Frank Kameny, leading gay rights activist, dies at 86
By Martin Weil and Emily Langer,
Frank Kameny, 86, a persistent and often brash activist who was one of the leading figures of the gay rights movement in the Washington area and in the nation, was found dead Oct. 11 at his home in Northwest Washington.
His death was confirmed by Charles Francis, a founder of the Kameny Papers Project, and by Marvin Carter, a longtime friend. The cause of death could not immediately be learned.
Mr. Kameny, a Harvard PhD whose homosexuality led to his discharge from a federal government job more than half a century ago, lived to see his years of determined advocacy rewarded through the success of many of his campaigns and through his ultimate welcome by a political establishment that had rejected him.
His death, apparently on National Coming Out Day, occurred in a year when gay men and lesbians were accorded the right to serve openly in the armed forces, which the D.C. Council’s first openly gay member, David A. Catania (I-At Large), noted Tuesday night.
Through his efforts over the years, Mr. Kameny deserved to be known as one of the fathers of that shift from the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Catania said.
Mr. Kameny enlisted in the Army during World War II; in an interview last year with Richard Sincere on the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner Web site, he said, “They asked, I didn’t tell.”
In what appeared to be one of the great triumphs of Mr. Kameny’s often lonely, uphill struggle, protest signs that he once carried in front of the White House were put on display in the Smithsonian Institution four years ago, to be viewed along with the museum’s other reminders of the course of U.S. history.
Mr. Kameny said he created the slogan “Gay Is Good.” In their pungent succinctness, the words both suggested his rhetorical skills and embodied the beliefs that he championed.
Years before the gay rights movement existed in any widely recognized form and in an era in which open assertion of homosexuality could invite physical harm, Mr. Kameny worked to increase the acceptance of gay men and lesbians in mainstream American society and to win recognition of their equality under the law.
Rather than shrink from revealing his sexual orientation, Mr. Kameny made it plain. He won attention and respect by the vigorous but unsuccessful campaign he waged 40 years ago for election as the District’s non-voting delegate to Congress.
“Out for Good,” a history of the gay rights movement in the United States, made Mr. Kameny the central figure in several chapters.
One of the book’s co-authors, Dudley Clendinen, has called him an “authentic hero” of American culture. In summarizing Mr. Kameny’s precarious position after the loss of his job, Clendinen noted that Mr. Kameny subsisted on a diet of baked beans. But, the author said, “he didn’t despair.”
In addition to the White House, he picketed at the State Department and at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. He did not accept his federal dismissal without a fight, appealing through the courts, and writing his own briefs.
“He was a stubborn and impatient person, and that was the recipe for his success,” Catania said. “He was never going to be content with second-class citizenship.”
Known for shunning blandness and apology in favor of outspoken militancy, Mr. Kameny was credited with playing an important part in the achievement of what were regarded as several signal milestones passed by gay men and lesbians on the road to full inclusion in American society.
With more than a hint of irony, he once described Dec. 15, 1973, as the date on which “we were cured en masse by the psychiatrists.” That was the date associated with the decision of the American Psychiatric Association to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder. Mr. Kameny was credited with a major role in the effort to bring about that change.
Among other victories for gay rights with which he was associated was an executive order signed by President Bill Clinton that permitted gays to be given security clearances.
He considered the District’s repeal of an anti-sodomy law in early 1990s to be another achievement. In addition, he was credited as a co-founder of the Mattachine Society of Washington in 1961, a pioneering gay activist group.
The federal government, which had cast him aside, issued a formal apology in 2009 for letting him go.
The story of his struggle, chronicled in 77,000 pages of papers and memorabilia, was accepted in 2006 by the Library of Congress.
Living into his 80s, he was able to recognize and revel in the turnaround of American actions and attitudes towards the gay community.
Although he was aware that obstacles remained, he told a reporter last year that “it’s like a storybook ending.”
“Frank was active at a time when he had no backup,” said Rick Rosendall, a longtime gay rights activist in the District. “There was no significant organizational support. It was his sheer nerve, his patriotic indignation” that carried him.
His home, the site of the interview in which he reflected on the turnabouts in his life, was, in a further testament to the esteem in which he was held, designated as a D.C. Historic Landmark.
Franklin Edward Kameny, was born in the New York area on May 21, 1925. In the interview with the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner, he told of enlisting in the Army at the height of World War II, a few days before he turned 18.
In discussing how he had been “asked,” but “didn’t tell,” he said that “as a healthy, vigorous teenager,” there were indeed “things to tell.” (Although, he said, there were not many.)
“I have resented for 67 years that I had to lie in order to serve in a war effort that I strongly supported,” he said. “I did serve and I saw combat in Europe.”
Mr. Kameny was born in New York. After his Army service he received a doctorate in astronomy in 1956.
He came to Washington to work for the Army Map Service. His dismissal from that job came in 1957.
Published accounts say the dismissal was based on his homosexuality. One report said that he was arrested in Lafayette Square, which was known at that time as a place for cruising.
The loss of the job subjected him to deprivation, and he recalled surviving on 20 cents’ worth of food a day in some of the most difficult times. It forced his life into new paths.
On one occasion, he permitted himself to speculate on how things might have turned out if he had not been dismissed at a time when interest in space exploration was growing.
He suggested that he might have become an astronaut.
“I might have gone to the moon,” he said.
Survivors include a sister.
Staff writer Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.