Frank Kameny, Father of American Gay Movement, Dies at 86

“Gay is Good.”

Gay activist Frank Kameny, riffing on “Black is Beautiful,” came up with that phrase in 1968. It made it onto buttons and posters and ultimately into the consciousness of homosexual people, who mostly believed we were sick and sinful. “Gay is Good” pushed us along to the point where we now take it for granted that not only is there nothing wrong with being gay, it is indeed good.

Kameny often said it was the one thing in all of his activism that he wanted to be remembered for. He died of natural causes in his Washington, DC, home on October 11, National Coming Out Day, at the age of 86.

Activism began in 1957 with firing by US government, lasted until his death on National Coming Out Day

While Harry Hay and his cohorts founded the first modern American gay group –– the Mattachine Society –– in 1950 in Los Angeles, they mostly operated as a secret organization. Kameny, who first stood up for himself as a gay man in 1957 after being fired by the Army Map Service for being homosexual in a civilian job, once said in all humility, “I created gay activism.” He was referring to the first public demonstrations by gays and lesbians that he initiated with activists including Barbara Gittings at the White House and at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in the mid-1960s.

Kameny fought the federal government’s 1957 discrimination against him by appealing to the White House, the Civil Service Commission, and the Civil Service Committees of the US House and Senate, losing at every turn. He went to court with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union. After losing two rounds, the ACLU gave up but Kameny did not, famously writing his own appeal to the US Supreme Court.

When he had questions about preparing his brief, he recalled, “I called the Supreme Court and said, ‘What do I do now?’ They told me.” He filed in January 1961 and in March he was denied a hearing by the court.

Earlier this year Kameny said, “There’s a huge exhibit at the Library of Congress on ‘The Creation of the United States.’ A small part is a copy of my brief and the nasty letter I got from the then-chair of the Civil Service Commission. Apparently, I have become a creator of the United States!”

Kameny continued to fight to the end the denial of security clearances to gay people (which gradually disappeared), exclusion from the Civil Service (which took until 1975), and the ban on open service by gays in the military, which was finally lifted in September.

At a forum at New York’s LGBT Community Center in 2005, Kameny said about the military ban, “Any person in or out of office who supports the ban is constitutionally defined as a traitor and should be hanged!”

He never minced words. “I adjust society to me,” Kameny said, “and society is much better off.”

Franklin Edward Kameny was born on May 21, 1925 in New York City. He served in combat in the European Theater of Operations in World War II, acknowledging that “they asked and I lied and didn’t tell” in 1943 to get into the service, “though as a healthy teenager I can tell you that I had things to tell.” He got a BS in physics from Queens College in 1948 and an MA and PhD in astronomy from Harvard in 1949 and 1956.

He was working as an astronomer for the Army Map Service when confronted by investigators. They told him, “We have information that you’re a homosexual.” Kameny asked, “What’s your information?” The investigators said, “We can’t tell you.” He was fired anyway, under President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 executive order denying security clearances to “people who engaged in sexual perversion.”

Kameny was an indefatigable and tenacious gay rights pioneer with staying power. He derided the movement of the 1950s as “too apologetic and deferential to experts. I took the position that we gays and we gays alone are the sole authorities” on gay people, he said in 2005.

With Jack Nichols, he co organized the Mattachine Society of Washington in 1961, an independent chapter of the West Coast-launched group. They led the first gay protest at the White House in 1965, one in which the men wore jackets and ties and the women dresses. They brought the pickets to Philadelphia on the Fourth of July and kept them up annually until the month after Stonewall in 1969, by which time such protests had spread throughout the country.

The group was the subject of a congressional investigation in 1963 for soliciting funds, but it survived. Some of their protest signs are now in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

The North American Conference of Homophile Organizations, founded in 1966, adopted his radical “Gay is Good” slogan in 1968.

After losing a run for Congress in 1971 as the first out candidate for federal office, he co-founded the Gay Activists Alliance in DC, using the name of the New York group started shortly after Stonewall.

For a decade beginning in 1963, Kameny was a key player in the campaign to get the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder.

On the 30th anniversary of that crucial 1973 movement victory, Kameny told Gay City News, “When we initiated gay activism and militancy, here in Washington, DC, in 1961, we were faced with a massive assault of unrelieved negativism which obstructed the achievement of the equality and basic dignity to which we were entitled and which was and remains our goal. We were allegedly criminal, sinful, and mentally and emotionally sick and disordered. We commenced disposing of each separately, packaging up the process, in 1968, with the coining of ‘Gay is Good.’

“Once we had determined that there was no factual basis for the mental illness allegation, we commenced working on the psychiatrists. It took us ten years, but we succeeded on December 15, 1973 when, as the ‘keepers of mental illness,’ the American Psychiatric Association formally cured us all, en masse.

“Now in 2003, we are no longer criminal, we are increasingly viewed as virtuous rather than as sinful, and we can joyfully celebrate the 30th anniversary of the cure which, in one fell swoop, removed previously insurmountable obstacles, made all the rest possible, and has made our situation in 2003 comfortable beyond our wildest dreams of 1961.”

Kameny and Gittings went to the 1971 APA convention to protest its anti-gay stance, with Kameny seizing the microphone to denounce the assembled health professionals. In 1972, the activists hosted a convention booth called “Gay Proud and Healthy,” and Kameny danced at the group’s banquet with a local gay male activist.

In 1994, the APA presented awards to the gay activists for their pioneering work.

Kameny also led the 30-year campaign to repeal the DC sodomy law, writing the repeal bill and finally prevailing in 1993. He was a co-founder of the National Gay Task Force (now NGLTF) in 1973 and the National Gay Rights Lobby (later the Human Rights Campaign). He was the first out gay appointee to Washington’s city government, named human rights commissioner in 1975.

In 1987 on the day after the October 11 March on Washington for LGBT rights, Kameny joined the civil disobedience demonstration at the US Supreme Court protesting the infamous 5-4 Bowers v. Hardwick decision the year before upholding Georgia’s anti-sodomy statute. Asked if in his early days in the movement he envisioned this level of activism — hundreds of thousands marching and hundreds risking arrest for gay rights — he flatly said, “No. Not until the end of the 1960s. We began activism in 1965 with ten people picketing at the White House!”

Kameny and Gittings were two of the subjects of the 2005 documentary “Gay Pioneers” on PBS, along with New York activist Randy Wicker.

Kameny never stopped speaking and agitating, but he also lived to see the fruits of much of what he was working for and to be honored in his own time. The Library of Congress got his papers in 2006. His home on Cathedral Avenue was made a DC Historic Landmark in 2009, and a street near Dupont Circle was declared Frank Kameny Way in 2010.

In 2009, he received a wildly belated apology for his 1957 firing on behalf of the US government from John Berry, the out gay director of the Office of Personnel Management.

When President Barack Obama signed the bill authorizing the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in December 2010, Kameny was present at the ceremony and told Metro Weekly, “I didn’t think I’d live to see it.” In fact, he lived to see the bill pass and the ban lifted on September 20.

Tributes from all the major national LGBT organizations were issued on the evening of his death.

Federal GLOBE: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Transgender Employees of the Federal Government called him “an American hero” and said, “Frank was our inspiration and was our father. He was our mother. He was our fairy/ angel/ mentor/ pathblazer/ blinding light… His meticulous research and articulation paved the way for LGBT civil rights advancement over the last 25 years.”

Mike Thompson, the acting president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said, “He taught us the power that our visibility and stories have in changing hearts and minds.”

George Weinberg, author of 1972’s groundbreaking “Society and the Healthy Homosexual” who coined the term “homophobia,” was a close friend of Kameny’s. “Frank was the most important gay activist ever,” he wrote in an email to Gay City. “He had an encyclopedic mind, which he first used as an astronomer and then for half a century to attack discrimination against gays.”

Weinberg added, “He worked hundred-hour weeks, often going into mental hospitals and prisons to help gay people escape brutal punishment.” He added, “He will be missed, but even more importantly he should be missed by gay people and humanists everywhere. Wherever gay history is taught, his name and accomplishments will be alive in the minds of new generations.”

Sue Hyde, director of NGLTF’s Creating Change Conference, said in a statement, “Frank Kameny’s life spanned the baddest old days of the McCarthy-style witch hunts to the elations of winning marriage equality in the District of Columbia and beyond.” She added, “Frank Kameny wasn’t only a keeper of our history, Frank created our history. His life and legacy will carry us into the future.”

In a Human Rights Campaign video, Frank Kameny tells his own story:

On a personal note, when I was coming out in the early 1970s, he was the most identifiable gay activist in the country and I was privileged to meet him at Manhattan’s 1974 Christopher Street Liberation Day march (my first). When I became head of the Gay Student Union at the University of Virginia the next year, I brought Kameny down the road to Charlottesville to speak to the group, and he delivered a stem-winder; he was already an 18-year veteran of gay activism who could reminisce about being able to sit down at his kitchen table in the 1960s and correspond with the entire American gay movement, so few groups were out there.

When I moved to New York in 1975, I saw his mother Rae Kameny in action at Parents-FLAG meetings, though I never found out if she inspired him or vice-versa. And he was a great source for me as a journalist, always providing trenchant quotes and historical insight. He was indeed the indispensable man –– just as Barbara Gittings was the indispensable woman of our movement.