Last edited: February 14, 2005

U.S. Supreme Court Evolution Stirs Hope

Detroit News, June 4, 2001
615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226
Fax: 313-222-6417

By Deb Price

Telescopes, rocket ships, stars. Frank Kameny expected his life to be defined by distant worlds. Instead, the Harvard-educated astronomer made history closer to home in an unlikely but equally mysterious universe — the U.S. Supreme Court.

The year was 1961. Kameny had been fired from his government astronomy job over a past arrest for sexual activity in a San Francisco men’s room. But rather than slinking away, Kameny did the unthinkable, urging the Supreme Court to stop the government’s aggressive war on federal workers suspected of being homosexual.

The McCarthy-era purges of homosexuals were "not one whit more warranted or justified than (similar bias) against Negroes, Catholics or other minority groups," Kameny forcefully wrote in the first gay-pride statement to the Supreme Court.

Like most of the dozens of gay people who’ve taken their crusades for equal rights to the nation’s highest court, Kameny was brusquely turned away. But despite being left virtually unemployable, Kameny was emboldened by having the court’s door unceremoniously slammed in his face: He went on to become an extraordinarily influential founding father of the gay civil rights movement.

Kameny fought back in an era when the "reasonable" response to anti-gay discrimination was to silently walk away. Had he not challenged what he recognized as a supreme injustice, Kameny recalls, "For the rest of my life, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself. I would be dead of stomach ulcers by now. There’s simply a burning sense of injustice."

For the past five decades — from the 1958 triumph of a tiny homosexual magazine to the 2000 defeat of a gay assistant scoutmaster — gay Americans have been courting justice. Rarely have we have found it. And the legal battles of those people who believed in the American ideal of justice enough to fight for it all the way to the Supreme Court usually came with huge personal and financial costs.

In a four-year groundbreaking book project, my partner, Joyce Murdoch, and I investigated how the court has handled gay pleas. Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. the Supreme Court interweaves the inspiring saga of the gay pursuit of basic legal rights with unprecedented peeks behind the secretive court’s velvet curtain.

We discovered:

  • The court probably had a gay justice — eccentric Frank Murphy, who served from 1940 to 1949.
  • Many justices have been touched by gay lives. Former Justice William O. Douglas, for example, was close friends with a lesbian couple who ran a dude ranch. And Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gave a gift to a lesbian couple for their holy union ceremony.
  • Law clerks, whom many justices embrace as virtual sons and daughters, increasingly are telling justices if they’re gay. Justices Harry Blackmun and David Souter responded sensitively when clerks came out to them.
  • Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., who cast the deciding vote in the 1986 anti-gay Bowers v. Hardwick sodomy ruling, said he’d never known anyone gay. Ironically, Powell had had a steady stream of closeted gay clerks. Some of those clerks still agonize over whether coming out to Powell might have made a difference.
  • In the secrecy of their marble fortress, liberal and conservative justices took turns lambasting their colleagues for ducking gay cases simply because they’re controversial.

Sadly, the court has largely been a drag on the nation as gay Americans have steadily gained respect and recognition in other political, cultural, business and legal arenas. Yet our project left us hopeful because the court has begun to evolve.

The "burning sense of injustice" that fueled Frank Kameny’s historic mission will continue propelling gay Americans. And the Supreme Court ultimately will help America live up to its timeless promise of justice for all.

We cannot change the past. We can help shape the future.

  • Deb Prices’s column is published on Monday. She can be reached at (202) 662-7370 or

I recommend the book. It is a very interesting look into the inner workings of the Court and how sodomy laws, and the presumption that gays are criminals, undermines so many other efforts.
Bob Summersgill

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