October is National Gay History Month. Knowing our history gives us a sense of purpose, a measurement of how far we have come, a meaningful identity as a people, and a sense of belonging to a movement larger than ourselves. Every Gay person should know certain basic historical events such as the Stonewall Uprising, Coming Out Day, National Organization for Women, and people such as Anita Bryant, Barbara Gittings, Christine Jorgensen, Del Martin, Frank Kameny, Harry Hay, Harvey Milk, Jose Sarria, Leonard Matlovich and Phyllis Lyon. It is truly sad if you don’t … but it’s not too late.
Of all these great gay pioneers, probably the least known and the most significant to the Gay Civil Rights movement is Frank Kameny. So important is his place in gay history that on July 3, 2012, a Minor Planet was named “Frankkameny” in his honor by the International Astronomical Union and the Minor Planet Center.
Kameny was born in New York City in 1925. He served in the Army throughout World War II in Europe and after leaving the Army, graduated with a baccalaureate in physics in 1948. Kameny then enrolled at Harvard University and graduated with both a master’s degree (1949) and doctorate (1956) in astronomy.
Kameny was hired in July 1957 by the United States Army Map Service. However, in the fall, Kameny was arrested following a late night run-in with police in Lafayette Park, a traditional cruising area along Pennsylvania Avenue across from the White House. Kameny was questioned by his superiors in the Civil Service and because he refused to give them information regarding his sexual orientation he was fired.
In January 1958, he learned he was barred from future employment with the federal government due to President Eisenhower’s 1953 Executive Order 10450 which banned employment of homosexuals in the federal government. Kameny appealed his firing through the judicial system, losing twice before heading to the United States Supreme Court, which turned down his petition. From that day forward Kameny never held a paid job again, but instead he devoted himself to gay activism, supported by friends and family. The toll that activism took on Kameny was that he “never had any long-term relationships with other men, stating merely that he had no time for them.”
In August 1961, Kameny and Jack Nichols co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, an organization that fought aggressively for gay civil rights. The Mattachine Society was a gay-rights organization that had been founded in 1951 by Harry Hay and others in Los Angeles, but by the 1960s had had chapters across the nation. In 1963, Kameny launched a campaign to overturn D.C. sodomy laws and he personally drafted a bill that finally passed in 1993, 30 years later.
Kameny spent much of his time with the Washington Mattachine Society fighting for fair and equal treatment of gay employees in the federal government. He fought against security clearance denials, employment restrictions and unfair dismissals, and for equality for all gay citizens.
Kameny and Nichols planned and launched some of the earliest public protests by homosexuals – most notably the famous picket line at the White House on April 17, 1965. Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin of the Daughters of Bilitis, along with the New York’s Mattachine Society, joined the Washington Chapter in the picketing and later expanded targets of their protests to the United Nations, the Pentagon, the United States Civil Service Commission, and to Philadelphia’s Independence Hall for what became known as the Annual Reminder for Gay Rights.
In 1968, a year before the Stonewall Uprising, Kameny was inspired by Stokely Carmichael’s phrase “Black is Beautiful” which was to counter low esteem among African Americans. Kameny felt much of gay people’s problems were also rooted in low self esteem and he created the slogan “Gay is Good” for the gay civil rights movement.
Post Stonewall, Kameny became the first openly gay candidate for the United States Congress when he ran in the District of Columbia’s first election for a non-voting Congressional delegate in 1971. He lost, but following that election, Kameny created the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Washington, D.C., an organization which lobbied and pressed the case for equal rights for four decades.
He also worked to remove the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Kameny described that on Dec. 15, 1973, when the APA removed homosexuality from its manual of mental disorders, “we were cured en masse by the psychiatrists.”
In 1975, Kameny initiated a challenge to the military’s ban on homosexuals and found Mormon Leonard Matlovich, a technical sergeant in the United States Air Force with 11 years of unblemished service and a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Matlovich met with Kameny and his lawyers and purposely outed himself to his commanding officer on March 6, 1975. In October 1975, Matlovich was formally discharged, but was later reinstated by a federal district court in 1980. Matlovich instead accepted a financial settlement and continued his gay activism work until his death from AIDS in June 1988. Kameny was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral and spoke at graveside services in Washington D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery.
On March 26, 1977, Kameny and a dozen other members of the gay community, under the leadership of the then-National Gay Rights Task Force, made history again by meeting with Public Liaison Midge Costanza in the Carter White House on much-needed changes in federal laws and policies. This was the first time that gay rights were officially discussed at the White House. Kameny was appointed as the first openly gay member of the District of Columbia’s Human Rights Commission in the 1970s.
Still fighting injustice 30 years later, in 2007, Frank Kameny wrote a letter in defense of Senator Larry Craig of Idaho regarding Craig’s arrest for solicitation of sex in a Minneapolis airport bathroom. He wrote “I am no admirer of Larry Craig and hold out no brief for him. He is a self-deluding hypocritical homophobic bigot. But fair is fair. He committed no crime in Minneapolis and should not suffer as if he did.”
On June 29, 2009, John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, formally apologized to Frank Kameny on behalf of the United States government for his being fired from the Civil Service. Berry presented Kameny with the Theodore Roosevelt Award, the department’s most prestigious award. Also Kameny, as his status as a gay veteran activist was seated at the front row of the gathering where President Barack Obama signed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” Repeal Act of 2010.
Kameny suffered from heart disease in his last years, but maintained a full schedule of public appearances, his last being a speech to a gay group in Washington D.C. on Sept. 30, 2011. He was found dead in his Washington D.C. home on Oct. 11, 2011, National Coming Out Day.
If you are interested in learning more about gay history especially local Utah gay history check out the Utah Stonewall Historical Society on Facebook or read blogs posted on “My Gay Musings” at benwilliamswritings.blogspot.com or “Utah Stonewall Historical Society’s Archives: This Day in Gay Utah History” at benwilliamsblogger.blogspot.com.