Gov’t Repudiates Frank Kameny’s 1957 Firing, Apologizes
June 25th, 2009
In 1957, Frank Kameny was fired from his job as an astronomer at the Army Map Service when his supervisors found out he was gay. He protested to the U.S. Civil Service Commission and argued his case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which denied his claim. That experience turned Kameny from an anonymous government employee to one of the most tireless activists of the LGBT movement.
Yesterday, more than fifty years after his firing, Frank was on hand at a special ceremony to receive a formal letter of apology from John Berry, the openly gay Director of the Office of Personnel Management. Kameny was also bestowed the Teddy Roosevelt Award, the department’s highest honor. Upon receiving the apology, Frank Kameny tearfully replied, “Apology accepted.”
We often think of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York as being the start of the Gay Rights movement, but that assumption ignores the bold, aggressive action by Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings, Del Martin and Phylis Lyon, along with other pre-stonewall landmark events like the Black Cat Raid and the White House pickets. Frank Kameny was right in the middle of many of those bold initiatives in demanding equality for gay people when relatively few gay people themselves believed they deserved equality. Remember, this was a time when the medical profession regarded homosexuality as a mental illness.
Frank would have none of that. He co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., which in 1963 launched a long campaign to overturn sodomy laws and remove homosexuality from the American Psychological Association’s list of mental disorders. He participated in the very first picket line in front of the White House on April 17, 1965. Along with other activists from New York they expanded those pickets to include the Pentagon, the U.S. Civil Service Commission, and, more famously, to Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia pickets would become an annual event for the next five years.
In 1968, Kameny coined the phrase “Gay Is Good,” basing it on the slogan “Black Is Beautiful.” It was a bold and radical gesture for many gays and lesbians who hadn’t before dared to believe that about themselves. While Frank points to that phrase’s popularity as his most proud accomplishment, it wasn’t his last. He became the first openly gay candidate for Congress in 1971 (he lost), and he played a pivotal role in the APA’s removal of homosexuality from its list of disorders in 1973 (he won).
Yesterday, Frank’s life of advocacy completed its full circle with the apology and recognition from the Office of Personnel Management, the successor department to the U.S. Civil Service Commission which upheld his firing. In Joyce Murdoch and Deb Price’s book, Courting Justice: Gay Men And Lesbians V. The Supreme Court, Frank called his 1957 firing the spark which energized his long dedication to securing equality for all LGBT people:
“I just couldn’t walk away,” recalled Frank Kameny, a brilliant Harvard-educated astronomer who became nearly destitute after being fired from his government job in 1957. The phrase echoed through many interviews with gay people who fought against dreadful odds after losing a job, being embarrassed by a “sex crime” arrest or suffering some similar humiliation. “For the rest of my life, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself,” Kameny added. “I would be dead of stomach ulcers by now. There’s simply a burning sense of justice.”
Frank Kameny is 82, and is still active in Washington, D.C. where he makes his home. His home, by the way, was designated as a D.C. Historic Landmark by the District of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Review Board in honor of his activism. His papers are now in the Library of Congress, and a collection of original picket signs, a “Gay is Good” button, and other memorabilia are a part of the Smithsonion’s collection.
The Letter of Apology from the Office of Personnel Management:
Dear Dr. Kameny:
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. In one letter to you, an agency official wrote that the Government “does not hire homosexuals and will not permit their employment…” He went on to say that “the homosexual is automatically a security risk” and that he “frequently becomes a disruptive personnel factor within any organization.”
With the fervent passion of a true patriot, you did not resign yourself to your fate or quietly endure this wrong. With courage and strength, you fought back. And so today, I am writing to advise you that this policy, which was at odds with the bedrock principles underlying the merit-based civil service, has been repudiated by the United States Government, due in large part to your determination and life’s work, and to the thousands of Americans whose advocacy your words have inspired.
Thus, the civil service laws, rules and regulations now provide that it is illegal to discriminate against federal employees or applicants based on matters not related to their ability to perform their jobs, including their sexual orientation. Furthermore, I am happy to inform you that the Memorandum signed by President Obama on June 17, 2009 directs the Office of Personnel Management—the successor to the CSC–to issue guidance to all executive departments and agencies regarding their obligations to comply with these laws, rules, and regulations.
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, along with that of many other past Directors, 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, and please accept the gratitude and appreciation of the United States Office of Personnel Management for the work you have done to fight discrimination and protect the merit-based civil service system.
John Berry, Director