Before the recent series of Supreme Court cases—Romer v. Evans (1996), Lawrence v. Texas (2003), and United States v. Windsor (2013)—, gay people had no constitutional rights in the United States. It was only after these court cases that gay people were recognized as a distinct minority, having the same rights under the due process and equal protection clauses of the Constitution as all other United States citizens. Before this, when individual gay people rose to the attention of the Supreme Court, it was most often because they engaged in icky sexual practices, which the Court said was just fine for states to criminalize (see Bowers v. Hardwick, 1986) or otherwise persecute.
Consequently, when a gay man, whose name was Frank Kameny, fifty years ago (actually on June 7, 1961) petitioned the Supreme Court in an appeal he wrote himself, and claimed to be a “homosexual,” one of 10% of the population of the United States, a minority like Negroes, Catholics, and Jews, and who had rights, it was a revolutionary request, not only in the legal history of the United States, but in its cultural history. Very very few people in 1961 thought of homosexuals as a distinct and permanent minority who had rights.
Frank Kameny was an astronomer, employed by the US Army Map Service until his dismissal on December 20, 1957, on the grounds of “immoral conduct.” The Map Service meant that he had been arrested for a men’s room incident while he was in San Francisco for a professional meeting. The US Civil Service subsequently barred him permanently from government employment. Kameny had no way to get his job back except to appeal to the courts, so he appealed first to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and then to the Supreme Court.
In a time when nobody in government was thinking about gay people, Frank Kameny thought the whole problem through and devised changes in the law that we, fifty years later, can see have been adopted by the whole federal government. (There were a few others who made an equal contribution. Donald Webster Cory, the author of The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach, published in 1951.) In his petition to SCOTUS, Kameny, in a methodical way, moves from asserting that there are gay people, to asserting that the government has no right to define moral acts for those people: “For this government to subscribe, in this explicit fashion to a particular definition of immoral acts is tantamount to its establishing certain religious beliefs and discarding or disowning others, and to setting up an implicit religious test for the holding of public employment.” He asserts, “petitioner asserts, flatly, unequivocally, and absolutely uncompromisingly, that homosexuality, whether by mere inclination or by overt act, is not only not immoral, but that for those choosing voluntarily to engage in homosexual acts, such acts are moral in a real and positive sense, and are good, right, and desirable, socially and personally.” He proceeds through an analysis of the government’s anti-homosexual policies, of the due process, and the equal protection clauses of the Constitution, constitutional arguments that every gay reader is familiar with in 2015.
I was in the Army in 1961, when Kameny made his petition to SCOTUS, and I remember the chaos that was my mind in those years around my sexuality. I have such admiration for a man who was so clear about what was true when there were very very few others, and almost nobody with the courage to say, in a public document, I am a homosexual. My God, even Tennessee Williams was equivocating.
Frank Kameny’s petition to SCOTUS is available from Amazon for your Kindle. The title is Petition Denied, Revolution Begun. It is not available in hardcover or for your iPad