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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 14, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 41
Gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny dies
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Gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny dies

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny has died at the age of 86. Appropriately, he died on National Coming Out Day, Tuesday, October 11.

Kameny's life story is a long list of firsts - first federal civil rights suit based on sexual orientation, first Gay rights organization in the nation's capital, first public Gay and Lesbian protests, first openly Gay Congressional candidate, first White House briefing on LGBT issues.

Kameny's extraordinary life started out in a perfectly ordinary way.

He was born in New York City to Jewish immigrant parents, served in the U.S. Army in World War II, went to Queens College, and then earned a Ph.D. in astronomy at Harvard.

After graduating in 1956, he taught astronomy at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., until he was hired by the U.S. Army Map Service in 1957.

It was then that his relatively normal life took an unexpected turn.

One night, while cruising Lafayette Park across the street from the White House, Kameny was arrested. When news of the arrest became public, he was fired from his job by the federal Civil Service Commission.

In January 1958, the Civil Service Commission permanently barred him from future federal employment.

As odd as it now seems, in the wake of the McCarthy period, Gay men were seen not only as immoral, but also as security risks, and therefore not suitable for federal jobs.

Rather than quietly moving to a new town and discreetly looking for another job, like most Gay men of his generation might have done, Kameny appealed the firing.

After losing twice in lower federal courts, he took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which turned down his petition for a hearing.

Kameny then became one of the founders of the D.C. Mattachine Society.

Founded in 1950 by Gay Communist and later Radical Faerie Harry Hay, the Mattachine Society originally was organized along the secretive lines of the Communist Party 'cell,' but Kameny introduced an aggressive new tone to the organization.

In 1963, Kameny launched a campaign to repeal D.C.'s sodomy laws. He personally drafted the repeal bill that finally passed in 1993.

That same year, D.C.'s Mattachine Society was the target of a Congressional investigation initiated by Rep. John Dowdy (D-Tex.), who challenged the group's right to solicit funds. Ironically, Dowdy was later forced to resign from Congress after he was indicted for bribery.

On April 17, 1965, Kameny began the first public protests by Gays and Lesbians with a picket line at the White House.

With support from the New York Mattachine Society and the Lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis, the Mattachine Society of D.C. expanded the picketing to the Pentagon, the U.S. Civil Service Commission, and Philadelphia's Independence Hall.

These protests were repeated every year, becoming known as the Annual Reminder for Gay Rights.

In 2007, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History featured Kameny's picket signs in the Smithsonian exhibit 'Treasures of American History.'

In 1971, Kameny became the first openly Gay candidate for Congress when he ran in the District of Columbia's first election for a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives.

Following that election, Kameny and his campaign organization created the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Washington D.C., an organization that continues to lobby the federal government for LGBT rights.

In 1968, playing off Stokely Carmichael's 'Black Is Beautiful,' Kameny created the signature slogan 'Gay Is Good.'

On March 26, 1977, Kameny and a dozen other members of what was then the National Gay Rights Task Force, now the NGLTF, briefed President Jimmy Carter's Public Liaison Midge Costanza on LGBT issues. This was the first time that LGBT rights were officially discussed at the White House.

Kameny was also appointed as the first openly Gay member of the District of Columbia's Human Rights Commission.

Eventually, Kameny came to be honored by the federal government that spurred his activist career by firing him in the '50s.

On June 29, 2009, John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, formally apologized to Kameny on behalf of the United States government. Berry, who is openly Gay, presented Kameny with the Theodore Roosevelt Award, the department's most prestigious honor.

At a luncheon on December 10, 2010, in the Caucus room of the Cannon House Office Building, Kameny was honored with the 2010 Cornelius R. 'Neil' Alexander Humanitarian Award.

Kameny was given a front row seat at the gathering where President Obama signed the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Repeal Act of 2010.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) recalled the central fact of Kameny's long life: that he was a fighter.

'The death of Frank Kameny is a very sad day for those who believe that all people in this country should be treated fairly,' Frank said.

'No one in our history had a longer record of commitment to and leadership of the fight for civil rights for all. When he was himself the victim of discrimination decades ago, unlike almost every other victim of the homophobia that then pervaded the country, Frank Kameny fought back.

'His courageous, creative assault on bigotry is one of the rocks on which the movement for LGBT rights is founded, and the successes we have had in recent times owe a great deal to him.'

'All of us who are continuing the fight will remain indebted to him, inspired by him, and regretful that we will no longer have the benefit of his advice, his encouragement, and perhaps most importantly, his impatience.'

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