Frank Kameny Has Died

Jim Burroway

October 12th, 2011

Frank Kameny, 1925-2011.

One of the greatest and most steadfast pioneering advocates for the gay rights movement, Frank Kameny, died on Tuesday, October 11 at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 86. He appears to have died of natural causes. According to the Washington Blade:

Timothy Clark, Kameny’s tenant, said he found Kameny unconscious and unresponsive in his bed shortly after 5 p.m. on Tuesday. Clark called 911 police emergency and rescue workers determined that Kameny had passed away earlier, most likely in his sleep. Clark said he had spoken with Kameny shortly before midnight on the previous day and Kameny didn’t seem to be in distress.

Kameny was born on May 21, 1925 in New York City. He is a World War II veteran, having seen combat in Europe. After the war, Kameny earned a doctorate in astronomy from Harvard University and went to work for the Army Map service as an astronomer. He became a gay rights activist when he was fired by the Army in 1957 when they learned he was gay. At that time, gay people were prohibited from Federal employment due to a 1953 Executive order by President Eisenhower. 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.”

He immediately set about challenging the his firing and the federal ban, taking his case all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Because he acts as his own attorney, he became the first known gay person to file a gay-related case before the high court. In his petition before the court, Kameny let loose his full rhetorical powers which would  become a trademark throughout his life of activism:

…the government’s policies…are a stench in the nostrils of decent people, an offense against morality, an abandonment of reason, an affront to human dignity, an improper restraint upon proper freedom and liberty, a disgrace to any civilized society, and a violation of all that this nation stands for.

Jack Nichols, Frank Kameny, and other members of the Washington Mattachine Society picketing the White House, April, 1965.

Kameny lost the case, but was undeterred. He, along with Jack Nichols, co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. The Mattachine Society elsewhere was know for being rather conservative in their tactics, but Kameny’s leadership of the Washington chapter brought an unprecedented boldness to gay activism. The Washington chapter organized the very first picket for gay rights in front of the White House on April 17, 1965, and that was followed by further pickets in front of the Pentagon, the Civil Service Commission, and, in cooperation with other East Coast activists, in front of Philadelphia’s City Hall.

Inspired by the civil rights movement’s slogan “Black is Beautiful,” Kameny coined the phrase “Gay Is Good.” That message may appear rather simple today, but it was a particularly significant slogan for 1968 when homosexuality was still considered both a mental illness and a criminal act. It was also a message that many gay people didn’t understand or fully believe themselves. Kameny didn’t just want to change how the laws treated gay people, he also wanted gay people to see themselves as fully equal to everyone else as people, deserving full equality not as a priveledge to be won but as a right earned at birth. In an email exchange with me in 2007, Frank reflected:

I’ve said, for a long time, that if I’m remembered for only one thing, I would like it to be for having coined “Gay is Good.” But never did I expect that that would make its way to the Smithsonian. I feel deeply contented.

When Washington D.C. was awarded a non-voting seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1971, Kameny became the first openly gay man to run for Congress. He lost that election, but went on to become the first openly gay member of the District of Columbia’s Human Rights Commission. Meanwhile, Kameny saw that the American Psychiatric Association’s listing of homosexuality as a mental disorder was the primary roadblock to full civil equality for gay people. He worked with other gay rights activists, principally Barbara Gittings, to convince the APA to remove homosexuality from that list. They were ultimately successful in 1973. In 1975, Kameny was also successful in getting the Civil Service Commission to drop their blanket ban on hiring gay people. Federal personnel officials “surrendered to me on July 3rd, 1975,” he recalled. “They called me up to tell me they were changing their policies to suit me. And that was the end of it.”

OPM Director John Berry delivers an official apology to Frank Kameny on behalf of the U.S. Government

In 2006, Kameny’s papers were donated to the Library of Congress, where they were catalogued and made available to the public. In 2008, his personal collection, including original picket signs from the 1965 protests and an original “Gay Is Good” button, were donated to the Smithsonian Institution. But in June, 2009, Kameny’s long years of activism finally came full circle. More than fifty years after his firing from the Army Map Service, Frank was invited to a special ceremony to receive a formal letter of apology from John Berry, the openly gay Director of the Office of Personnel Management, which is the organizational successor to the Civil Service Commission which had fired untold thousands of gay people. Kameny was also bestowed the Teddy Roosevelt Award, the department’s highest honor. Upon receiving the apology, Frank Kameny tearfully replied, “Apology accepted.”


October 12th, 2011

His memory WILL be a blessing for all of us and all of those who follow us. I am very glad that I had the chance to hear him speak when I lived in DC. A great man. A big loss for our community. There needs to be a NATIONAL monument to him and Harry Hay and the other LGBT pioneers. But if it took this long for an MLK memorial, I won’t be holding my breath :(


October 12th, 2011

As a young bisexual, I tend to forget that even the present eventually becomes the past.

With all the wonderful advancements Kameny has gotten these past few years (the Smithsonian, the Teddy Roosevelt award, etc.), something feels robbed in him being gone.

I’m terribly saddened.


October 12th, 2011

I write this with tears swelling in my eyes.

Frank Kameny is indeed a true gay hero.

He fought for our rights. He never gave up, never was deterred.

Gay definitely is good and it does get better.

May St. Peter welcome Frank into heaven with open arms.

Jay Jonson

October 12th, 2011

Frank Kameny lived a life that needed to have been lived. He helped make America a more just nation and he helped so many of us take pride in ourselves. I hope that he realized the depth and breadth of his contributions. May he rest in peace knowing that he fought for justice in an unjust world.


October 12th, 2011

I lived in Philadelphia at the time of Frank Kameny’s “Annual Reminder” demonstrations at Independence Hall. In the mid to late 60s, as a young teenager, I was coming to terms with my sexuality. It would be many years before I actually made contact with another gay person. During those years, Frank Kameny and his demonstrations at Independence Hall made me aware that there were others out there who felt as I did. Every year I secretly read and re-read the articles that appeared in the local papers about the demonstration. He was truly an inspiration to me at time when I was very frightened by what I was feeling, and at a time that I feel very alone.

Richard Rush

October 12th, 2011

I think it’s fair to say that if it had not been for Frank Kameny, the progress in gay rights would not be nearly as far along today. I suspect that most younger gay people today cannot begin to imagine the enormous courage it took to publicly engage in the pursuit of gay rights in the 1950s.



October 12th, 2011

It’s truly serendipitous that he died on “National Coming Out Day.” Search ‘coming out day’ on YouTube and watch the world changing for the better before your eyes. I hope all these kids (and latebutgreaters as well) someday will know the name Frank Kameny and understand that they stand on the shoulders of this giant (among others, of course).

Jonathan Lubin

October 12th, 2011

I met him several times when I was living in DC twenty years ago. He was cranky, irascible, uncompromising, endlessly amusing, and always right. A wonderful inspiration to all of us, and I’m grateful to have known him.

Timothy Kincaid

October 12th, 2011


You are absolutely correct. Kameny changed the world.

Most people think “what do I matter? I’m no one important, have no connections, and no one will listen.”

But It’s funny. Most of those who change the world have no special skills or extra access or social epiphany. They just show up and do it.

Yes, Kameny was very bright and articulate. But his most important work was not lecturing the Supreme Court. His most important work was walking in a circle with a sign. Over and over. Year after year.

Until eventually, he changed a world in which no one believed his sign into one in which nations across the globe take his message as a foundational truth.

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