Kameny picketing in front of the White House in 1965 (he is second in line, immediately to the right of the policeman's elbow, his face partially obscured).
Gay rights activist Frank Kameny (1925-2011) died eight years ago at age 86, in Washington, DC, not far from your blogger's home. He was crusty, in-your-face stubborn and possessed of a one track mind: equality for homosexuals. He was out, loud and proud 24 hours a day. I consider him the most important person I’ve ever entertained in my home, although he was a difficult guest. Frank was not capable of chit-chat or polite discourse. Nevertheless, we all owe this man, big time.
Born and raised in NYC, Kameny saw combat as an Army soldier in Europe during WW II. After earning a doctorate degree in astronomy from Harvard University, he went to work as an astronomer for the US Army map service in the 1950s and was fired in 1957 after authorities discovered he was homosexual. Kameny fought the firing and appealed his case to the US Supreme Court, becoming the first known gay person to file a homosexual-related case before the high court. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling against Kameny and declined to hear the case, but Kameny’s decision to appeal through the court system motivated him to become a lifelong advocate for LGBT* equality.
*Actually, he disliked the moniker LGBT. He used the word "gay" as an all inclusive term. An article in the current issue of The Atlantic magazine ("Don't Call Me LGBTQ" by Jonathan Rauch) proposes using the single letter "Q" as a replacement for LGBTQ, countering that the procession of letters has become too unwieldy. So stay tuned.
1961: Kameny and Jack Nichols co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, an organization that embraced aggressive action for the civil rights of homosexuals. In 1963 the group was the subject of Congressional hearings over its right to solicit funds.
1968: He gave us the phrase ''Gay is Good'' back when homosexuality and shame were partners. The Library of Congress archives contain this original example.
1973: The American Psychiatric Association stopped classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder, and Kameny had played a major role in that change. Kameny “crashed the APA conference in Washington DC, seized the microphone and shouted, ‘We’re not the problem. You’re the problem!’” He and lesbian activist Barbara Gittings were the first recipients of the American Psychiatric Association's John M. Fryer, M.D., Award, recognizing their contribution to fighting against that association’s earlier homophobia.
2006: the Human Rights Campaign presented him with the National Capital Area Leadership Award. That same year the Library of Congress accepted 77,000 items from his collected papers.
2009: President Obama signed an executive order that granted benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees; Kameny was by his side in the Oval Office and received a pen from Obama. Also that year, he received a formal apology from the U.S. government for his treatment all those years ago, and Kameny’s home in Washington DC was designated a Historic Landmark by the District of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Review Board.
The Smithsonian Institution’s “Treasures of American History” exhibit includes Kameny's picket signs carried in front of the White House in 1965. The Smithsonian now has 12 of the original picket signs carried by homosexual Americans in the first-ever White House demonstration for gay rights.
By his example, perseverance and sacrifice, he showed Americans what courage looked like.
Note: Controversy followed Kameny even after his death. After cremation, his legal heir Timothy Clark took possession of the ashes. Because the estate did not have financial resources to purchase a memorial, a gay charitable group known as Helping Our Brothers and Sisters purchased a plot at DC's Congressional Cemetery* and erected head and foot stones, which have become a gay tourist attraction. But Clark would not allow interment of the ashes to take place until ownership of the plot was signed over to Kameny's estate. To this day the grave remains empty, and Clark interred Kameny's ashes at an undisclosed location, requesting the public to respect his "wishes and privacy."
*The grave's location is right behind that of Leonard Matlovich, a gay Vietnam veteran whose tombstone bears the epitaph: When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one. Other gay rights activists and members of American Veterans for Equal Rights have chosen to be buried in this cemetery.