October 12th, 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.
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.”
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.”
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