- Philip Gambone
Kameny, Frank (21 May 1925–11 October 2011), pioneer in the gay rights movement, was born Franklin Edward Kameny in New York City to Emil Kameny and Rae Beck, European Jews. A shy, precocious boy, he entered Queens College at age sixteen to study astronomy. During World War II he interrupted his studies to serve in the army. At his induction, when asked if he had homosexual tendencies, he answered no. Decades later he confessed that he resented having to lie in order to serve his country. After finishing his undergraduate degree in 1948 at Queens College, where he specialized in optics, Kameny went to Harvard to pursue a doctorate under the noted astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. While he was there President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an executive order in 1953 declaring “sexual perversion” grounds for dismissal from government employment, a policy that would, in a few years, change the direction of Kameny’s life.
In 1954, during a summer research stint at the University of Arizona, the young astronomer began to venture into Tucson’s gay community and enjoyed his first gay romance—experiences he considered his coming out. He was awarded his Ph.D. in 1956 and moved to Washington, D.C., where he took a job teaching astronomy at Georgetown University. A year later the Army Map Service offered him a job as a civilian astronomer, but after five months he was found “unsuitable” for government employment on the basis of information that he was homosexual. Asked to resign, Kameny refused. He interpreted the government’s action “as a declaration of war against me and my fellow gays” (D’Emilio, Turner, and Vaid, eds., p. 191).
Kameny appealed his dismissal, first through formal channels, then all the way to the president and the House and Senate Civil Service Committees. When these appeals failed he took the case before the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals. Both courts turned it down. When his lawyer declared the case hopeless, an undaunted Kameny wrote his own petition to the Supreme Court, a move that is widely considered the first gay rights brief ever filed with that body. The government’s position, he alleged, was “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” (Washington Blade, 11 Oct. 2011). In March 1961 the Court declined to hear the case.
The loss of his legal battle further radicalized Kameny. He recognized that it was now time for homosexuals to act collectively, to take up the “rough-and-tumble of politics and social activism” (Tobin and Wicker, p. 97). In 1961 he founded the Mattachine Society of Washington. As its president he worked assiduously to steer the group toward social action rather than social service or education, as other groups were doing. Homophile organizations, he argued, had to play the same role for the gay and lesbian community that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or Congress of Racial Equality was playing for the African-American community. Through the Mattachine Society of Washington, Kameny brought cases against the government in the areas of civil service employment, security clearances, and military discharges. The “real militancy,” he later noted, began with the picketing of the White House in 1965, when he and nine others protested the government’s treatment of gays and lesbians. He also helped organize pickets at the Civil Service Commission Building, the State Department, the Pentagon, and Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
Kameny envisioned the struggle for gay rights as part of the larger civil rights movement, a position that emboldened him to take up the plight of homosexuals well before the Stonewall riots made gay rights a cause célèbre. In a seminal essay, “Gay Is Good” (1969), Kameny argued that gay people were the most knowledgeable about homosexuality and, consequently, the ones who could speak on the matter with the greatest authority. He insisted on the moral right of the homosexual to be treated as “a first-class human being and a first-class citizen.” Kameny advocated a militant approach at a time when it was unthinkable, and dangerous, to do so. “It is for us to take the initiative, the offensive—not the defensive—in matters affecting us,” he wrote in the essay “Does Research into Homosexuality Matter?” (1965). All of Kameny’s activism can be seen as deriving from those basic tenets.
Kameny soon recognized that the institutional appraisal of homosexuality as a sin and a sickness was at the root of the problem. In a 1964 speech in New York he railed against the notion of homosexuality as “a malfunction of any sort.” Under his leadership, Mattachine began a vigorous campaign against the American Psychiatric Association’s characterization of homosexuality as a mental disorder. In 1973, largely due to his work, the APA dropped homosexuality from its diagnostic manual.
Always working from the principle that “everything heterosexuals have, we’re going to have,” Kameny gave his attention to a host of other projects during his long career as an activist (Tobin and Wicker, p. 133). He challenged the sodomy laws in the District of Columbia; worked to ban discrimination in the District against gays and lesbians in housing, employment, and public accommodation; established a paralegal practice that represented gays with legal grievances against the government; and in 1971 ran for the delegate seat representing the District in the House of Representatives, an unsuccessful race that nevertheless forced the other candidates to declare their position on homosexual rights. In 1975 he succeeded in his long-standing efforts to get the Civil Service Commission to drop its ban on gay employees. Two years later he was invited to join a delegation of gay and lesbian leaders who met with the president’s adviser for public relations, the first official invitation to gays and lesbians from the White House. By the late 1980s he was testifying before Congress as a recognized authority on security clearances. His work in this area finally bore full fruit in 1995, when President Bill Clinton issued an executive order prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in the issuance of government security clearances.
Kameny’s final years were filled with recognitions and honors. In 2009 the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the successor to the Civil Service Commission, formally apologized for his dismissal. In 2010 he was an honored guest at the Oval Office for the signing of the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that had forced gays in the military to keep silent about their sexual orientation. That same year the D.C. City Council voted unanimously to name a two-block section of Seventeenth Street as Frank Kameny Way in recognition of his lifelong work on behalf of LGBT equality.
In a 1952 lecture on stellar populations, Kameny noted that Population I stars are “rejuvenated” stars, old stars that have gained new matter by accretion. In the wake of his 1957 firing, Kameny’s fifty-year battle on behalf of gay and lesbian rights was a stellar rejuvenation of his own shattered life, one that lit the way for homosexual citizens to live, as he once put it, “fully, joyously, openly and proudly.” His death in Washington, D.C., coincided with National Coming Out Day.
Kameny’s copious papers and memorabilia are housed in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. His account of his campaigns on behalf of civil service employment and security clearances is printed in John D’Emilio, William B. Turner, and Urvashi Vaid, eds., Creating Change: Sexuality, Public Policy, and Civil Rights (2000). His essay “Gay Is Good” was first published in Ralph W. Weltge, ed., The Same Sex: An Appraisal of Homosexuality (1969). The 1964 New York speech quoted above appears in James Daley, ed., Great Speeches on Gay Rights (2010). For biographical information see Kay Tobin and Randy Wicker, The Gay Crusaders (1972); Vern L. Bullough, ed., Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context (2002); Paul D. Cain, Leading the Parade: Conversations with America’s Most Influential Lesbians and Gay Men (2002); and Philip Gambone, Travels in a Gay Nation: Portraits of LGBTQ Americans (2010). Obituaries appeared in the Washington Blade, 11 Oct. 2011, and New York Times, 12 Oct. 2011.