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Gay Rights and the Law: The Library of Congress Displays Gay Rights Documents

The following is a guest post by Brock Thompson, chair of LC GLOBE, the gay and lesbian employee association at the Library of Congress.  Brock is also a former editor of In Custodia Legis.

This spring, the Library of Congress added two small but important pieces of gay and lesbian legal history to the “Creating the United States” exhibit — a permanent exhibit in the Jefferson Building that traces the evolution of the United States through the country’s legal framework.

The new additions concern gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny and his fight for equality for gays and lesbians in the United States and come from his nearly 50,000-piece collection, which is housed at the Library of Congress.

Kameny was fired from his job as an astronomer at the Army Map Service in 1957 because he was gay. He petitioned to keep his job, taking his case to the Supreme Court in what would be the first complaint of a violation of civil rights based on sexual orientation. On display in this exhibit is the 1961 petition that Kameny filed arguing that his firing was “an affront to human dignity.” The court thought otherwise and ruled against him.

Sitting alongside his Supreme Court petition in the exhibit is a 1966 letter from the U.S. Civil Service Commission to the Mattachine Society, a gay rights organization that Kameny helped to establish after his termination. In the letter, the director of the commission explained the policy of firing gays and lesbians, noting it was “based on the revulsion of other employees.”

Kameny did receive an official apology from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in 2009.  In the United States, and certainly around the world, anti-gay measures are still on the books, though the tide is starting to shift. Notably, the Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, stating that statutes like these further “no legitimate state interest which can justify [their] intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual.” More recently, the 111th Congress voted to overturn “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell,” a federal law barring gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. These are all necessary and encouraging steps towards full equality.

Despite the shift in momentum, anti-gay laws and discriminatory hiring practices of any kind can have profound social repercussions, giving way to all sorts of implicit and explicit discrimination. The law still shapes our perceptions of others and influences public opinion, reaching far beyond the limits of any statute itself. The inclusion of gay and lesbian history in a permanent display at the Library Congress speaks volumes about the importance of these issues and the need to continue to press for equality.

June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month. The website of the Law Library of Congress provides an overview and executive branch documents related to the month.

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