- Gay Is Good: The Life and Letters of Gay Rights Pioneer Franklin Kameny ed. by Michael G. Long
What a joy to read—and in some cases reread—the letters of pioneer gay rights activist Frank Kameny. Thanks to Michael G. Long's terrific new edited collection, Gay Is Good, one can again hear the bombastic voice of this prolific letter writer speaking truth to power. Fired from the federal [End Page 331] government for his homosexuality in 1957 during the lavender scare, Kameny began a lifelong campaign not only to change federal government policy but ultimately to challenge homophobia in American culture. The single most effective gay rights activist in American history, he was, according to Long, "a visionary and tactical genius" who remained active in the movement for over four decades and lived to be celebrated for his many accomplishments (333).
Over the seventeen-year period covered in these letters (1958–75), we witness Kameny transform from "a victim of the law" to "a vocal opponent of law" to finally "a voice of law" as he is appointed to the District of Columbia Commission on Human Rights (3). Put another way, we see him transform from a nerdy scientist confused by the government's interest in his sex life to a nuanced political tactician increasingly adept at delivering a persuasive message of gay and lesbian equality and empowerment. Through Kameny's letters we also see the LGBT movement transform. Before the movement became professionalized with a host of specialized organizations, Frank Kameny was the go-to guy for virtually any instance of antigay discrimination, whether by the federal government, local law enforcement, or the media. As one of a handful of openly gay national figures, Kameny fielded requests for speaking engagements and legal counsel from around the country.
As Long points out, letters were one of Kameny's "favorite weapons"—the way he "sneaked into the guarded offices through the open mailbox" to hold public officials accountable to the citizenry he insisted they should serve (2). He treated all public officials as public servants. His determination and wit are on full display in this volume, especially in his letters to local law enforcement officers, whom he literarily solicited to engage in sodomy in order to have a test case to take to the courts to overturn the local antisodomy statute. They declined his offer, but Kameny succeeded in eliminating the law.
Long's book highlights Kameny's methodical strategy of effecting change through lobbying government officials and professional organizations. Each effort might not lead to immediate success, but each removed a few bricks in the edifice of official homophobia. He considered his campaign to become the DC delegate to Congress in 1971 a great success, because although he failed to win office, this movement into mainstream politics earned respect from elected officials.
Kameny was a true incrementalist who engaged in picketing and other forms of direct action only after every other "avenue of recourse" had been thoroughly exhausted (153). He had little patience for younger, less seasoned activists from what he called "the Mindless Sixties" (153). At the 1972 Democratic Convention, debating the wording of the first gay rights plank in a major party platform, Kameny argued for the acceptance of the tepid language offered by the McGovern campaign. "The kind of insistence [End Page 332] on everything precisely to our prescriptions, all at once, upon penalty of condemnation, attack, and the throwing of tantrums," Kameny insisted, "is unrealistic and more than a little childish" (252).
Long's balanced assessment nicely highlights both Kameny's strengths and his weaknesses. We see his incredible tenacity as he endured long periods of unemployment during which he depended on contributions from the LGBT community not only to attend major events like the American Psychiatric Association meetings but also sometimes to pay the rent. We see the opposition he experienced from within the early homophile movement and how his single-mindedness and insistence on respectability and...