NW Home of Activist Made Historic Site

Franklin Kameny at his home in the District, where he keeps signs, posters and memorabilia from the early days of the gay-rights struggle.
Franklin Kameny at his home in the District, where he keeps signs, posters and memorabilia from the early days of the gay-rights struggle. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
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By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 2009

It's a simple, brick, neocolonial house: two stories with a screened porch and a one-car garage. It was built in 1955, a time when being gay was enough to get you fired from your job.

Yesterday, this ordinary-looking house at 5020 Cathedral Ave. NW was designated a D.C. Historic Landmark -- not because of its gabled roof or side-hall plan, but because, for 13 fiery years, it was the epicenter of the gay rights movement in the nation's capital.

It is the home of Franklin E. Kameny, 83, considered by academics and historians to be "the father of gay activism," according to the staff report by the Historic Preservation Review Board that recommended the designation.

"Today is D.C.'s recognition of his role, locally and nationally, in turning around discrimination against homosexuals," said Mark Meinke, chairman of the Rainbow History Project and the driving force behind this architectural designation that has a far weightier social significance.

Inside the house, Kameny led an unrelenting pursuit of equal rights for homosexuals long before Harvey Milk had even moved to San Francisco. A collection of Kameny's papers was admitted into the Library of Congress in October 2006, and some of his placards and buttons were put on display in the Smithsonian Museum of American History in 2007.

Kameny said yesterday that he was touched by the most recent recognition of "half a century of work." But the man who picketed in a three-piece suit had a moment of worry.

"Now the house, I haven't been able to maintain it as adequately as I'd like," he said. "The lawn is a mess, it needs to be put in order. The gutters, the heating, things like that."

After fighting in World War II and getting a doctorate degree at Harvard, Kameny came to the District to work as an astronomer. But in 1957, the Army Map Service fired him for being gay.

Unlike many others of his generation, Kameny did not quietly turn away and look for another job. In 1961, he argued to the U.S. Supreme Court that the federal policy calling homosexuals a security risk was "no less illegal and no less odious than discrimination based upon religious or racial grounds." It was the first civil rights claim in a U.S. court based on sexual orientation.

And it marked the beginning of Kameny's activism. In 1962, he moved into the Cathedral Avenue home, where he led the campaign against sodomy law reform, helped overturn the American Psychiatric Association's definition of homosexuality as a mental illness and pressed the federal government to stop refusing security clearances to homosexuals. In 1971, he was the first openly gay candidate to run for Congress.

"If you are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender and you get a job in government, it's because of Dr. Kameny. If you need security clearance for a job and you get it, it's because of Dr. Kameny," Meinke said. "If you're not referred for electric shock therapy when you tell people you're gay, it's because of Dr. Kameny."

The preservation board unanimously approved the designation yesterday. "I think it will resonate well, not only with the whole gay community but with everybody," said board Chairman Tersh Boasberg. "Everybody will be able to appreciate how incredibly significant Dr. Kameny is."

It is unusual to designate a site as historic while its occupant still lives there.

Of the few other sites officially marking the gayrights struggle -- Harvey Milk's photo shop in San Francisco, the Stonewall Inn in New York City and Henry Gerber's house in Chicago -- only the Stonewall Inn has a place on the National Register of Historic Places. Yesterday's designation automatically nominates Kameny's house for that exclusive list.

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