Few people who set out to change the world actually succeed. Frank Kameny was one of those few. You most likely have never heard of him. But for gay Americans, he’s a Founding Father of the historic movement that pulled us out of the closet and into greater acceptance in the United States. What made Kameny a hero was that he demanded equity and fairness when it was literally him against the world. He was 86 and lived in Washington.
I can’t remember the first time I met Kameny. But I’ll never forget the impression he left on me. Feisty. Determined. What impressed me most about Kameny, though, was his unapologetic pragmatism. While he was “stubborn and impatient,” as D.C. Council Member David Catania (I-At Large) told The Post, Kameny understood that he, and eventually the movement that grew around him, had to make big leaps to get society as a whole to take the incremental steps need to move toward equality for gay men, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered Americans. And what leaps he made.
When Kameny was fired from his job at the Army Map Service in 1957 for being gay, he petitioned the Supreme Court in 1961 for relief, arguing that the federal government’s treatment of him was an “affront to human dignity.” He was the first person to make that civil rights argument to the nation’s high court. His petition was denied, but “it started a revolution,” said Charles Francis, a founder of the Kameny Papers Project. Four years before the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, Kameny (second from left in the photo below) and other brave souls were picketing the White House and the Pentagon to demand equality. His bold leaps led to — and will continue to lead to — lasting change.
In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association stopped classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder. Kameny played a major role in that change. According to Francis, Kameny “crashed the [APA] conference here in Washington, seized the microphone and said, ‘We’re not the problem. You’re the problem!’” When President Clinton signed the executive order in 1995 that allowed gays to obtain security clearances, Kameny’s years of protest were the impetus.
When President Obama signed in 2009 the executive order that granted benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees, Kameny was by his side in the Oval Office. Also that year, he received a formal apology from the U.S. government for his treatment all those years ago.
Kameny, who was in combat in Germany during World War II, saw the demise of the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military, 54 years after he began protesting his dismissal from his job in the Army. And as the push for marriage equality wends its way through the courts, the group fighting to overturn California’s Proposition 8, the American Foundation for Equal Rights, notes that “the U.S. District Court referenced the efforts of Frank Kameny and the Mattachine Society to chronicle the long and shameful history of state-enforced discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans.”
Kameny was a pack rat who knew the value of history and his place in it. The Library of Congress took 77,000 items from Kameny’s time machine of an attic in 2006. That same year, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History took possession of 12 of Kameny’s picket signs. On display right now in the section on “The Presidency,” you can see one of the signs Kameny carried: “Homosexual Citizens Want to Serve Their Country, Too,” it reads. And right now, under glass at the “Creating the United States” exhibition at the Library of Congress sits Kameny’s original 1961 petition for certification to the Supreme Court.
Kameny sported a “Gay is Good” button back when few gay people had the courage to be out, loud and proud. By his example, perseverance and sacrifice, he showed gay men and lesbians — all Americans — what courage looked like. We are a better nation because Franklin Edward Kameny set out to make us so.