When Did LGBT Activism Change From the Streets to the Courts?

Dr. Frank KamenyDr. Frank Kameny was certainly a wise and dedicated man toward LGBT activism, although he would never admit to it ever being called “LGBT” for even a brief lapse in his life. To Frank, our entire community could be pigeon-holed under the singular term of “gay”.

“Gay is good”, he would say in that booming voice that never seemed to fail him even to his last days. “I coined that term, you know!” He would say with a good degree of jocularity.

The one thing that hasn’t been credited that strongly in history is that Dr. Frank Kameny is thought to be the first homosexual in American history to have filed a lawsuit to rectify an anti-gay policy when he filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States in 1959.

It was summarily rejected, as were the hundreds of appeals to the civil service review board that Dr. Kameny helped prepare on behalf of members of the Mattachine Society of Washington D.C. but that was Frank’s way. He was trained as a Harvard Astronomer and he thought in mathematical lines that were so straight (no pun intended) that one could get a smooth shave of either face or leg from the sharpness of his methodology and pragmatic mind.

But his co-founder of the Mattachine Society and good friend, Jack Nichols, was just a young man who came from suburban Maryland and up until that point; his total exposure to a philosophy of being homosexual was one of Jack Nichols at ECHO meeting on Religious cooperation with the homosexual communityhaving read Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Donald Webster Cory’s The Homosexual in America.

One night at a party in D.C., Jack overheard Frank discussing Cory’s book and a friendship was formed that was to last the two until Jack’s death in May of 2005. In the beginning it was more of a mentor-student relationship with Frank taking the station of headmaster.

The trouble was that Jack was always the sort who did better learning what he wanted to learn when he wanted to learn it. He never formally went beyond the 8th grade in education and if it weren’t for the fact that a retired school teacher saw the potential in Jack’s free-spirited and poetic mind, he might never have amounted to much more than just another bar rat with a slightly more developed taste for Walt Whitman and Robert Burns, but then again, Frank might have spent the 1960s filing appeals and never organizing things like the White House protests of 1965 and 1966 and the July 4th Independence Hall protests of those same years.

It’s safe to say that Frank and Jack were opposite ends of two magnets—one polarized toward the concisely analytical and scientific but almost totally devoid of art and philosophy and the other who saw the art and poetry of life and really didn’t have much use for the scientific. The protests were Jack's idea and many were executed begrudgingly on the part of Dr. Kameny who felt such actions would reflect badly on the gay rights movement.

Inevitably, the long and the short of this parable from these early days is that the protests at the White House got plenty of press as did the protests at Independence Hall.

Frank’s appeal with SCOTUS was summarily refused as were the hundreds of appeals filed with the civil service board. Through the 1960s, not one civil suit or challenge to any law via the court systems was successful.

On June 27, 1969, after one of the hottest days on record and a frustrating day for many gay men and drag queens trying to view the body of Judy Garland at her funeral in Manhattan, some cocky vice cops tried to bust a small mafia-owned gay bar in Greenwich Village called The Stonewall Inn and the patrons of the bar were in no mood for it.

Their rebellion against the incessant police harassment turned out every homosexual in the Village and five days later Mayor Lindsay admitted that his own brother was gay and called the police off and proceeded to pass the first gay equality laws in the nation.


1984 Documentary Before Stonewall

It was historically appropriate that Jack Nichols and his lover Lige Clarke were living in the Village at the time.

A matter of weeks later the Gay Liberation Front was born and even though it didn’t last long before in-fighting sought to pave a less abrasive approach to gay civil rights and the Gay Activists Alliance was born, but still, the GAA based all their activities on in-the-street protests, newsletters, press coverage and even outrageous street theater at times.

By 1975 civil suits against prejudicial anti-gay laws or policies scored zero and street actions had changed more of these laws and made more friends among politicians than any other actions. Peaceful protests had become a regular part of everyday city life from coast-to-coast.

Harvey Milk-Save Our RightsMeanwhile, from 1973-75 a little heard of man with a bullhorn in the Castro district of San Francisco was beginning to become known as “The Mayor of Castro Street” and his actions involved business alliances with not only gay owned but straight owned businesses as well. Those straight owned businesses that didn’t make concessions to being friendly to gays and lesbians in the Castro soon found themselves out of business.

Harvey Milk also made ovations during his attempts to get elected to the City Supervisor seat to bridge gaps that no gay man ever had before. He worked with the local Teamsters to get Coors beer taken from all the bars and package stores not just in support of the union but also in support of the gay community since Adolph Coors and his family were well-known anti-gay contributors.

Harvey did more with his bullhorn and brain than any lawyer ever did in a courtroom and that includes all the way up to 2013.

In the 1980s, following the death of Harvey, the LGBT community felt a stinging grief on the back of losing him as an icon. We hardly had time to draw a breath before the age of AIDS was upon us and for those of us who survived that period in history, it’s still almost beyond comprehension that we could have suffered death on a scale that immense while we had a government that said and did nothing as hundreds of thousands died simply because the disease first appeared in gay men.

Attacking the government in the courts over this would have been useless so the organization Act-Up was born from the mind of the late Vito Russo, himself a victim of HIV. We protested in the streets, in Congress and in front of any television camera or open microphone that we could find.

Then a minor operative of Harvey Milk’s election campaigns and former male prostitute, Cleve Jones, came up with the concept of the AIDS Quilt. For each and every person who died of AIDS complications, their friends and family would make a small section of a much larger quilt that could be brought together and brought together it was. Before it finally was retired for good and brought back home to The Castro in San Francisco, it had over 90,000 names and was over 24 football fields in size.

I defy anyone who lived through the 1980s to go see it at any one of the various places it’s displayed such as the old Tower Records store on Market St. and not to cry when you see it.

Maybe that was what changed all of us. If that was it and we had some sort of massive, multi-generational mourning period caused by losing so many of our leaders, artists, writers and creative people from a time when our culture was just beginning to thrive and blossom.

By the time we got into the Clinton administration, he had promised that once elected, gays and lesbians would be able to serve in the military openly. Of course that ended by blowing up in his face and at hands of his own party, noSenator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) less. The head of the Armed Forces Senate Committee, Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) was the loudest voice of opposition, even though he now backs the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the same “compromise” he helped craft.

By the time the election of 1995 swept a Republican majority into both chambers, it could have been that organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force began to try to flex muscles into hired PAC arena’s with the best of intentions, but as the saying goes: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

In the past 17 years, virtually thousands of lawsuits have been filed in the pursuit of LGBT rights. What were the results? Just about zero other than perhaps making a little splash in the press so the HRC decided to take the “lead” and splinter our community into the “marriage equality” issue.

At first, the issue was one of many things being worked on at the grass roots level. Many of the older activists didn’t think very highly of the campaign because it solved very little and they were right but the campaign wasn’t aimed at them. It was aimed at younger LGBT people coming up and it was working. Who didn’t enjoy the concept of romance but this isn’t about kissing and sex. This is about civil rights and always has been.

So far, the marriage issue has been challenged by referendum from the right-wing Christians in most states where it’s been passed. In several states, such as California, where everyone expected it to stick, Proposition 8 repealed marriage equality within a mere matter of months in 2008 and even though everyone seems so optimistic, it seems that the issue still needs to be vetted by the Supreme Court of the United States where the future of deciding marriage equality at the state level is likely to be upheld by the Justices and California may never see marriage equality.

However, a larger issue to consider is that as of the beginning of 2013, there are 29 states that an LGBT person can be fired, evicted, harassed by state, county, municipal, police and churches and it’s completely legal.

Now if that happened to you would marriage be at the top of your list of things to do? Like one of those old movies where the thinly veiled gay character runs around backstage yelling, “Concentrate, people! Concentrate!” The Stephanie Donaldreal issue is that we need to concentrate on protecting the destruction of the lives of the millions of our LGBT brethren who live in those states where we’re not even considered to be human.

So do we stand for wedding bells or protecting the basic human rights of our community? Personally, I would think this is a no brainer, but I still get a lot of arguments out of people I normally would consider very intelligent.

By Stephanie Donald

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