Frank Kameny never thought he would live to see what happened on April 23, 2009.
Over five decades earlier, in December of 1957, Kameny was fired from his job at the Army Map Service. Two years earlier, he had been arrested in a police sting at a San Francisco men’s room, a routine incident in an era when local authorities devoted significant resources in the entrapment of homosexuals. Kameny paid a fine and had the case expunged, leaving him to believe that the ordeal would not affect him in the future.
But not long after, having moved to Washington, Kameny would soon become one of the many victims of the “Lavender Scare,” the purge of homosexuals, real and imagined, from government jobs that had been roiling the nation’s capital since the late 1940s, as recounted in David K. Johnston’s book of the same title. A government investigator came upon the 1955 arrest record and Kameny was promptly fired without any means of appealing the decision. That he was eminently qualified didn’t matter. (A World War II veteran, he had entered Queens College at the age of 16, and later went to Harvard, where he eventually earned a doctorate in Astronomy). Kameny wrote letters of protest to the U.S. Civil Service Commission, the FBI, members of Congress, and even President Lyndon Baines Johnson, all to no avail. Branded a pervert, Kameny was prohibited from working in government. He was soon broke and living on charity from the Salvation Army.
So it was with enormous pride that over half a century after he had been fired due to his sexual orientation, Kameny would be a guest of honor at the swearing-in ceremony for the openly gay director of the federal civil service—the very agency that had dismissed him. Standing inside the same building that Kameny had picketed decades earlier, John Berry read Kameny an official apology. “It is the president’s and my opinion that employees should only be judged by their abilities to do the job and their performance on the job, and not by any other irrelevant facts,” Berry told the 100 assembled federal workers and Michelle Obama, who presided over the ceremony. “Please accept our apology for the consequences of the previous policy of the United States government.”
As for Kameny, though the ban on gays in the civil service was revoked in 1975 (due, in large part, to his own campaigning, though discrimination against gays receiving security clearances did not end until 1995), the elevation of Berry to the head of an institution that vigorously rooted out men like them put a capstone on decades of activism. “I view it as final closure after 52 years,” Kameny told me at the time. “This is like a fairy tale where everything worked out happily ever after.”
FRANK KAMENY PASSED AWAY Tuesday at the age of 86, and it’s safe to say that he did more for the cause of gay rights than any other person. While thousands of people were rooted out of government jobs due to their sexual orientation, Kameny was the first who challenged the injustice, and to the highest levels of the government. In 1961, he took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, which denied his petition. His was the first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation ever to be considered by the American justice system.
The gay rights movement is widely considered to have begun with the Stonewall Riot of 1969, when, rather than succumb to police intimidation as they always had before, a group of patrons at a Greenwich Village gay bar fought back. “Stonewall” has become enshrined in American history as the Lexington and Concord of gay rights. But this reading of history gets it wrong. While Stonewall was indeed a seminal moment, the movement would never have found its footing had it not been for the tireless and courageous actions of Kameny, whose work began over a decade earlier. Essentially blacklisted, he devoted his life to the cause, never reconsidering the choice to do so because, as he told the Washington, D.C. gay magazine Metroweekly several years ago, “I’m right and they’re wrong.”
In 1961, Kameny co-founded the D.C. chapter of the Mattachine Society, the necessarily secretive precursor to the well-funded, glitzy gay rights organizations that today hold $1,000-a-plate black tie dinners. Four years later, Mattachine held a picket outside the White House, where just 10 men and women, conservatively dressed and some wearing sunglasses to disguise their identity, held signs declaring “First Class Treatment for Homosexuals” and “Civil Service Commission is Un-American.” In an era when most gay people lived lives of private shame, Kameny’s motto, inspired by the phrase, “Black is beautiful,” was reaffirming in its truthful simplicity: “Gay is Good.” In 1971, he campaigned to be the District’s non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives, becoming the first openly gay person to run for Congress. Two years later, he successfully led the effort to convince the American Psychiatric Association to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder, commandeering the microphone at their conference in Washington and declaring, “We’re not the problem. You’re the problem.”
I got to know Frank personally as a student at Yale, when I joined an email list-serv of gay writers and activists. Frank’s mantra, whenever anyone complained about something they had read in the newspaper or heard about on TV, was “TELL THEM!” Had someone written an op-ed that made a silly argument against same-sex marriage? TELL THEM. Had a pastor made an outrageous comment about gay men wanting to molest children? TELL THEM. Had no less a figure than the President of the United States buckled to congressional pressure on this or that gay rights measure? Then, by all means, CALL THE WHITE HOUSE.
Frank lived up to his own admonitions, often finding himself engaged in arguments with the most extreme anti-gay bigots. The favorite target for his criticism was the immensely popular, and absolutely bonkers, website WorldNetDaily, which has since become the leading source of “birther” conspiracy theories. Frank would occasionally write emails, models of logical argument, to its columnists, for whom the term “crank” does not even come near to doing justice. In 2004, a writer for the site attacked then-Vice President Dick Cheney for stating that “people ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to” in response to a question about the Federal Marriage Amendment. “What if Mr. One-Heartbeat-Away in the White House had a daughter who was a masochist who fell in love with a sadist?” sneered Les Kinsolving, the website’s White House correspondent, in reference to the openly gay Mary Cheney.
Frank, as was his wont, would not let the inherent association of homosexuality with sexual fetish slide. But rather than argue that gay people were no more prone to sadomasochism than heterosexuals, he went one step further: “In that Declaration [of Independence], we find the guarantee, nor merely as a right, but as an inalienable right, of the ‘pursuit of happiness.’ So, if an American sadist and a masochist—or two men or two women—choose to pursue their happiness by marrying, their right so to do is guaranteed in the very essence of what our nation stands for.” In an age when gay activists have come to embrace the “outing” of public officials deemed anti-gay, Frank was unusually charitable to his ideological enemies as a point of principle. For instance, in 2007, when the conservative Idaho Republican Senator Larry Craig was arrested for soliciting sex in a public restroom, Frank wrote a letter to WND editor Joseph Farah, arguing that, while Craig was “a self-deluding hypocritical homophobic bigot,” “fair is fair. He committed no crime in Minneapolis and should not suffer as if he did.”
Although painted by his enemies as a radical, Frank was anything but. He had no time for the trendy gender studies programs that have dotted up on university campuses across the country; I doubt he ever used the word “queer.” He preferred suits and ties to the garish outfits donned (when donned at all) by participants at gay pride parades. His appeals to basic equality and fairness were always rooted in the texts of the American Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and the words of the Founding Fathers themselves. Charles Francis, a Washington businessman who worked tirelessly and thanklessly over the past several years to collect Frank’s papers (70,000 items, which, in 2006, were donated to the Library of Congress), told me that, “What truly set Frank apart from some of the early activists like Mattachine founder [and Communist Party member] Harry Hay was the fact that Frank rooted his advocacy for gays and lesbians not in radical ideology or Marxism but in the words of Thomas Jefferson and the Constitution itself, as an equal American.”
In my work as a foreign correspondent, I have met gay people all over the world, from Belarus to Kyrgyzstan, Serbia to Egypt. I am continually amazed at their bravery, living as they do in countries where homosexuality can be punishable by law and where being honest about one’s sexual orientation can lead to state-sanctioned harassment, assault, or even death. Though some of these individuals have probably never heard of Frank Kameny, they all, we all, owe him an impossible debt. For not that long ago, the situation for gay people in America was not altogether different from what it is like today in some of the world’s most repressive societies. And the amazing progress that has transpired over the past half century—the right of gays to serve openly in the military, to marry or have civil partnerships, not to mention the enormous cultural shift in attitudes about homosexuality—is largely attributable to the honesty of one man, who, like Rosa Parks before him, simply refused to put up with the injustice that he was so prescient and unique in recognizing. “I have chosen not to adjust myself to society but, with considerable success, have adjusted society to me,” Frank told me in an interview, one of his last, in 2010. “And society is much the better off for the adjustments I’ve administered.”
James Kirchick is a contributing editor of The New Republic and a contributing writer to The Advocate. He is working on a history of gay Washington.