To commemorate Pride Month, a celebration of the progress made in the fight for equality among the LGBTQ community, SU Press interviewed Michael Long, the editor of Gay is Good: The Life and Letters of Gay Rights Pioneer Franklin Kameny. Long is the author or editor of numerous books on nonviolent protest, civil rights, politics, and religion.
SUP: You’ve published books on Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther, and other historic figures. What drew you to civil rights activist Franklin Kameny and how important did you feel it was to tell the world his story?
Michael Long: I first came across Kameny when researching connections between the modern civil rights movement and the early LGBTQ rights movement. That research led me to the collection of his papers at the Library of Congress, where I found a treasure trove of his unpublished letters.
I’ve read thousands and thousands of letters in my life—Robinson’s, Marshall’s, Bayard Rustin’s—and I dare say I’ve enjoyed none more than Kameny’s.
I was captivated not just because of their rich historical quality, but especially because of their style. His letters are strident and loud. Clear and logical. Demanding and urgent. Full of capitalized words and exclamation points. Like his brash personality, they’re brutally honest and transparent. Kameny bled all over the page.
Given my long-term interest in the letters of historical figures, you can understand why I was hooked.
I was also attracted to the project because at that time there was no other single book devoted to Kameny. Historians had largely ignored him, even though he was one of the most influential leaders of the early LGBTQ movement. So telling his story was important for correcting his ongoing erasure from much of history.
SUP: How does your book and the 150 letters included give voice to his drive for equality?
Michael Long: The letters track Kameny’s transition from a relatively closeted gay man to an activist picketing the White House and marching through New York City.
Kameny was fired from his federal job as an astronomer during the height of the Lavender Scare, when the federal government deemed LGBTQ individuals as significant threats to national security. Typically, gay men and lesbians fired during at this point retreated into the private sector without publicly protesting their dismissals. But Kameny was far from typical.
Not long after he begged for the return of his job—and I mean begged—he began demanding equality for all “homosexuals” in the federal government and throughout the public square. It’s really a breathtaking transition. The letters show how the government unintentionally radicalized him and pushed him to become a hard-driving pioneer in the early homophile movement.
Perhaps what’s best about Gay Is Good is that it offers Kameny’s unfiltered voice. The letters reveal his feelings in all their intensity—his despondency after losing his job, his fury at the government’s treatment of “homosexuals,” his arrogance when dealing with anyone who wants to treat LGBTQ individuals as second-class citizens, his relentless passion for gay rights everywhere, and his pride about making the government treat LGBTQ individuals with respect, dignity, and equality.
SUP: Why do you feel Franklin Kameny isn’t as well-known as Harvey Milk when it comes to LGBTQ history?
Michael Long: Kameny had a much greater impact on the national LGBTQ movement than Milk did, especially in shaping federal policy, declassifying homosexuality as a mental disorder, and organizing marches for gay rights at the White House and other public institutions long before the Stonewall Uprising of 1969. But Kameny could be abrasive, and he possessed none of Milk’s political charm and willingness to compromise. He alienated a lot of people.
Milk was also seemed more adept at building a constituency of younger people in the growing LGBTQ movement, the ones who would become its future leaders. Compared to Milk, Kameny appeared staid and conventional. Plus, after Milk was assassinated in 1978, his life took on a near-mythological quality.
SUP: What unique contribution does Gay is Good make to LGBTQ history?
Michael Long: Gay Is Good gives Kameny his rightful place in LGBTQ history, and it makes a compelling case that his name deserves to be uttered in the same breath as Milk’s. Indeed, our book clearly shows that it’s utterly impossible to tell the story of the early LGBTQ rights movement without placing Kameny at its center.
By the way, one of the interesting things about the early LGBTQ rights movement in the United States is that it’s so diffuse. Unlike the black civil rights movement, the LGBTQ rights movement never had a Martin Luther King, Jr. figure—a single leader who represented the general movement. But this does not mean that the LGBTQ rights movement lacked individuals whose ambition was to become its national leader. In fact, Gay Is Good shows that Kameny struggled mightily to become the single leader. He failed at that, but he certainly gave it his all.
SUP: Are there a few specific letters or writings that really stood out to you when working on the book?
Michael Long: One of my favorite excerpts comes from a letter he wrote to his mother in 1972:
“Some thirty years ago, I told you that if society and I differ on anything, I will give society a second chance to convince me. If it fails, then I am right and society is wrong, and if society gets in my way, it will be society which will change, not I. That was so alien to your life that you responded with disdain. It has been a guiding principle in my life. Society was wrong. I am making society change.“
Another favorite writing comes from his petition to the Supreme Court. Given the year he wrote this—1961—it’s quite the radical sentence:
“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.“
Still another comes from a 1965 letter he wrote to the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), who had expressed reservations about picketing for “homosexual rights”:
“[W]e were informed that DOB would picket only when the action was backed by the larger community.
First, this is arrant nonsense! When one has reached the stage where picketing is backed by the larger community, such picketing is no longer necessary. The entire force and thrust of picketing is a protest on issues not yet supported or backed by the larger community, in order to bring issues to the fore, and to help elicit that support.
Second, this is in keeping with a mentality which has pervaded this movement from its beginning—homosexuals must never do anything for themselves; they must never come out into the open. They must work through and behind others. They must never present their own case—let others do so for them. We have outgrown this “closet queen” type of approach, and it is well that we have.“
SUP: Are there any misconceptions about Franklin Kameny that you’d like readers to know about?
Michael Long: I’m less concerned about misconceptions than I am about the lack of basic knowledge about Kameny’s life and legacy. I implore the readers here to dig in and learn about the person I consider to be the most important pioneer of the early LGBTQ rights movement.
SUP: If a movie was made about Franklin Kameny, what actor do you feel would best portray Kameny’s powerful voice?
Michael Long: Billy Eichner would be an excellent choice!