U.S. Supreme Court Evolution Stirs Hope
June 4, 2001
615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226
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 mens room. But
rather than slinking away, Kameny did the unthinkable, urging the Supreme
Court to stop the governments 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 whove taken their crusades for
equal rights to the nations highest court, Kameny was brusquely turned
away. But despite being left virtually unemployable, Kameny was emboldened by
having the courts door unceremoniously slammed in his face: He went on to
become an extraordinarily influential founding father of the gay civil rights
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 wouldnt have been able to live with myself. I would be dead of
stomach ulcers by now. Theres 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 courts velvet curtain.
- 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 theyre gay. Justices Harry
Blackmun and David Souter responded sensitively when clerks came out to
- Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., who cast the deciding vote in the 1986
anti-gay Bowers v. Hardwick sodomy ruling, said hed 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 theyre 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 Kamenys
historic mission will continue propelling gay Americans. And the Supreme Court
ultimately will help America live up to its timeless promise of justice for
We cannot change the past. We can help shape the future.
- Deb Pricess column is published on Monday. She can be reached at
(202) 662-7370 or email@example.com.
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.
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