Friday, March 24th, 2023

Kameny takes on Brokaw: his open letter to Random House publishers

Billy Glover

November 27, 2008.

This letter from Frank Kameny is worth reprinting, as are Walter Williams’ observations, posted as a comment below.

November 26, 2007

Mr. Tom Brokaw
c/o Random House Publishing Group

Ms. Gina Centrello
Random House Publishing Group

Ms. Kate Medina
Executive Editorial Director
Random House Publishing Group
1745 Broadway
New York, New York, 10019

Dear Mr. Brokaw and Mmes. Centrello and Medina:

As a long-time gay activist, who initiated gay activism and militancy at the very start of “your” Sixties, in 1961; coined the slogan “Gay is Good” in 1968; and is viewed by many as one of the “Founding Fathers” of the Gay Movement, I write with no little indignation at the total absence of any slightest allusion to the gay movement for civil equality in your book Boom! Voices of the Sixties.

Your book simply deletes the momentous events of that decade which led to the vastly altered and improved status of gays in our culture today.  This change would have been inconceivable at the start of the sixties and would not have occurred at all without the events of that decade totally and utterly ignored by you.  Mr. Brokaw, you have “de-gayed” the entire decade. “Voices of the Sixties”??? One does not hear even one single gay voice in your book. The silence is complete and deafening.

As a gay combat veteran of World War II, and therefore a member of the “Greatest Generation,” I find myself and my fellow gays as absent from your narration as if we did not and do not exist. We find Boom! Boom!! Boom!!! in your book about all the multitudinous issues and the vast cultural changes of that era. But not a single “Boom”— only dead silence — about gays, homosexuality, and the Gay Movement.

The development of every other possible, conceivable issue and cause which came to the forefront in that period is at least mentioned, and is usually catalogued: race; sex and gender; ethnicity; the environment; and others, on and on and on — except only gays.

In 1965, we commenced bringing gays and our issues “out of the closet” with our then daring picketing demonstrations at the White House and other government sites, and our annual 4th of July demonstrations at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The Smithsonian Institution displayed these original pickets last month, in the same exhibition as the desk where Thomas Jefferson drafted The Declaration of Independence. The name of the Smithsonian’s exhibition?  “Treasures of American History.” In your book: No Boom; only silence.

About 1963, a decade-long effort commenced to reverse the psychiatric categorization of gays as mentally or emotionally ill, concluding in 1973 with a mass “cure” of all of us by the American Psychiatric Association. No boom in your book; only your silence.

The most momentous single Gay Movement event occurred at the end of June, 1969, when the “Stonewall Rebellion” in New York, almost overnight (actually it took three days) converted what had been a tiny, struggling gay movement into the vast grass-roots movement which it now is. We had five or six gay organizations in the entire country in 1961; fifty to sixty in 1969; by the time of the first Gay Pride march, in New York one year later in 1970, we had 1,500 — and 2,500 by 1971 when counting stopped. If ever there was Boom, this was it. In your book, no Boom, only your silence.

About 1972, Elaine Noble was elected to the Massachusetts state House of Representatives as the first elected openly gay public official. I had run here in Washington, DC, the previous year for election to Congress as the first openly gay candidate for any federal office. Harvey Milk was elected to the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco. No boom in your book; only your silence.

Mr. Brokaw, you deal with the histories of countless individuals. Where are the gays of that era: Barbara Gittings, Jack Nichols, Harry Hay, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons, Randolfe Wicker, Harvey Milk, and numerous others? No booms in your book; only silence and heterosexuals.

Starting in 1961, a long line of court cases attacked the long-standing U.S. Civil Service Gay Ban (fully as absolute and as virulent as the current Military Gay ban, which actually goes back some 70 years and was also fought in the ’60s) with final success in 1975 when the ban on employment of gays by the federal government was rescinded. In your book, no boom; only your silence.

The assault on the anti-sodomy laws, which made at least technical criminals of all gays (and most non-gays for that matter, although never used against them) and which was the excuse for an on-going terror campaign against the gay community through arrests the country over, began in 1961 and proceeded through the ’60s and onward. In your book, 
no boom; only your silence.

In 1972, following up on Stonewall, the first anti-discrimination law protective of gays was enacted in East Lansing, Michigan, followed by the much more comprehensive one in D.C. in 1973 — starting a trend which now encompasses some twenty states, countless counties and cities, and has now reached Congress in ENDA. In your book, no boom; only your silence.

The Sixties were a period of unprecedented rapid social and cultural upheaval and change. We gays were very much a part of all that. A reader of your book would never have the slightest notion of any of that. In your book, no boom; only your silence.

At the start of the ’60s, gays were completely invisible. By the end, and especially after Stonewall, we were seen everywhere: in entertainment, education, religion, politics, business, elsewhere and everywhere. In Boom! our invisibility remains total.

The only allusions to us in your entire book are the most shallow, superficial, brief references in connection with sundry heterosexuals. Where are the gay spokespeople? We are certainly there to speak for ourselves. But in your book, only silence.

Mr. Brokaw, I could go on, but this should be sufficient to make my point. The whole thing is deeply insulting. As I said, you have de-gayed an entire generation. For shame, for shame, for shame. You owe an abject public apology to the entire gay community. I demand it; we expect it.

Gay is Good. You are not.


Franklin E. Kameny, Ph.D.
Dr. Franklin Kameny

Kameny Papers Project


About The Author

1 Comment

  1. Walter L. Williams, Ph.D.


    Reading your powerfully written letter to Tom Brokaw, critiquing his book on the 1960s, reminds me why you were so effective as a leading gay activist. As a historian I am pleased and proud that you wrote to Brokaw. However, I am distressed that in writing this wonderful letter you have also fallen victim to the same historical amnesia that you so condemn in Mr. Brokaw. Though he can claim ignorance in this matter, you cannot. Though I have the deepest respect for your many contributions to our community, it would be irresponsible for me, as a historian, not to point out this omission.

    In your desire to make your letter more powerful, you have ignored the contributions of the activists who preceded you in the 1950s. You mention four individuals who became active in the 1950s: Harry Hay, Del Martin, Phyllis Lyons [sic], and Barbara Gittings. But no one would know that from your letter. You say that you “initiated gay activism” in 1961. What would you call the important work of the above four people, as well as many others (Lisa Ben, W. Dorr Legg, Dale Jennings, Irma Wolf, Don Slater, Betty Perdue, Jim Kepner, Hal Call, Joan Corbin, Merritt Thompson, to name a few) if not activism?

    Historians can argue about what is sufficiently “militant” to warrant the use of that term. But, what is more militantly activist than the cover story of ONE Magazine on “Homosexual Marriage” in 1953? What is more militantly activist than the tenacious struggle of ONE, Inc., begun in 1954, to sue the United States Post Office for refusing to allow ONE Magazine to be sent through the U.S. mail? Though the activists at ONE suffered one court defeat after another, they did not give up but kept appealing the case for four years until the United States Supreme Court overturned all previous decisions. “ONE v. Oleson” was the very first Supreme Court victory for gay activism, and it paved the way for all GLBT publications. That momentous victory was in 1958.

    You say, “About 1963, a decade-long effort commenced to reverse the psychiatric categorization of gays as mentally or emotionally ill.” Not true: in the 1950s the Mattachine Society and ONE, Inc. worked closely with Dr. Evelyn Hooker, professor of psychology at UCLA, and others, to challenge the idea that homosexuality is a mental illness. She published several articles in academic journals that had far-reaching impact on psychiatrists, all in the 1950s.

    You say “At the start of the Sixties gays were completely invisible.” I understand your rhetorical flourish, but how can you say gays were “completely invisible” when ONE Magazine, The Mattachine Review, and The Ladder were sold on newsstands in most leading cities? The 1950s pioneers were giving speeches, being quoted in newspapers, and making many efforts to publicize the equal rights of homosexuals. Doesn’t their pioneering effort deserve a qualifying “almost completely,” at the least?

    Dr. Kameny, I could go on, but this should be sufficient to make my point. I will not quote the last paragraph of your letter against you, because that would be overkill. But my reasoning is exactly the same as yours. If a Stonewall activist repeated the incorrect claim that “the gay and lesbian movement began with Stonewall in 1969,” I would be there correcting them, citing your name as well as the 1950s pioneers. Indeed, Yolanda Retter and I do precisely that in our book GAY AND LESBIAN RIGHTS IN THE UNITED STATES: A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY (Greenwood Press, 2003).

    Almost all of those 1950s pioneers, not to mention the very earliest writers like Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Henry Gerber, and Radclyffe Hall, are now dead. But they need someone to point out what they did, and what they accomplished. They should not be erased from history any more than you should be. You have many accomplishments to be very proud of; you do not need to erase the accomplishments of those who preceded you. All of us, we need to continually remind ourselves, are standing on the shoulders of those who preceded us. If we try to win a battle by distorting the past, we will surely lose the war. Please understand that my admiration for you continues. But I cannot allow incorrect impressions to be spread widely to those who are too young to know the truth.

    Walter L. Williams, Ph.D.
    Professor of Anthropology, History and Gender Studies
    University of Southern California
    Los Angeles CA 90089-4352 USA

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