs

by Jesse Monteagudo

SGN Contributing Writer

History - and the Lesbian and Gay community for which they did so much - have neglected the pre-Stonewall "homophile" activists. Even today many histories of the Gay movement begin with the Stonewall Riots of 1969, thus completely ignoring decades of groundbreaking political, educational and social work. With a few exceptions, activist leaders of the 1950's and 1960's are ignored; their achievements unrecognized or forgotten by the GLBT generations who came after them and to who they owe so much.

Hopefully, posterity will be kinder to Franklin Kameny (b. 1925), who is happily still with us. A one-man history of the Gay and Lesbian movement - "I have become something of a walking history book," he says - Kameny has been at the center of events for the past fifty years. In the 1950's Dr. Kameny challenged the federal government after it fired him from his job as an astronomer with the Army Map Service on account of his homosexuality. In the sixties, Kameny and Jack Nichols founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., a then-militant group that fought U.S. government and military discrimination and led the first Queer protests in front of the White House and the Pentagon and Liberty Hall in Philadelphia. It was Kameny who coined (in 1966) the then-radical slogan, "Gay Is Good." In the 1970's, Dr. Kameny waged a campaign against the American Psychiatric Association, one which led to the APA's 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. He also ran for Congress as an openly Gay candidate and co-founded both the National Gay Task Force and the Gay Rights National Lobby (now the Human Rights Campaign). Author Paul Russell discredited himself when he left Dr. Kameny out of The Gay 100, his controversial list of notable Lesbians and Gay men. (Russell did include Madonna.)

Political pressure has kept government libraries, archives and the Smithsonian Institution from preserving and exhibiting the history of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Americans. Thus many of us were delightfully surprised when the Library of Congress graciously accepted (Oct. 6) Frank Kameny's donation of his personal papers and historic artifacts. Dr. Kameny's unique gift to the nation consists of over 70,000 letters, documents and memorabilia that Kameny, a self-described pack rat, amassed for over half a century in his Washington, D.C. attic. "Nearly fifty years ago, the United States Government banned me from employment in public service because I am a homosexual," said Kameny. "This archive is not simply my story; it also shows how Gay and Lesbian Americans have joined the American mainstream story of expanded civil liberties in the 20th century. Today, by accepting these papers, the nation preserves not only our history but marks how far Gay and Lesbian Americans have traveled on the road to civil equality." Incredibly, Kameny was not eligible for a federal tax deduction for his unprecedented donation. Fortunately, grants from former Congressman Michael Huffington (Arianna's ex), Charles Francis and other philanthropists made Kameny's generous gift possible. "This is the real deal, Frank," said Francis, who also heads the Kameny Papers Project. "This means that the papers are going from Frank's attic to the nation's attic."

The Kameny Papers include half a century's worth of letters, government correspondence, testimony and photographs. Replicas of some of those documents, as posted in the Kameny Papers Project's Web site (kamenypapers.org), indicate the breadth of Dr. Kameny's activities and interests. Here are some of Dr. Kameny's early testimony before committees of Congress, his letters to influential congressmen and said congressmen's outraged responses. ("In all my six years of service in the United States Congress, I have not received such a revolting communication," wrote an appalled Rep Charles E. Chamberlain of Michigan.) Kameny's memorabilia collection includes photos of early Gay rights demonstrations, groundbreaking court decisions and early issues of the Washington Mattachine newsletter, The Homosexual Citizen.

The Kameny papers will be housed in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, where they will be available to historians and researchers. Not included in Kameny's impressive donation are six placards that Dr. Kameny used in his demonstrations in front of the White House and the Pentagon, a campaign poster announcing Kameny's run for Congress, and half a dozen pamphlets from the early 1960's. After he considered spreading this wealth around various GLBT archives and libraries, Kameny decided to donate these precious items to the Stonewall Library and Archives in Fort Lauderdale. The largest collection of its kind south of Washington, D.C., the Stonewall Library and Archives recently gave Dr. Kameny its Heritage Award, an honor that allowed the good Doctor to visit Fort Lauderdale for the very first time. (He had visited Miami in 1977, during Miami-Dade County's "Gay rights" referendum campaign.) Kameny's donation to the Stonewall Library and Archives is indicative of that Florida organization's increasing importance as a repository of GLBT movement material.



Jesse Monteagudo is a freelance author and Gay activist of over 30 years who lives in South Florida with his partner. Write him at jessemonteagudo@aol.com.


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