This article grows out of a recent conversation among a motley group of historians and activists about the relative merits of gay movement pioneers Frank Kameny and Jack Nichols. Frank died in October 2011, and Jack died in May 2005. Frank is currently being honored (unduly so, in some minds) for his work on behalf of the gay/lesbian (and later, bisexual/transgender/queer) “movement” over the course of more than 50 years of his life. Jack spent less time in the spotlight, but in the early 1970s was possibly America’s best known writer/activist, renowned for his articles in the long-running Gay and Screw magazines, and as author or co-author of several books, including Welcome to Fire Island, Roommates Can’t Always Be Lovers, I Have More Fun with You Than Anyone, and Men’s Liberation. Around 1960, Jack and Frank’s paths intersected, and they worked together for several years at the head of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. By the end of the Sixties, their paths diverged, as Jack determined to live a well-rounded life with his partner and occasional co-author, Lige Clarke, while Frank kept his focus squarely on movement politics. To my best knowledge – and despite rumors to the contrary – there was never a serious rift between them.
I knew them both, interviewing Frank in the summer of 1994 in D.C., and Jack that fall in Cocoa Beach, Florida. I spent about six hours interviewing each of them for my book, Leading the Parade (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD, 2002/2007). They even occupy adjoining chapters in my book (Frank before Jack). Frank and I kept a cordial relationship thereafter, but Jack because one of my very best friends for the remainder of his life.
Kameny told Eric Marcus in 1992’s Making History, “Looking back, if anyone told me years ago that I would be a political activist, I would have thought he was insane.” He had no intention of becoming anything but an astronomer – and possibly even one of the first astronauts – but life had other plans for him. When the U.S. Army fired Frank in 1957 for a prior conviction for homosexual activity (expunged, but not disappeared), he declared war on the government – a battle he ultimately won.
Frank was exceptionally intelligent, but could also be abrasive, short-tempered, pugnacious, and ill-humored. He was also not particularly handsome, being rather short and plain-looking, with bad teeth. In the early days of the television era (think of Jack Kennedy versus Richard Nixon during the 1960 Presidential campaign), looks mattered perhaps more than ideas. Fortunately for Kameny (and all of us who followed), he found someone who was not only similarly committed to the movement, but could work well with him, given his prickly nature.
Nichols was young, tall, dark, and handsome in the classic mold. Jack was as warm and personable as Frank was reserved. In one of the most-replicated photos of the pre-Stonewall gay movement (on the front cover of Making History), Nichols (followed closely by Kameny) led the April 1965 picket on the White House. Much to his credit, I believe Frank identified his own shortcomings, and consciously decided to defer to Jack (the body) over himself (the brain) as the public face of the “new,” active, picketing homophile movement.
As I began preparing my interview questions for Leading the Parade, I wanted to understand as best I could all the different major personalities in the movement. After doing a lot of reading, and drawing some of my own tentative conclusions, I began most of my interviews asking each subject about the other individuals with whom the historic record showed they had interacted. It turned out to be a great way to get people’s memories flowing, and provided some wonderful remembrances. Not everyone had fond memories of one another (as is true of most any large group with competing personalities), but their responses gave me not only an opportunity to pursue some otherwise untold stories and learn some “gossip,” it often told me volumes about the subject’s personality as well.
When I brought up Frank’s name to Jack in our interview in November 1994, the conversation ran as follows:
J: Well, Frank is one of the mentors in my life. And there are many, many positive things I could say about Frank, because Frank is a larger-than-life kind of individual. In editorials in Gay, we called him an immortal homosexual spokesman. …
P: Uh-huh. That probably is not an overstatement.
J: Well, you know. I am grateful to Frank for having helped me at an earlier time in my life hone and develop my own perspective.
J: And we spent – with Frank, I was – for seven years, I was a constant in his life, and he was a constant in mine. In 1993, when the great gay march [March on Washington] took place, that was why I went to visit him, was just to pay respects to that fact.
P: But now, you and Frank did not agree on everything.
J: No. There were – actually, I was not the only one that didn’t agree with Frank. I was more in agreement with Frank than most other people were. And I was – that’s why [gay historian John] D’Emilio called me, you know, Frank’s, basically his – I played Andy Devine to his Hopalong Cassidy.
J: [Laughs] Frank was – although I was very much of an innovator myself, in certain dimensions, Frank’s interest was in the government in the earliest days. Mine was in changing the religious situation. Because that was philosophical. And yet both [of] us shared, in particular, shared an extreme interest in dousing the whole sickness question. That was probably the point that brought Frank and me and [legendary activist] Barbara [Gittings] together most.
P: Regarding Frank, one of the things that I saw in your memoirs was that he once lost re-election to the Mattachine Society of Washington presidency. How did he take that?
J: Rather hard. I – you see, the Board – there was this problem with Frank. Frank barked orders. He was a very authoritarian personality. He was a very bright man, and most of the time, what he said and did was, in my view, correct in those days.
P: But sometimes it doesn’t translate very well.
J: But the ordinary man in the street doesn’t understand the intellectual complexities and doesn’t like orders barked. And consequently, [Jack’s partner] Lige [Clarke] and myself, and people like [early gay activist] Lilli [Vincenz] and [Jack’s friend and fellow picketer] Gayle, who were personable, had to fight his battles for him. We had to do the political back-patting, which he was not up to.
P: As far as the magazine The Homosexual Citizen [a publication of MSW] was concerned, why didn’t Frank realize that he should never have fought, really, on a silly astrology article [written by Vincenz]? Didn’t he realize how self-defeating that would be? [Note: Frank’s high-handed response to an astrology column Vincenz penned caused her to leave the magazine, and it died shortly thereafter.]
J: I’ll tell you something funny. You know, everybody knew that Frank was anti-mystical. And one of the funny things that [New York gay activist] Dick Leitsch did at a major conference once was introduced him as Dr. Franklin Kameny, graduate in astrology from Harvard University. And of course, Frank looked at the podium in a total snit!
P: Oh, my – yes, yes! Was that intentional on Dick’s part, just to get a rise?
J: Yes, he knew Frank would go into one of his things right on the spot. And he did.
J: [Laughs] … [W]hat I realized as I moved away from Frank – and Lige used to say this about Frank to me, personally – he never said it to anybody else, but I’ll tell you. [Laughs] He said, “Frank will never forgive me because I took you away from him.” And he didn’t mean that in a romantic sense. He meant it in terms of a work partner, in terms of a number of things. But there was another sense in which I realized that I had been taken away from Frank. Not because of the great things that he stood for or had done – those things will always remain, and I will always be, as you have seen in my memoirs, grateful to him for having been a great teacher and mentor to me. On the other hand, I moved away from what I would call “scientism,” which was this strict, rationalistic, dry honing of everything. Not allowing, in an almost dogmatic sense – I think you can be a dogmatic empiricist, and I wanted a little more than that from life.
J: A lot of people do see Frank as a person who is too much of an automaton and not nearly enough of a person with feelings. I have seen other sides of Frank, and I have also seen the other nurturant, helping side of Frank, where individual problems and people’s concerns are involved.
When I brought up Jack’s name to Frank in our interview in August 1994, the conversation ran as follows (in retrospect, I’m quite surprised Frank didn’t have more to say about Jack):
F: Jack was my cohort, in a way, in the founding of the Mattachine. … We founded the Mattachine Society here. All right. He and I got to know each other somewhere, probably, in the latter part of 1960. And we interacted; we struck it off to some considerable degree. He ended up being a close friend and co-worker. As we moved into ’61. And ultimately, when I got going on the Mattachine Society, he was figuratively, even if not perhaps literally, the second charter member after me. And was always an officer of the group. And we worked well on quite a number of things. He was very much in front of a number of issues, psychiatric issues. Some others. And ultimately – eventually, of course, he moved down to Florida. … [Jack] calls me every now and then. Every once in a while, he’s always been in touch with me, or he sends me a clipping or whatever from what he does down there.
I think Kameny’s version of their interaction lends significant credence to Clarke’s comment as Nichols related it to me. Lige didn’t “take Jack away” from Frank, but Lige did show Jack that there were other life alternatives. Nichols determined to develop a well-rounded life, where Kameny kept all his focus on advancing the movement. Each remained true to his essential nature, and I don’t think either would have been content with the other’s ultimate choice.
Once the Supreme Court failed to issue a writ of certiorari for Kameny’s personal battle to retain his job in 1961, Frank never stopped fighting. He fought the federal government for the right of gays and lesbians to work in the federal government (including the military); he fought what he called the “nutty fundamentalists” on the subject of homosexuality and religion; he fought for “parity” (rather than “equality”) on the basis of sexual orientation; he fought other lesbian and gay leaders for control of the direction of the movement. (In retrospect, Frank was usually – although not always – correct.) While he didn’t win all the battles, I think he truly enjoyed the fight. By contrast, Nichols was a lover, not a fighter. He didn’t have the stomach or the personality to quarrel with others – Jack would prefer to laugh at their silly ways, or go his own way and show the folly of their foolish positions by living his life happily.
Frank received a good number of well-deserved accolades for his efforts later in his life (he was even praised in death – albeit with some factual errors – by political pundit Rachel Maddow on her MSNBC prime-time program). Jack’s death received no such attention, but his passing was certainly mourned by those who knew him.
Kameny acquired a Ph.D. in Astronomy from Harvard; Nichols earned his G.E.D., but never graduated from high school. Frank, the cerebral scientist, relied on empirical evidence with his brain; Jack, the instinctual sensualist, relied on what he felt in his heart. Perhaps that’s an apt way to think of them – a completed Scarecrow in Kameny, and a completed Tin Man in Nichols. For those of us who knew both men personally, I think it fair to say that we respected Frank, but loved Jack.
 A pervasive myth exists that all pre-Stonewall era activists were polite and timid, afraid to offend the masses, and that the actions at Stonewall brought the movement its more militant tone. No; Frank, Jack, Randy, and the other early picketers did that by 1965. (Many in the small lesbian/gay movement feared picketing, as only “unwashed rabble” would do such radical actions.) Frank did insist on a dress code, but that was because they were fighting, in part, for the right to be employed by the federal government (one of Kameny’s personal hobby horses), which meant that they had to look employable.
By Paul D. Cain
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