History Makers: Where Are the Founders of the Modern Gay Rights Movement, and What Is Being Done to Preserve Their Stories? (Pioneers)

By Neff, Lisa | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), January 21, 2003 | Go to article overview

History Makers: Where Are the Founders of the Modern Gay Rights Movement, and What Is Being Done to Preserve Their Stories? (Pioneers)


Neff, Lisa, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


People keep telling Frank Kameny that he ought to write a book--a best-selling bombshell of an autobiography. A sort of The Oldest Living Gay Activist Tells All.

And the 77-year-old agrees that he probably should write his memoirs. For one thing, as a man who has devoted his life to the unprofitable profession of gay rights activist, Kameny says he could use the money. Then, of course, he also admits he's got a lot to say.

"It's a matter of getting around to it," says Kameny, who's lived in Washington, D.C., for the past 40 years and still makes rabble-rousing speeches for groups such as the Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund. "I used to be very efficient, and now it's all I can do to keep up and keep current with things."

It took the death of one of the fore-fathers of the gay rights movement, Harry Hay, in October to remind some gay men and lesbians of the many early activists like Kameny who are still very much alive and still have a lot to say. And these activists aren't only talking about the movement's early days; they're also showing how their experience--and gay history in general--can help gay rights in the days to come.

If Hay, who founded the Mattachine Society in 1950, "gets the credit for throwing the [gay rights] switch from off to on," as Kameny puts it, then Kameny gets a lot of the credit for keeping the movement juiced.

A Harvard-trained astronomer, Kameny lost his job with the U.S. Army Map Service in 1957 after his arrest on a morals charge based on his sexual orientation. He fought the dismissal, taking a landmark discrimination suit against the federal government all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear his case in 1961. In that decade he founded the D.C. chapter of the Mattachine Society, picketed the White House, the State Department, and the Civil Service Commission, and waged a campaign to repeal sodomy statutes across the country. In 1971 he ran for Congress, placing fourth in a six-person race.

"When I got into the movement, everything needed to be done," Kameny says. "I think those of us in the early years started with substantially nothing--politically, socially, and culturally--and we created an enormously successful movement that led to change in ways that nobody would have anticipated in our wildest dreams in the `50s and `60s."

It was pioneers like Kameny, the Reverend Troy Perry, Barbara Gittings, Del Martin, and Phyllis Lyon, who during the not-so-gay-friendly mid 20th century established what we now know as the fundamental principals for the gay rights movement: that homosexuality is normal and that gay men and lesbians have inherent rights.

Perry, 62, a former Pentecostal minister who in 1968 founded the first Metropolitan Community Church, continues to serve as moderator of the MCC, which now has more than 40,000 members in more than 300 congregations in 17 countries.

Partners Martin and Lyon, the San Francisco couple who in 1955 founded the mother of all lesbian organizations in the United States, the Daughters of Bilitis, dedicate much of their time to issues about aging in the community.

"It's now on the [gay rights] agenda," Martin, 81 says.

"But it's taken a long time to get it there," Lyon, 78, adds. She and Martin, together almost 50 years, tend to complete each other's thoughts.

Gittings, 70, of Wilmington, Del., founded a New York Daughters of Bilitis chapter and, like Kameny, marched in picket lines at the White House and the Pentagon in the mid 1960s. She says for 44 years she's "had the satisfaction of working with other gay people ... to get the bigots off our backs, to oil the closet door hinges, to change prejudiced hearts and minds." When she got involved in the movement in 1958, she says, "There were scarcely 200 of us [activists] in the whole United States. It was like a club--we all knew each other."

But as Hay's death reminded us, many of the elder statesmen and stateswomen from the formative years before Stonewall are gone. …

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