The Quest to Recover Lost Gay Histories

'Archive activism' helps group unearth stories from a deleted political past

Charles Francis, president of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., in front of J. Edgar Hoover's grave at Congressional Cemetery. He holds an amicus brief of Obergefell v. Hodges, which found that same-sex marriage is constitutional. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Charles Francis sets three books down on the table. “These are the last three biographies of President Eisenhower,” he says. “Not one of them mentions Executive Order 10450.”

That 1953 presidential order is the subject of a lawsuit brought against the Justice Department by the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., of which Francis, 65, is president.

With Dwight D. Eisenhower’s signature, the government fired thousands of federal employees for being gay or lesbian, and Francis wants the department to release the internal memos, documents and communications surrounding it.

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Three years ago, the society began sending Freedom of Information Act requests. “And for three years, we get delays, excuses, crazy exemptions to FOIA,” says Francis. The society’s law firm, McDermott Will & Emery, sent the complaint to federal district court in Washington on April 27 and it expects a ruling by year’s end. The firm is working for the society pro bono. Judge Royce Lamberth is hearing the case.

Francis revived the long-defunct society after the 2011 passing of his friend Frank Kameny, a gay rights activist who was fired from his Army civilian job under the Eisenhower executive order and founded the original Washington Mattachine Society, an offshoot of a Los Angeles group named for the Societe Mattachine, a Renaissance-era troupe of French actors who performed in masks.

“I realized how much of this stuff is forgotten, erased, deleted from history,” says Francis, now a senior counselor at the public relations firm DCI Group. He brought the society back “for the purpose of recovering and discovering our deleted LGBT political past.”

He’s teamed with Rick Rosendall, a Kameny friend who’d served on the board of the original Washington society, and Pate Felts, a onetime chief of staff to former Arkansas Sen. David Pryor.

The society engages in a specific form of political activism. “LGBT political history is a frontier,” says Francis, “and that’s why we formed this outfit, to discover it, put it in context, and tell these stories for the benefit of the legal community, judicial community, legislatures, national media. And we call that archive activism.”

The society has already had its successes, unearthing documents in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, that shed light on the dismissals of two Johnson aides accused of being gay — special assistant Walter Jenkins and secretary Robert Waldron.

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Even before he revived the Mattachine Society, Francis convinced the Smithsonian Institution to put on an exhibition of early gay rights memorabilia that Kameny had collected. It was displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in 2007.

Francis is a senior counselor at DCI Group, a public relations firm.

He is no stranger to the political scene. Through his family friendship with George W. Bush, he organized the Austin 12, a group of LGBT Republicans who held a high-profile meeting with Bush during his 2000 presidential campaign. Francis later formed the Republican Unity Coalition, “to make homosexuality a nonissue for the Republican Party,” he says.

But Francis admitted failure after Bush supported a 2004 constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

“We haven’t spoken since that happened,” he says. “We have a respectful familial friendship, but the personal relationship is gone.”

Francis left the GOP in 2004. He is now an independent.

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