Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Kameny and Medal of Freedom Follow Up;
Obama Honors Gay Hero When?

Last month I had a crazy idea: Propose that the president honor legendary gay American community organizer Dr. Franklin E. Kameny with the Medal of Freedom. I sent off a letter to Brian Bond, de facto White House gay liaison, of hundreds of words extolling Kameny and asking when, not if, the president would so honor our community's incredible pioneer.

More than a week later, on the day the White House announced this year's awardees, and Kameny's name was omitted, I received this terse reply from Bond:

Michael – sorry I couldn’t get back to you but wanted to assure you that the community is well represented. I am making sure to keep your recommendation of my very dear friend Frank for future awards.

A total of 26 words in reply to this gay community organizer's long letter about working together to get this honor for Kameny. And Bond can't be bothered to give me full details on exactly what it is he doing about my recommendation, or say he'll give me regular updates, or even for me to keep in touch with him. Not a very engaging fellow, is he?

To be fair, it's not Bond who decided which LGBT gay persons would receive this year's honors, but I would like more transparency from him about the process.

Today I heard from Kameny and in my reply, apologized for not contacting him regarding my effort on his behalf. I had been hoping to contact him when I knew something of substance from Bond, and that never came, but it's also no excuse for me not reaching out to Kameny.

All that aside, Kameny's note to me moved me to tears, reading that he would have liked to have made the cut this year, and that he ain't no spring chicken.

If you ask me, there should be an ad hoc committee to work on the medal and to have back pay given to him. And why not? We should not just leave it to chance that justice and honor are extended to our gay forefather. I willing to do more to honor Frank Kameny. How about you?

Here's his moving note:


While doing internet browsing, yesterday, I came upon your letter of July 22 to Brian Bond at the White House, recommending that I receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I was unaware of it; thank you very much for sending it.

I was deeply touched and complimented by your letter. Be assured that your respect for me, as manifested in the letter, is very much mutual and reciprocal.

I am writing to ask whether you received a response from Brian Bond, and, if so, what it was. Obviously, for whatever reasons, much as I would have liked to, I didn't "make the cut" this time, but perhaps next time, whenever that is.

I was in touch with Brian before my June 17 meeting with the President, and talked with him (Brian) in the West Wing lobby and in the Roosevelt Room, across the hall from the Oval Office before we all trooped in there to meet the President. I deduce that you know him from times past.

Somewhat to my astonishment, I find myself on first-name terms with both the President and with VP Biden. At least they both recognize me on sight, and address me as "Frank"; I tend to be more formal with them. Both have cited me in public speeches, as you probably know.

As you probably also know, I was fired from federal government employment in 1957, because I was gay. That was in the period of the massive gay purge from government employment of that day, in parallel to the military DADT of today. I appealed it all the way to the US Supreme Court, and to the Director of the then-US Civil Service Commission. That got me into gay activism.

The Civil Service Commission has been renamed as the Office of Personnel
Management (OPM). Its recently-appointed Director (John Berry) is an openly gay man with whom I am on cordial terms; he personally invited me to be present at his swearing-in. They recently had an elaborate affair in my honor, at which Berry presented me with a beautiful letter in which the government apologized for its "shameful" (their word) action in firing me 52 years before. The bureaucracy sometimes moves slowly, so apparently they've been mulling over my appeal for 52 years before granting it. What goes around does come around if you wait long enough.

I accepted their apology and humorously told Berry that I considered myself re-hired, and was awaiting instructions as to when and where to report for work, or to file my retirement papers. And I looked forward to my check for 52 years of back pay (which I can certainly use).

Who would ever have expected, when I was nastily fired in 1957, that in 2009, the very government itself would apologize to me for what they had done. We really have moved ahead.

How are you? I'm surviving, although very much feeling my years, and more and more conscious that I'm 84 and not 24 -- or 34, 44, or even 74 -- any more. While my general health is OK, I've become extremely inefficient, I don't get things done as I once did, and my energy, stamina, and endurance are much reduced.

I keep hearing about you from time to time. Apparently you're still active and effective out there. Keep up the good work.

Let me hear from you promptly about any response from Brian Bond to your July 22 letter, and let's keep in closer touch henceforth.

Frank Kameny

Hey Grandpa Frank - Thanks so much for making America greater and providing honorable leadership over the decades. It's a pleasure to know you and receive your kind words about my activism. May I live so long to do half the good you have done.


Clinton Fein said...

Michael, you never cease to amaze me. I had the pleasure of interviewing Frank Kameny on video at his home back in 1994, when I was creating a CD ROM based on Randy Shilts' book, Conduct Unbecoming. He was a fantastic and engaging inspiration back then, and his letter to you demonstrates that despite his awareness of his age, he hasn't lost his spark, or sense of humor.

Bill Wilson said...

Before moving to SF twelve years ago I lived n DC for 27 years. There are many parallels between Frank and Michael the most obvious one being the ability to speak out without regard to what others think. I've come to admire both men because they keep reminding me that I never need to apologize for who I am. I'm more than willing to be part of any committee to honor Frank Kameny with the Medal of Freedom. I have several buttons from his campaign for Congress in 1972.

Michael @ LeonardMatlovich.com said...

OMG! Great minds think etc. etc.

Paint me a heretic, but OF COURSE, with no disrespect to Harvey Milk's accomplishments, Frank should have gotten the first medal to a gay activist WHILE HE'S STILL ALIVE to personally appreciate it, and, quite simply, because he deserved it more.

Doubt me, youngins? Consider this: when Frank was leading the first gay rights protest at the White House in 1965, Harvey was not just not yet "publicly out"—let alone not yet a gay activist—he was still mourning the fact that Barry Goldwater wasn't IN that White House that Frank et al. were picketing.

In 1973, when Harvey first entered politics—not to advance gay rights—but because he was mad with anger about being asked to pre-pay a business tax, Frank was celebrating the movement’s first great victor and having been one of those who FORCED the American Psychiatric Association to officially declare that gays are not mentally ill.

The problem—unlike that at the bottom of so many gay goofs by this White House—obviously isn't that none of the gays working within its walls have a GAY ACTIVIST perspective or any knowledge of our history for they clearly know who Frank is.

No, the explanation is in the basest, most self-serving political calculation: Harvey Milk is, literally and figuratively, political "box office" and Frank is not. Say "Harvey" and the young gays who the White House lives in fear of joining the older gays who have stopped taking "Wait" for an answer and stopped making donations to the DNC—or, gasp, ACT UP—and they swoon. Say "Frank Kameny" and they go, "Who?"

Though he has probably long forgotten, it was my honor and thrill to work with him many years ago in DC’s Gertrude Stein Democratic Club; to hear again and again that incomparable voice pierce the air knock down walls of nonsense; to watch in awe as his uncompromising words exploded like Roman candles—“I will define myself to my government. I will not allow my government to define me to me." And to treasure the memory of cooking one Thanksgiving dinner for him, Leonard Matlovich, and Dave Kopay. I have repeatedly said that if we’d had ten Frank Kamenys we would have achieved legal equality decades ago. As we only had one, I’ll join any crusade to get him the honor he deserves: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

More vintage Frank:

"I, personally, placed my life in jeopardy, in frontline combat, under enemy fire, for this country. [My client] served honorably in the Armed Services of this country. We did not do so in order that our government—or any agent or officer of it—might disparage our people, by which we mean our fellow American homosexuals, or our way of life—to our faces, or behind our backs. We are fully as entitled to our dignity, and to the respect of our government as the homosexual citizens that we are, as are all other American citizens. . . . In the past, we have remained silent when [antigay] remarks were made. We do not intend to continue so. If any such remarks are made, the proceedings will be halted on the spot and will not continue until the remarks have been retracted and apologized for. You and your colleagues elsewhere in this Department have been placed on notice." - Defense Department civilian security clearance hearing, 1969.

Charles Merrill said...

I have never had the pleasure of meeting Frank in person, but my friend Jack Nickels, in the early marches with Frank and Barbara Gittings, attributed the founding of the LGBT movement to Frank. I have read the insulting letters to Frank from lawmakers. His strength to continue the good fight with all the "put downs" he has had to endure, he definately deserves the Medal of Freedom. Homophobe General Peter Pace who was awarded a Medal of Freedom by Bush deserves to lose his.

pinoyhapa said...

Frank Kameny is also a friend of mine and on my last trip to DC, I had dinner with him and a close friend of mine who had introduced me to Frank, many years ago. I am certainly honored to know Frank as a living icon in gay activism. However, it looks/sounds according to Bond’s, terse note indicates Frank has been shuffled off. Dreams of a Medal of Freedom and back pay from 1957 are unfortunately dreams deferred. I wish to compliment you on your vast and noble gay activism.