Gregory Kamm, early gay activist at Western Michigan and MSU, dies at 57

By |2018-01-15T21:57:09-05:00June 26th, 2008|News|

By Tim Retzloff

Gregory Curtis Kamm, a founder of the first known gay organization in Kalamazoo and an officer with the earliest LGBT group at Michigan State University during the early 1970s, died June 3, 2008 in Saudi Arabia. He was 57 and had been hospitalized with Hepatitis A for several months. A statement issued to staff of the kingdom’s Institute of Public Administration praised his work as an English instructor to Saudi youth in Damman.
Greg Kamm was born October 19, 1950, the only child of Maxine and Jack Kamm of
Muskegon, where he attended Catholic Central High School. As an undergraduate, Kamm helped form the Gay Liberation Front at Western Michigan University in February 1971 and served as its president. Upon transferring to Michigan State University that fall, he became secretary of the burgeoning Gay Liberation Movement, then a formidable presence on campus. At the time, GLM played a crucial role in the passage of East Lansing’s path breaking non-discrimination ordinance.
In an oral history interview conducted 2005 when he was back in Michigan for a visit, Kamm recounted attending the first gay pride march in Detroit on June 24, 1972 with the MSU GLM contingent. According to Kamm, three drag queens rode on the hood of a “flashy 1964 Ford Galaxy,” only to fly off the car and onto the pavement when the driver had to slam on the brakes. Their tumbling image was later broadcast on the local television news.
Kamm also recalled being warmly welcomed that night at the Birmingham home of Episcopal Bishop H. Coleman McGehee. McGehee’s son Alex was likewise active in the MSU GLM. “It was very refreshing because his father knew exactly what we were doing. We could go there and sleep after the march. They gave us dinner and there was no problem,” Kamm said in awe of such familial acceptance.
Leonard Graff knew Kamm well when both were students at Michigan State. A longtime attorney now working in the health care sector in San Francisco, Graff commended his friend by e-mail. “Greg was ahead of his time. He was one of the early pioneers that helped fight for so much of what today’s generation takes for granted. Greg was passionate, energetic, and committed to the struggle for gay rights. He worked tirelessly and never shied away from a political confrontation,” Graff wrote last week. “Greg was a good friend to me during a couple of the best years of my life and I will remember him fondly.”
Alex McGehee, who now resides in Hawaii, paid tribute to Kamm as well. “Leonard, Greg, and I were tight friends at MSU. Greg had a wonderful sense of the absurd and that’s how I’ll remember him,” McGehee said. “As to his political courage, it was topped by an ability to flaunt his femininity in the face of those who perhaps needed the sense of freedom only a truly liberated queen can bring. Those queens brought us Stonewall after all.”
Upon leaving MSU, Kamm retreated from gay activism. From the early 1970s to the early 1980s, he taught English as a Second Language with the Lansing Public Schools. He then served in the Peace Corps before working as an ESL instructor in Thailand, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia, where he had to mask his sexuality. In addition to teaching overseas, he acted as a formal observer for the first free elections in South Africa, Mozambique and Cambodia.
Donna Clark visited her close friend in Saudi Arabia in recent months when he became seriously ill. The two met while both taught in Lansing and often shared living quarters. Clark noted that Kamm became an “adopted” uncle to her children. “There was no one like Greg. He added something very special to our lives,” she said.
A couple years ago, Kamm made arrangements to have his extensive diary, begun when he was 18, to be preserved at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan upon his death. Len Coombs, a field archivist for the library, extolled the gift. “His diaries are valuable historical documents,” Coombs stated. “Greg’s journey from SDS to the Gay Liberation Movement, to the Peace Corps, to working for UNESCO in Laos, and on to other places, put him at the center of some of the most significant events of our times.”
Kamm was preceded in death by his parents. He leaves many friends across the globe. His body was returned to Michigan on June 18 in advance of cremation. A memorial service is being planned for July in Manistee where Kamm owned a house that once belonged to his grandmother. Donations in Kamm’s honor may be made to Amnesty International.

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Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.