Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Gay pioneer Frank Kameny dies


Franklin Edward Kameny (Photo: Bob Roehr)
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Franklin Edward Kameny, Ph.D., a longtime civil rights activist who was fired by the U.S. government for being gay in the 1950s, died at his home in Washington, D.C. Tuesday, October 11. He was 86.

Mr. Kameny apparently died in his sleep of natural causes.

His passing, on National Coming Out Day, was mourned by many.

"Dr. Frank Kameny was an American hero who transformed our nation's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community," John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, said in a statement. "His courage, his brilliance, his force of will led to victory in a decades-long fight for equality. He helped make it possible for countless patriotic Americans to hold security clearances and high government positions, including me. And in so doing, he showed everyone what was possible for every employer in the country."

Mr. Kameny himself was more modest.

"If I am remembered for nothing else, I want to be remembered for coining 'gay is good.,'" he once said. "It sums up and epitomizes what I have worked for for half a century."

Mr. Kameny, born May 21, 1925, was, in a way, an accidental activist. He moved to Washington in the mid-1950s with a freshly minted doctorate in astronomy from Harvard, poised to ride the nascent space program into history.

But he was denied a security clearance for a civilian job with the government and that injustice sparked a lifelong crusade for equality for gays and lesbians.

"The Civil Service Commission had a gay ban fully as strong as the present military gay ban, the denial of security clearances, the sodomy laws – the general discrimination in those days, if you were known to be gay, you never obtained or retained a job, or an apartment for that matter. In some places like New York and Virginia, you technically weren't even allowed into public places like bars," Mr. Kameny told a reception at the Smithsonian Institution in 2007 when memorabilia from his life first went on public display.

He fought his firing, first before the commission and then in court. Penniless and often subsisting on little more than cans of beans, he learned enough law to write his own legal briefs and appealed the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was the first gay rights petition to reach that body. The court was not ready; it declined the appeal without comment.

Mr. Kameny's legal document contained "the founding principles of the gay rights movement: that we were a legitimate minority like Jews or Negroes; that we were 10 percent of the population as Dr. [Alfred] Kinsey had suggested, that we had the same rights to citizenship as every other human," said historian Dudley Clendinen, co-author of the seminal history of the gay rights movement Out for Good.

Mr. Kameny instilled that vision and those values into generations of gay men and women and they have stood the test of time.

He founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. in 1961, the first gay group in the city, and sent its mimeographed newsletters to the president and other top government officials. The closeted FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, was so distraught that he sent agents to knock on Mr. Kameny's door, requesting to be removed from the mailing list. Mr. Kameny refused.

He would help lead many of the first pickets and demonstrations for gay rights, in Washington, in Philadelphia, and in New York. He served on the founding boards of national LGBT organizations. He ran for Congress in 1971, the first openly gay person to have his name on the ballot for federal office.

He was at the center of the action in 1973 when the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the list of mental disorders.

Mr. Kameny coined his favorite phrase, "gay is good," in 1968. It was inspired by a television newscast where black civil rights workers were chanting, "Black is beautiful."

"I realized immediately that the psychodynamics there were identical to ours," he said. He passed on several options; "Homosexuality was too clinical. Someone suggested gay is great, but that seemed a bit too colloquial." He settled on "gay is good" as a proactive and affirmative statement. One of the first handmade buttons with that phrase is now in the Smithsonian.

"No one had dared to say in public ever before, or really even to believe for the most part in themselves – gay is good. Almost no one thought so, almost no one agreed with him" at the time, said Clendenin.

Military gay ban

One pillar of Mr. Kameny's activism was opposition to what he called "the gay military ban." He enlisted in the Army three days before his 18th birthday, in 1943 at the height of World War II. Homosexuals were considered deviants. Regulations excluded them from the military and if discovered within the service, they were court-martialed, dishonorably discharged, and sometimes incarcerated.

At his induction, "They asked [about homosexual tendencies]; I didn't tell, although, as a healthy, vigorous teenager, there were indeed things to tell," he would write years later. Infantryman Kameny saw combat in Holland and Germany and was awarded the bronze star for his service.

"I didn't fight to return to second-class citizenship, or back of the bus status – or off the bus altogether – as the homophobic opposition would consign us," he would say.

"I am proud of my military service but I have resented for 64 years that I had to lie to my government in order to participate in a war effort which I strongly supported," Mr. Kameny said at the Smithsonian and on countless other occasions.

Mr. Kameny saw to it that removing the gay military ban was one of the principle objectives of the D.C. Mattachine Society. It picketed the Pentagon in 1965 and 1966 and when Mr. Kameny ran for Congress in 1971, he held a news conference at the Pentagon in the outer office of the secretary of the Army.

He was one of the few people who were openly gay and quoted in the media during those decades and soldiers called him in the middle of the night for help when they were being drummed out of the military. He became a self-styled paralegal and soon the scourge of the judge advocate corps. His Harvard-trained mind quickly mastered the regulations and he helped to win the fairest possible treatment for countless GIs.

Mr. Kameny viewed enactment of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" as simply a new incarnation of decades-long discrimination against gays. He was elated when the policy finally was repealed last month.

"Our nation and our movement have lost a tireless advocate for LGBT rights," Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network said in a statement. "Frank Kameny's long and hard work laid the foundation for much of the progress we see today, and certainly none more so than the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' It was his great wish to see that law relegated to the history books, and we are so proud that he was able to see that day and be a key part of that shared victory."

Clendinen summed up the institution that was Mr. Kameny: "He never gave up. He never relented. He never gave an inch. He never yielded a single shred of his dignity. And, as time passed, things changed."

Most often it was because Mr. Kameny made things change. Today his papers are in the Library of Congress and his artifacts are in the Smithsonian.

In San Francisco, the rainbow flag at Castro and Market streets will be lowered to half-staff for 24 hours (beginning Wednesday afternoon) in honor of Mr. Kameny. Steve Adams, president of the merchants group that oversees the flag, said the request was made by flag creator Gilbert Baker.

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