(This post is adapted from a post published on our previous blog on 1/11/2014.)
By Stacey Flores Chandler, Reference Archivist
In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed an Executive Order that changed the course of American history – and not just in the way the government planned. E.O. 10450 made “dishonest, immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct” – including so-called “sexual perversion” – grounds for firing any federal government employee. The order opened the door for agencies and the military to find, fire, and even publicly out suspected “homosexuals” in what’s now called the Lavender Scare.
Thousands had lost their jobs under E.O. 10450 by 1957, when Franklin E. Kameny, a young veteran with a new PhD in astronomy, started his dream job as an astronomer with the U.S. Army Map Service. But just a few months in, the U.S. Civil Service Commission started to suspect that Kameny might be gay. Investigators asked him about his relationships with men, but Kameny wouldn’t answer, explaining that “these were matters of his own personal life…having no relation to his performance in the position for which he was hired.” The Army disagreed and fired Kameny in 1958 for “immoral conduct.”
He quickly appealed to federal courts and lost twice, but when his case reached the Supreme Court in 1960, Kameny decided to try something groundbreaking: instead of denying he was gay (as fired workers often did), he’d argue that the government had no business declaring homosexuality as immoral. The Court wouldn’t review his claim (accessible in full in the National Archives Catalog), but Kameny had already made history; his was the Supreme Court’s first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation.
Being fired under E.O. 10450 – and fighting back in court – shifted Kameny’s entire life plan; he became a full-time, lifelong activist for gay rights. Less than a year after his case was dismissed, he formed the grassroots advocacy group the Mattachine Society of Washington and set his sights on equal treatment and employment rights for gay Americans. Kameny sent letters arguing his case to officials across the entire government – including at the very top – and the John F. Kennedy administration received its first letter from Kameny a few months after the Inauguration. The letter, the first of several that are now part of our archives, was the start of his group’s effort “to stand up for their rights and freedoms.” Kameny explained:
In World War II, I willingly fought the Germans…In 1961, it has, ironically, become necessary for me to fight my own government, with words, to achieve some of the very same rights, freedoms, and liberties for which I placed my life in jeopardy in 1945.JFKWHCNF-1418-002-p0002
Over the years, his letters to President Kennedy made varied and detailed arguments, but there was one tactic Kameny deployed most: using the President’s own ideas, and sometimes his exact words, to make the case for gay rights. His first letter to JFK referenced a famous Kennedy campaign speech, and asked for a “New Frontier” in the country’s treatment of his community. Later in the same letter, he quoted another Kennedy speech to point out the gap between political rhetoric and the lived experience of marginalized people:
You yourself said in your recent address at George Washington University ‘that (people) desire to develop their own personalities and their own potentials.’ But your government…certainly does not permit the homosexual to develop his personality and his potential.JFKWHCNF-1418-002-p0004
“Let more than mere lip service,” he demanded, “be given to laudable-sounding ideals!”
In August 1962, Kameny sent another letter to the President, arguing that homophobic employment policies were “inexcusably and unnecessarily wasteful of trained manpower.” In this letter, Kameny argued for gay worker protections by invoking one of the most famous Kennedy phrases:
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.Franklin Kameny to John F. Kennedy, August 28, 1962.
Kameny also sent Mattachine Society pamphlets and reports to President Kennedy, laying out some of his other goals for the community. Some of the documents foreshadow Kameny’s famous fight to remove “homosexuality” from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (after several presentations from Kameny, the APA voted to remove the listing in 1973).
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.JFKWHCNF-1418-002-p0017
As Kameny and the Society kept sending letters to the White House throughout 1962 and 1963, they expressed frustration that the President and his team didn’t have much to say in response. In fact, the only reply we’ve found in the President’s papers is a brief note from Civil Service Commission Chair John W. Macy to Mattachine Society Secretary Bruce Schuyler, after Schuyler 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.JFKWHCNF-1418-002-p0025
Concerned by his government’s disinterest, Kameny wrote to Ted Sorensen, Special Counsel to the President, in March 1963. Kameny noted that his group had tried to work quietly with the government to address discriminatory policies – and warned that if officials continued to dismiss them, his community would take its cue from the Black Civil Rights Movement and shift to more visible protest.
…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.JFKWHCNF-1418-002-p0006
The government didn’t address any of Kameny’s concerns, so in 1965, he followed through on his letter and organized the first protest for gay rights to ever take place in front of the White House. Ten years later, the Civil Service Commission ended its policy broadly banning gays and lesbians from federal service – but other restrictions, including those barring openly LGBTQ+ people from serving in the military or accessing classified information – stayed in place for several more decades. E.O. 10450 was formally repealed in its entirety on January 17, 2017.
Though Kameny passed away in 2011 without ever working as a professional astronomer again, he remained an outspoken leader in the LGBTQ+ rights movement for the rest of his life (and he even pops up again in our archives, in records related to the 1972 Presidential race). In 2009, when the U.S. government issued a formal apology to Kameny for its discrimination against him, he noted: “In a sense, it took 50 years – but I won my case.”
To learn more about Frank Kameny, the mid-20th century LGBTQ+ rights movement, and the Lavender Scare, check out these sources:
- The Kameny Papers Project
- Oral history interview of Franklin E. Kameny. Franklin E. Kameny Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
- The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America, by Eric Cervini
- The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, by David K. Johnson
- Gay Is Good: The Life and Letters of Gay Rights Pioneer Franklin Kameny, by Michael G. Long
With special thanks to Charles Francis, founder of The Kameny Papers project.