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Kameny Memories


Denny Meyer

The neocolonial gabled house of Dr. Frank Kameny, gay rights pioneer, has just been designated a Washington D.C. Historic Landmark.  A living legacy of modern gay history, Dr. Kameny is one of those  rare people who, having made history, has been fortunate enough to live to see his work receive rightful recognition.  And least there be any doubt, he continues to speak out to this day, forcefully, for our progress towards full American rights.

Several years ago the Smithsonian Institute had requested Dr. Kameny's early protest picket signs and other historical items, which he had kept all these years in the attic of his home. Those items were subsequently received in a solemn ceremony.  Speaking of the Smithsonian's request, at the national convention of American Veterans For Equal Rights (AVER) in Cleveland in 2007, Dr. Kameny said something to the effect that "when he and his compatriots sat on his living room floor, in 1960, making the placards with magic markers, if someone had suggested at the time that someday the Smithsonian Institute would want them, everyone would have laughed and said the idea was crazy."  He told this story with modesty and yet conveyed his own sense of fulfillment at seeing how far we have come collectively in his lifetime.

His paper archives, documenting the history of his life's work in the LGBT rights movement, recently went to the Library of Congress.  According to a 2006 press release by the National Museum of American History, Dr. Kameny said at the time, "Nearly fifty years ago, the United States Government banned me from employment in public service because I am a homosexual.  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."

And now his house and that living room floor are themselves an official part of American history (the house has also been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places) What must it be like to reach for one's favorite old coffee cup and suddenly realize that it is a historical artifact not to be dropped?  Imagine peering at your tattered rug on the floor for the first time in decades and realizing that it is now a historical textile; and that if you wanted to replace it or have it cleaned you might first need to get the permission of some preservationist bureaucrat.  Speaking to the Washington Post on Feb. 27th, 2009, Kameny himself lamented, "Now the house, I haven't been able to maintain it as adequately as I'd like," he said. "The lawn is a mess, it needs to be put in order. The gutters, the heating, things like that."  According to the Post, it is indeed "unusual to designate a site as historic while its occupant still lives there."

Frank Kameny enlisted in the US Army in 1943, three days before his 18th birthday. He served in Europe, in WWII, in an 81mm mortar platoon, the 58th Armored Infantry Battalion, 8th Armored Division. At New Years, 1944, his unit crossed the English Channel, landing at Normandy France.  In February 1944 he and his unit encountered their first combat in Roermond, where the Ruhr meets the Rhine, near the German-Dutch border.  According to a 2006 interview with Gay Military Signal, Dr. Kameny recalled, "We then moved eastward into the Rhineland. For much of February, we were in Grefrath. At that point we had no way of crossing Rhine until the Remagen Bridge was secured. Once we got that bridge, our troops moved over and fanned up and down into Germany, for the first time in the north. We secured the east side of the Rhine. I remember, we crossed the Rhine late at night with hails of antiaircraft artillery flying across the sky in brilliant colors. We fought hard and got into Ruhr Pocket, it was not pleasant. And eventually we closed the Ruhr Pocket and went east into the Hartz area. By May we were in mid-Germany."  Even after the war came to a formal end in Europe, he and his unit moved onward, in June, into Czechoslovakia, to Bohemia as an army of liberation.  He was discharged honorably in March of 1946.  (The full interview may be seen at: http://gaymilitarysignal.com/061107Kameny.html)

Dr. Kameny, originally from Richmond Hill, Queens, in New York City, went to Queens College as undergraduate. After the war he went back to school in 1946, graduated in 1948, and went to Harvard for graduate work.  In 1957, when he was an astronomer, he was fired due to homosexuality and began a lifetime of campaigning for gay rights.

Frank Kameny's home and works are priceless treasures that future generations of Americans will now be able to see as a segment of the dawn of modern gay rights history.  And finally, Frank Kameny himself, as he lives and breathes, is a legacy for us all.  May he live and breath for many years to come.

  2009  Gay Military Signal