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    Secret Love and Civil Rights

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    In 1953, when the great and wonderful Doris Day sang “Secret Love” for the first time, every LBGT American heard a song of empowerment. For them the ballad, from the film Calamity Jane, expressed the exhilaration and delight of “the love that dare not speak its name” and possibly sharing it—if not with the world, which could have cost them their jobs and much more—then perhaps with the person who brought it about.

    No other song in American movie history, thanks to Day’s transcendent performance, better expressed the sheer joy of someone finding his or her passionate center and the empowering energy that flowed from it. It reached #1 on the popular music charts, earned Day a gold record for her recording, and went on to win the Oscar for best song of 1953. Day declined to sing it at the Academy Awards ceremony, so the honor went to Ann Blythe, recipient of the filmdom’s’ most famous bitch slap.

    Almost sixty years after it debuted, Day was asked if she knew that the song, coming at the height of America’s “Lavender Scare,” had been “adopted as an anthem by the gay community” and “taken on such meaning for marginalized people.” She “was not aware of that,” she responded, “but that’s wonderful.”

    Except for Day’s song and Christine Jorgensen’s return to the United States, 1953 was not an especially good year for LGBT Americans. On April 27, President Dwight Eisenhower, only three months in office, issued Executive Order 10450, which effectively barred lesbians and gays from federal employment. State and local governments, large public corporations, and small businesses soon followed the federal example with their own bans.

    The reason for Eisenhower’s action was obvious, at least to Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr. “Their personal habits” of homosexuals, he explained, “are such that they might be subject to blackmail by people who seek to destroy the safety of our country.” Eventually, some 5,000 federal employees were fired because they were suspected of being lesbian or gay; thousands more never applied for government work, fearing discovery.

    One person fervently fought Eisenhower’s executive order. In 1957, Frank Kameny, Ph.D., Harvard University, was fired from his job as an astronomer with the U. S. Army’s Map Service in Washington, D.C., on suspicion of homosexuality. He refused to go quietly, however. He sued the government. He lost in court. He appealed and lost again. He then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to direct that his case be reconsidered. When the high court declined, his case was lost for good.

    Undaunted, Kameny turned to activism. In 1961, he co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington (MSW) with Jack Nichols, then twenty-three years old, to fight for an end to discrimination against gay men and lesbians by the U. S. Government. In addition, he was determined to repeal the laws that made homosexuality a crime, to end police entrapment of gays, and to remove the American Psychiatric Association’s classification of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder.

    Three years later, Kameny articulated his strategy to win civil rights for LGBT Americans. “We are dealing with an opposition which manifests itself—not always, but not infrequently—as a ruthless, unscrupulous foe who will give no quarter and to whom any standards of fair play are meaningless,” he said. “Let us respond realistically.”

    With the Civil Rights Movement as his model, Kameny called for a resolute and ongoing campaign for civil rights, but one where lesbians and gay men met their adversaries as equals, not as imperfect or spurious citizens. “We cannot ask for our rights from a position of inferiority or from a position … as less than whole human beings.”

    Kameny began using public forums, picketing, and civil disobedience to bring attention to the fact that homosexuals were fully entitled to all the rights the nation bestowed upon its citizens. On April 17, 1965, he and Nichols held a demonstration in front of the White House, one of the earliest public protests by lesbians and gay men in the U.S.; another followed at the Civil Service Commission building in June.

    Others followed Kameny’s example, turned to activism, and staged public protests in 1965. Chapters of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis organized demonstrations in front of the United Nations, the Pentagon, and Independence Hall. Marchers made a brave decision: every person who took part, whether employed by the government or not, risked his or her job and more by participating.

    Progress was slow. Not until 1975 did the U.S. Civil Service Commission end its ban on homosexuals in the federal civil service. Two years later, the State Department rescinded its policy of forbidding lesbians and gays to be hired from the Foreign Service. Soon after, the Internal Revenue Service stopped requiring “homosexual education and charity groups to publicly state that homosexuality is a ‘sickness, disturbance, or diseased pathology'” before they could get a Section 501 tax-exempt status.

    Kameny worked to achieve human rights for LGBTs his entire life. Ironically, given his complete openness about his sexual orientation, he kept his private life very private. He seems never to have had a long-term relationship with another man; always too busy, he said. Whether or not he himself ever had a “secret love” remains a secret.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.