Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Remembering Frank Kameny

I first became aware of Frank Kameny in the late 1950s when his arrest on sodomy charges made the news. I was about 14 at that time, and although I was mortified by the sodomy charges aspect of the events, I nevertheless knew very well who I was and that it was my team which was taking a very public bashing.  It was not long before I heard about the  Mattachine Society, although I had no idea how to become a member. 

Now fast forward about twenty years. In the mid 1970s I joined the DC Gay Activists Alliance and finally met this man who had been on the margins of my consciousness for so long. That first meeting was not entirely propitious: had I been looking for a hero, I probably would have kept looking. Frank was hardly the prepossessing sort; in fact, my initial cursory impression was that he was a Marabou stork of a man. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way: there were actually serious discussions at the GAA meetings to arrange some sort of funding to pay for Frank to have dental work. ”The movement” back then was preoccupied with public images, and while no one seriously doubted his ability to speak eloquently and effectively on behalf of our cause, there were frequent backstage murmurs about the appearance of the messenger.

It didn’t take me long to realize that my ornithology was all wrong: the man was not a stork, he was an eagle. Those monthly GAA meetings could be tedious and boring, yet on nights when Frank was in good form, they provided some lively theatrics. No sooner had some injudicious newbie had the temerity to voice some poorly thought-out or logically flawed proposal than Frank would launch a keenly articulated rebuttal.   If the idea being offered was one he found to be repugnant, then the rhetorical fireworks really went off in an almost ferocious explosion. But the wonder of these exchanges was that as I knew him, he never lowered himself to ad hominem attacks: he stayed focused on the issues, not the person. And when it became apparent to him that his adversary was acting out of truculence, he would abruptly end the discussion and announce – and I can still hear him saying this - “In that case, then we agree to disagree.” It wasn’t unusual to hear him later chatting convivially with the erstwhile target of his lashings. 

One of the things I sometimes wondered about when I first began to attend GAA meetings was how this man, who alone for about two decades had been the most conspicuous face in the gay rights movement, would work with the younger upstarts who now surrounded him. There was a pervasive respect for Frank back then, an always present awareness of his unique status in our community, yet those attitudes did not necessarily translate into tranquil exchanges in a changing world where the young Turks were sometimes pulling for new ideas and different directions. Yet it quickly became apparent to me that he had another good quality: for all of his seeming apartness, he was a skillful team player.
Many times during a lively debate one could look over and see Frank sitting there, taking it all in. There were times when the look on his face suggested bemusement; I like to think that that look was at least partly motivated by a sort of avuncular pride: after all, he more than anyone had made it happen.

Years after I left GAA I read the diaries of Virginia Woolf; there is a passage there in which Woolf describes the fascination she experienced as she watched Jewesses (her word) listening to Classical music.  No sooner had I read those words than I remembered the fascination I felt in watching Frank as he, with almost palpable intensity of concentration, followed the development of a proposal being broached by another GAA member.

The leadership of GAA in those days kept to a surprisingly high-minded standard of deportment during meetings. Those attempting a sally into the trivial or frivolous risked a public rebuke. Smarts and accomplishment won you respect. It took me a while to win Frank’s respect, but when the time came I relished it. As the one man communications committee person I had written a letter on behalf of GAA to the Washington Post in which I pointed out some shortcomings in an article which the Post had published. We desperately wanted recognition back in those days, and no one expected the Post to deign to reply. But reply they did, and surprising as that was, there was something else  which pushed it over the top: the Post’s response was signed by none other than Ben Bradlee himself. Frank gave me a look that day I’ll never forget.

Years after I left GAA I ran into him around town a few times. I remember one meeting where, after a bit of prompting, he seemed to remember me. I vaguely remember another meeting much later when even generous prompting didn’t seem to elicit a response. But both times he was delighted to be recognized and responded with a profuse display of the old fashioned, almost courtly politesse with which he always addressed me (and I suppose everyone else he did not know well).

I’ve never met anyone else with such an utterly imperturbable sense of integrity; he could be persuaded by a well-articulated argument, but his core beliefs seemed to be adamantine and immutable. Once fixed on a goal, he was relentless. These qualities sometimes impelled him on to conclusions which baffled or even offended his supporters, conclusions which were definitely not ready for prime time. Yet this candor rarely left any doubt about his position on the issues.
Frank may have forgotten me, but I doubt that I will ever forget Frank. And I am glad to have this opportunity to publicly express my gratitude for all he has done for us.

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