In 1957, a government worker named Frank Kameny was fired from his government job solely because of his sexual orientation. His appeal to the U.S. Civil Service Commission was futile. Reasoning that homosexuals were security risks, the commission upheld his termination.
In a White House ceremony, John Berry, the most senior gay official in the Obama administration, serving as director of the Office of Personnel Management, presented Kameny with an official letter of apology along with the department’s most prestigious award, the Theodore Roosevelt Award. Turning to Kameny, the representative of the U.S. government said:
In what we know today was a shameful action, the United States Civil Service Commission in 1957 upheld your dismissal from your job solely on the basis of your sexual orientation. And by virtue of the authority vested in me as Director of the Office Of Personnel Management, it is my duty and great pleasure to inform you that I am adding my support … for the repudiation of the reasoning of the 1957 finding by the United States Civil Service Commission to dismiss you from your job solely on the basis of your sexual orientation. Please accept our apology for the consequences of the previous policy of the United States government.
The full text of the apology statement is here.
“Apology accepted,” Kameny replied.
I’m thrilled with both the apology and the acceptance of the apology.
Ideally, apologies should immediately follow the offense. But in some cases, the apologies have to catch up with human progress.
Offense like what Kameny had to endure don’t have a statute of limitations.
I believe it is never too late for an institution to acknowledge error and to apologize to the victims of misguided apology. A public apology in this context serves an important public policy. It repudiates noxious policies once and for all. It re-establishes new policy on the bedrock of contemporary morality.
An apology also corroborates the historical record where there is dispute. And an apology reminds the public that government policies are not infallible rules to be mindlessly observed but human constructs that benefit from thoughtful challenge.
As for Kameny’s response to the apology, I’d like to believe he read my book. My advice for anyone considering a reasonably complete apology, big or small, is the same: apology accepted. It’s the perfect way to honor an apology.