Frank Kameny, one of the earliest and most outspoken activists for gay rights in America, has died at the age of 86. Kameny, an astronomer with a PhD from Harvard, was the founder of the Mattachine Society of Washington and a longtime advocate for equality. He coined the early gay rights phrase “Gay is Good“, fighting the idea that being gay was a mental illness or something to be ashamed of. In 2006, the Library of Congress incorporated over 70,000 letters, documents and memorabilia from Frank Kameny into its permanent collection.
“The momentum is there, and that’s not going to be stopped. It’s moved from hopes of a grass-roots movement, to the actuality of a grass-roots movement. And it’s taken 40 years to do it.”
In 1957, the Army Map Service in Washington, D.C. dismissed astronomer Frank Kameny. Though a WWII veteran with an M.A. and Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University, Kameny was discharged because he was gay.
Rather than accept a common practice of the times, Kameny fought for his rights. He successfully challenged anti-gay policies of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the US Department of Defense and the US Civil Service Commission.
Kameny sued the Army Map Service and lost his case. On appeal he lost again, and after the Supreme Court denied his petition to direct the case to be reconsidered, Kameny realized his objectives would require a broader movement. In 1961, Kameny co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C with Gay Pioneer Jack Nichols.
Kameny was the first to bring open activism to the gay rights movement. The D.C. Mattachine Society contacted public officials to attempt to change policy. They published a newsletter, The Gazette, and campaigned to overturn security clearance denials, employment restrictions and dismissals of gay men from the Federal workforce. In 1963, Kameny began a movement to repeal sodomy laws and challenge the APA’s classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder.
On April 17, 1965, Kameny led the first public picket for gay rights at the White House. With support from the Daughters of Bilitis, the Mattachine Society extended its protest to the Pentagon and the Civil Service Commission. He helped launch the first organized gay and lesbian demonstrations for equality. These seminal demonstrations by activists from New York, Philadelphia and Washingon D.C. were held annually each July 4th at Independence Hall from 1965 to 1969 and were called annual reminders. They paved the way for the Stonewall Riots in 1969.
Inspired by Stokely Carmichael’s “Black is Beautiful,” Kameny dubbed the phrase “Gay is Good” as a slogan for the movement. He led the fight for gay rights into the 1970s and ran for Congress in 1971 on an equal rights platform. The APA removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973 and the Civil Service Commission lifted its ban on homosexuality in 1975, an action President Bill Clinton formalized many years later.
In 2000, Equality Forum with WHYY/PBS produced the documentary film “Gay Pioneers” about Frank Kameny and other early activists. In 2006, the Library of Congress incorporated memorabilia from Frank Kameny into its permanent collection. The Washington, D.C. City Council honored Frank Kameny in 2007, hailing him as a “true freedom fighter.”
I had the opportunity to meet Frank Kamney at an LGBT rights event a few years ago and was moved even then by his energy, passion, and dedication to equality. Never afraid to say what he thought or stand against fierce opposition, Kameny was gracious, affable, and encouraging to a young activist like me.
Thank you, Frank Kameny, for all of your work and activism. Gay is indeed good… and it’s a little bit better thanks to you.
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