by Stacey Chandler, Reference Archivist
With the launch of the National Archives video for the It Gets Better Project, we’re spotlighting documents on the history of the LGBT rights movement from the collections of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which barred people with a history of “criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct,” including “sexual perversion,” from serving as employees of the United States government. That year, a young World War II veteran named Frank Kameny was working on his Ph.D. in astronomy at Harvard. In July 1957, he was hired as an astronomer for the U.S. Army Map Service – the work, he later wrote, he had hoped to do since he was seven years old.
But by 1958, the U.S. Civil Service Commission had fired and banned Dr. Kameny from federal service after investigating him for homosexual activity in violation of E.O. 10450. He appealed his firing through federal courts, losing twice; his appeal eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961. The Court refused to review his claim, but Kameny made history by bringing the case – the first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation – to the Supreme Court.
Kameny continued to advocate for gay rights, forming the activist group The Mattachine Society of Washington in 1961. His work with the group is documented in the Kennedy Library archives, which holds letters that Kameny and other Mattachine members sent to the President in an effort “to stand up for their rights and freedoms.” Kameny explained in one letter:
In World War II, I willingly fought the Germans, with bullets, in order to preserve and secure my rights, freedoms, and liberties, and those of my fellow citizens. In 1961, it has, ironically, become necessary for me to fight my own government, with words, in order to achieve some of the very same rights, freedoms, and liberties for which I placed my life in jeopardy in 1945. This letter is part of that fight.” (May 15, 1961)
Kameny wrote an astounding number of letters throughout his lifetime of advocacy, most of which are now in the Library of Congress. The huge volume of his correspondence makes the personal nature of his letters to President Kennedy especially surprising for archivists here. In these letters, he tenaciously argued for the right of gay Americans to work as civil servants, poignantly evoking the President’s famous call to public service:
You have said: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ We know what we can do for our country; we wish to do it; we ask only that our country allow us to do it.” (Excerpt, August 28, 1962)
Kameny quoted other Kennedy speeches to point out the differences between political rhetoric and the reality of life for minority groups in the United States:
Yours is an administration which has openly disavowed blind conformity. …You yourself said, in your recent address at George Washington University, ‘…that (people) desire to develop their own personalities and their own potentials, that democracy permits them to do so…’ But your government, by its policies certainly does not permit the homosexual to develop his personality and his potential.” (Excerpt, May 15, 1961)
Kameny also sent Mattachine Society pamphlets and press releases to the White House, documenting some of Kameny’s goals beyond changing the rules for federal employment. These documents highlight Kameny’s now famous fight to remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM):
Homosexuality is neither a sickness, disease, neurosis, psychosis, disorder, defect, nor other disturbance, but merely a matter of the predisposition of a significantly large minority of our citizens.” (Excerpt, February 28, 1963)
Letters from Kameny and the Society continued to arrive at the White House throughout 1962 and into 1963, many expressing frustration at the lack of response from the administration. In fact, the only response we’ve found in our archives is a brief note from John W. Macy, Chairman of the U.S. Civil Service Commission, to Bruce Schuyler, Secretary of the Mattachine Society, who had requested a meeting. Macy wrote:
It is the established policy of the Civil Service Commission that homosexuals are not suitable for appointment to or retention in positions in the Federal service. There would be no useful purpose served in meeting with representatives of your Society.”
Concerned by the disinterest of government officials at many levels, Kameny wrote to Ted Sorensen, President Kennedy’s Special Counsel, in March 1963:
We wish to cooperate in any way possible, if the chance for friendly, constructive cooperation is offered to us by you, but if it continues to be refused us, then we will have to seek out and to use any lawful means whatever, which seem to us appropriate, in order to achieve our lawful ends, just as the Negro has done in the South when he was refused cooperation.” (March 6, 1963)
Though Kameny passed away in 2011 without ever working as a professional astronomer again, he remained an outspoken leader in the LGBT rights movement for the rest of his life. In 2012, an asteroid was named after him as a posthumous honor both to the scientific career he might have had, as well as to his noteworthy contributions to civil rights in the United States.
This folder of documents in the Kennedy Library archives supports the idea noted by Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero:
Things have gotten better and we have many records here to prove just that.”
Here at the Kennedy Library, we can look to a 1961 Kameny letter, which observes,
The winds of change are blowing. A wise and foresighted government will start NOW to take constructive action on this question.”
Almost fifty years later, when Kameny donated his records to the Library of Congress, he stated,
Things have changed. How they have changed. I am honored and proud that it is so.”
Note: Check out all of Frank Kameny’s letters from the White House Central Name File in our digital archives. We also invite you to watch the National Archives’ contribution to the It Gets Better Project.
With thanks to Charles Francis, founder of The Kameny Papers project.