Frank Kameny: America's First Gay Activist
by David K. Johnson
Frank Kameny, who died Tuesday at the age of 86, fought longer and harder for gay and lesbian civil rights than anyone else in U.S. history. Although he came toberevered and honored, his struggle came at great personal cost.
Kameny was one of thousands of federal employees to lose his job in the 1950s for being gay. But he was the first to stand up and fight his dismissal. The few timid gay organizations at the time offered little support. His attorney abandoned his case. Forced to write his own brief to the Supreme Court, he articulated the revolutionary idea that he was being treated as a second-class citizen.
He argued that anti-gay discrimination was "no less illegal and no less odious than discrimination based upon religious or racial grounds." This was not an issue of morality or national security, he argued, but of human rights. It would take the court another 40 years to see things his way.
Kameny fought so tenaciously for so long because the federal government had taken from him not just a job, or even a career, but a life-long passion.
As a boy growing up in Queens, N.Y., Kameny dreamed of becoming an astronomer. After his mother gave him a telescope, he formed an astronomy club in high school. He welcomed America's entrance into World War II because it meant nightly blackouts with enhanced stargazing possibilities. Although his parents wondered whether astronomy was a good career for a Jewish kid, Kameney won a scholarship to Harvard and soon had a Ph.D. in astronomy.
At the dawning of the space race with the Soviet Union, the federal government was anxious to enlist his services -- until it discovered he was gay. Blacklisted from any jobs in the small and government-dependent field of astronomy, Kameny was continually unemployed or underemployed. He neglected his health and his appearance. He devoted nearly all his energy to the cause.
The organization he founded in 1961 was unlike any previous gay rights group. Not secretive about its aims, the Mattachine Society of Washington issued press releases to the president, the cabinet and members of Congress about its desire to "secure for homosexuals the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Using his own name -- at a time when most gays and lesbians used pseudonyms -- he counseled others facing interrogations and prosecutions, testified before Congress, and led pickets in front of the White House.
Best known for his slogan "Gay Is Good" -- coined after watching Stokely Carmichael chant "Black is Beautiful" on television -- Kameny saw the importance of language. When arguing with psychiatrists over theories of mental disorder, Kameney proclaimed, "There is no homosexual problem, there is a heterosexual problem." He called his comrades "homosexual citizens," emphasizing that sexuality and American citizenship were not incompatible.
His tenacity and single-mindedness were not always appreciated. He lost elections even within his own organization. He failed at grassroots mobilization. But he eventually got results. The American Psychiatric Association, the Federal Civil Service, the U.S. Military and the District of Columbia all changed their policies concerning gay men and lesbians because of initiatives he led. Now his personal papers are in the Library of Congress; he was on a first-name basis with President Obama, and a street in Washington, D.C. bares his name.
As Kameny repeatedly said, "If society and I differ on something, I'm willing to give the matter a second look. If we still differ, then I am right and society is wrong; and society can go its way so long as it does not get in my way. But if it does, there's going to be a fight. And I'm not going to be the one who backs down. That has been an underlying premise of the conduct of my life."
We have all benefited from that struggle, from that determination, from that courage.