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2 March 2009, 5:00 pm No Comments

Hidden History: Hidden History: The Kameny Historic House

This post was submitted by Philip Clark

TNG contributor Philip submitted this post. Hidden History appears biweekly, exploring the nooks and crannies of the gay and lesbian past.

It’s not often that I get to address breaking news through the medium of Hidden History. Much more frequently, the stories I am covering broke decades ago—that is, if they broke at all.

It is refreshing, then, to be able to talk about events where the darker days of being gay and the more hopeful present collide. Such is the case with this week’s unanimous decision by the Historic Preservation Review Board to declare the residence of Dr. Franklin Kameny, at 5020 Cathedral Avenue NW, a D.C. Historic Landmark. This makes the house eligible to be named to the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service, a process that should take 6-12 months to complete and is by no means a certain success.

What is certain, though, is the deep significance of both Dr. Kameny, now 83, and his home on Cathedral Avenue to the continuing history of the gay equality movement. Recognition of Kameny’s home as an historic landmark would be another step in affording the gay rights movement the same respect as other struggles for civil rights in the United States.

Nobody needs a potted biography of Dr. Kameny from me; Craig Kaczorowski covers him adequately in the online GLBTQ encyclopedia and both the local Rainbow History Project’s website and the official nomination forms for the Kameny house as a D.C. historic landmark contain more detailed information. But even a simple list of some of Kameny’s major accomplishments is stunning:

• A Harvard-trained astronomer and former Georgetown professor, Kameny was fired from his job with the United States Army Map Service in 1957 because of his sexuality. Although his own legal battle to retain his government job failed, Kameny set in motion the process of challenges that ultimately led to the U.S. Civil Service Commission changing its discriminatory employment laws in 1975.

• Within months of losing his court battle, as the Supreme Court refused to hear his case in 1961, Dr. Kameny and his friend, the late Jack Nichols, founded the Mattachine Society of Washington D.C. This first official Washington D.C. gay rights organization is, as Dr. Kameny proudly notes, still officially active today.

• At Jack Nichols’ urging, Kameny used the Mattachine Society banner to help organize the first gay protests in front of the White House in 1965. With such activists as Lilli Vincenz (another longtime member of the local GLBT community who continues her work today), he carried signs protesting both the civil service discrimination Kameny and others had suffered and overall gay and lesbian civil rights concerns.

• Kameny successfully defended the Mattachine Society in front of a congressional committee in 1963, defeating a bill that would have removed Mattachine’s nonprofit fundraising status.

• Perhaps showing even more gusto, he faced down the FBI when its agents demanded that he stop sending the Mattachine’s newsletter, The Gazette, to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Even upon realizing that Hoover’s FBI was tracking and keeping files on Mattachine and its members, Kameny would not back off. Hoover was sent every issue until he passed away in 1972.

• He co-founded or was on the boards of the East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO) collective, the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO), National Gay Task Force, the Gay Rights National Lobby, and the D.C. Human Rights Commission.

• In 1971, Kameny became the first openly gay candidate to run for Congress when he attempted to secure Washington D.C.’s House of Representatives seat (the non-voting role currently held by Eleanor Holmes Norton). In their 1972 memoir, I Have More Fun with You Than Anybody, Jack Nichols and Lige Clarke recalled the heady days of the campaign, when The Washington Post, The Washington Daily News, and The Sunday Star praised Kameny’s vision. They wrote of how “Kameny…dared to do the impossible, and his grand effort and that of his campaigners has brought all of us closer to the possible.”

• Not content merely to run a political campaign in 1971, Kameny also appeared at the national conference of the American Psychiatric Association, attacking psychiatrists’ callous treatment of gays and lesbians and the listing of homosexuality as a mental disorder. Owing to the efforts of Kameny and other activists, the APA removed the official “mental disorder” stigma from gays and lesbians in 1973.

• His efforts helped lead to the repeal of Washington D.C.’s sodomy laws, and he wrote the bill that ultimately had those laws overturned.

• And beyond the political maneuvers, the legal wars, and the founding of gay rights organizations, Kameny worked tirelessly on much more basic and critical outreach to help his fellow gays and lesbians. Nichols and Clarke recalled that:

Distressed men and women, the guilt-ridden, those fearful of job loss, young people and Armed Forces personnel had been able to call him late at night and even into the early hours of the morning to get precise, detailed instructions and advice. He’d tracked down blackmailers, fought bigoted employers and the government, and relieve hundred of silly guilts…not only was he “eloquent and erudite” as the Post had put it, but a kind and thoughtful gentleman as well.

Throughout these landmark events and throughout the formation and continuation of the gay civil rights movement, Kameny used 5020 Cathedral Avenue as his base of operations. When Dr. Kameny was receiving phone calls from gays and lesbians in distress, as outlined by Nichols and Clarke, he was fielding them at 5020 Cathedral Avenue. From printing flyers and press releases to planning outreach and lobbying, much organization of the Mattachine Society of Washington D.C. and its activities took place at 5020 Cathedral Avenue. And although his campaign headquarters were downtown, when Kameny took the historic step of running for Congress as an openly gay man, he was living and working out of 5020 Cathedral Avenue. It is an address that must be revered by GLBT people as a foundational site, one that ranges across more than a generation of militant gay activism and advancement.

As such, it should not be a difficult call to make the Kameny Residence a historic landmark, both in D.C. and nationally. It fulfills the requirements that an individual who lived in it was of extraordinary significance and that the site itself have deep cultural importance. But it has not
been a quick or easy process to get the D.C. designation: Washington’s Rainbow History Project, led by chairman Mark Meinke, began to gather research and organize the Kameny House’s nomination in 2003; Dr. Kameny himself helped to vet the supporting documents for historical accuracy, and Rainbow History then submitted the nomination in 2006. It took 6 years of work to get to the present day. Nor is the house guaranteed to receive national recognition. There are no GLBT sites on the National Register of Historic Places and only the Stonewall Inn has qualified for the even more exclusive list of National Historic Landmarks.

It is crucial, though, that more GLBT sites receive this kind of attention. All too often, in the absence of such recognition, sites of historic significance to GLBT culture disappear. On his blog Visible Past, dedicated to “remembering and preserving the historic sites of queer America,” Meinke notes how:

Queer physical history is largely urban. As such it often disappears beneath developers bulldozers. In Washington, DC an entire community of entertainment sites, dating from 1970, fell to bulldozers building a new baseball stadium in 2006. In Los Angeles, the two offices of the Mattachine have been replaced by parking and a newer office building.

Meinke also identifies National Park Service rules regarding the age of historic sites as a major reason why more GLBT-related locations are not included; unless the events that contribute to a site’s significance are at least 50 years old, it must pass even more rigorous scrutiny to achieve official historic status.

One area where the National Park Service has made some notable exceptions to the 50-year rule is in designating places significant to the African American civil rights movement. Such sites as the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the site of a horrific bombing in 1963; the Dr. Martin Luther King Historic District, including his birth place and grave, in Atlanta; and the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, the headquarters of the Selma Voting Rights Movement, are just a few of the examples of sites of crucial importance to more recent United States history that have received official status as National Historic Landmarks.

Declaring sites such as the Kameny Residence national landmarks would therefore be a huge step for this nation. In adding them to our national rolls, the gay equality movement would be recognized as the legitimate battle for civil rights that it is. Furthermore, such a move will provide future generations of GLBT people a necessary knowledge of their past. Without a history to look back and reflect on, we have no future to look forward to.

Many thanks to Patsy Lynch for permission to reprint her photograph of Dr. Kameny with this column; click on the link to the Kameny Residence nomination to see her photograph of the house and visit her website to see more of her photography. Thanks, too, to Mark Meinke for allowing me to interview him in conjunction with this article. All opinions and any mistakes are my own.

Have a suggestion for a Hidden History topic? Love, hate, agree, or disagree with something I wrote? Just want to talk? Feel free to direct e-mail to philipclark@hotmail.com.

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