WASHINGTON — Documents from gay rights history are on display for the first time at the Library of Congress as part of an exhibit on the nation’s constitutional history and civil rights protections.
The documents come from gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny, who was fired as a government astronomer in 1957 because he was gay. The library is showing Kameny’s 1961 petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, contesting his firing.
Though it was denied, Kameny’s was the first petition to the high court for a violation of civil rights based on sexual orientation. He argued the government’s actions toward gays were an “affront to human dignity.”
“This inclusion is an epic milestone in the telling of gay history because it places gay Americans’ struggle for equality where it belongs — in the story of the Constitution itself,” Charles Francis, a founder of the Kameny Papers Project, told The Associated Press.
The library quietly placed the documents on view at the end of April in an exhibit called “Creating the United States,” which traces the evolution of the nation’s founding documents and legal framework. Organizers of the Kameny Papers Project, which donated about 50,000 items to the library in 2006, announced the display Monday.
From the title of the exhibit, Kameny, now 85, said he can claim a new title for himself.
“I suppose you can say at this point, I have become one of the creators of the United States, which I never would have imagined in 1961,” Kameny said with a chuckle. “All I can say is from the long view, 50 years, we have moved ahead in a way that would have been absolutely unimaginable back then.”
The library also is displaying a 1966 letter from the head of the U.S. Civil Service Commission under President Lyndon B. Johnson, justifying the firing based on the “revulsion of other employees.” It was introduced last year as evidence in the battle over gay rights in California to show a long pattern of treatment by the federal government.
In 2009, Kameny received a formal apology for the “shameful action” of being fired solely based on his sexual orientation from the successor to the Civil Service Commission, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
“So in a sense, it took 50 years, but I won my case,” Kameny said.
Yale Law professor William Eskridge, an expert on the history of gay rights, said the Kameny papers show how the government’s reasons for excluding gay rights shifted over time while Kameny’s position was consistent. They are the work of the initial protester, strategist and leader of a major social movement, he said.
“Frank Kameny was the Rosa Parks and the Martin Luther King and the Thurgood Marshall of the gay rights movement,” Eskridge said.
“That’s why it’s important that his papers are available because they’re the innermost workings of this great strategist and leader — and they’re, of course, archival records of the movement itself,” he said.
Library spokeswoman Jennifer Gavin said the Kameny papers were chosen for the exhibit because they deal with civil rights issues.
“They are simply pertinent to the issue,” she said.
The papers are part of a rotation of hundreds of documents placed on view since the exhibit opened in 2008 and will likely be on view at least four months.
Kameny, now 85, began fighting for gay rights more than a decade before the Stonewall riots in New York City. The Stonewall rebellion in 1969 proved to be a defining moment as gays and lesbians fought back against police raiding a gay bar. It’s celebrated with an annual gay pride march.
In 1965, Kameny was the first to stage a gay rights protest in with about 10 others in front of the White House and later the Pentagon and elsewhere with signs that read: “Homosexuals Ask For the Right to the Pursuit of Happiness,” among other messages. He also took on the American Psychiatric Association to successfully argue that being gay or lesbian shouldn’t be defined as a mental illness.