Democracy Dies in Darkness

Retropolis

The gay rights pioneer who demanded justice from the Supreme Court in 1960

June 9, 2018 at 7:00 AM

Gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny in his home in Washington in 2009. Kameny was fired from his job as a government astronomer in 1957 for being gay. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

When gay rights advocate Frank Kameny died in 2011, obituaries noted his numerous historic efforts in the fight for equal rights.

He coined the phrase “Gay is Good.” His early gay rights marches — in suit and tie — were the precursor to today’s raucous gay pride parades. He was, the obits said, the Rosa Parks of the gay rights movement.

A Harvard-educated astronomer, Kameny did so much in his 86 years that one of his most notable achievements went unmentioned.

It was about a loss before the country’s highest court long before its rulings on same-sex marriages and wedding cakes. (But ultimately a win.)

Related: [Pride’s raucous parades began as suit-and-tie protests called the ‘Annual Reminder’]

In 1957, Kameny was fired by the Army Map Service on grounds that seem unconscionable today. He was gay. And that was considered immoral and unacceptable.

“The next two or three years were extremely difficult,” Kameny told the podcast Making Gay History. “In fact, by the time I got into 1959, I was living for about eight months on 20 cents worth of food a day, which even by 1959 prices was not terribly much. It was a great day when I could afford five cents more and put a pat of butter on my mashed potatoes.”

Kameny was furious at his firing. The anger never abated. In fact, it got worse.

“I had decided that basically what this amounted to was a declaration of war against me by my government,” he told the podcast.

So Kameny turned to the legal system for help. He sued the government.

But after a series of failures to move his case forward, Kameny’s attorney essentially gave up. Kameny didn’t. On his own, with no legal training, Kameny wrote and filed a pro se appeal to the Supreme Court — the first time the rights of gays, or lack thereof, were taken to the nation’s highest court.

Kameny’s legal reasoning was historic (but, circa 2018, familiar): Tolerating gays wasn’t enough. The Constitution itself required equal treatment.

He wrote:

In World War II, petitioner did not hesitate to fight the Germans, with bullets, in order to help preserve his rights and freedoms and liberties, and those of others. In 1960, it is ironically necessary that he fight the Americans, with words, in order to preserve, against tyrannical government, some of those same rights, freedoms and liberties, for himself and others. He asks this court, by its granting of a writ of certiorari, to allow him to engage in that battle.

Kameny, a District resident, noted that homosexuality was not illegal where he resided. So how could he be free to engage in homosexual acts as a citizen but not as a federal employee? It was a real head-scratcher. He wrote:

This clearly makes of the Federal employee a second-class citizen, since, upon pain of severe penalty, he may not engage, in his own time, and in his own private life, in activities in which all other citizens of the District of Columbia may freely and legally engage, and, in fact, he may not even arrange his life, or exist in a state legal to all residents of the District.

He hadn’t finished. In attacking the government’s position, he added:

“More important, in there being nothing more than a reflection of ancient primitive, archaic, obsolete taboos, they are an anachronistic relic of the Stone Age carried over into the Space Age — and a harmful relic! What kind of people are these against whom our government is so viciously and uncompromisingly prejudiced?”

People picket the White House in 1965 to protest government discrimination based on sexual orientation. Frank Kameny is the second man in line holding a sign. (UPI)

The answer, apparently, was the Supreme Court.

It denied his appeal.

Kameny learned of his loss by reading a one-paragraph news item in the Washington Star.

He piled the papers from the Supreme Court with the rest of his letters, memorabilia and relics of his gay rights fights. In 2005, Charles Francis, the co-founder of the Kameny’s Papers Project, discovered the court documents in Kameny’s attic.

Along with his other papers, they were donated to the Library of Congress. Nearby, according to the library, is a letter he didn’t write, though it was addressed to the Mattachine Society, an advocacy group he helped start after his firing.

The letter said his firing was “based on the revulsion of other employees.”

In 2009, two years before he died, Kameny received an apology from the Office of Personnel Management.

Kameny said, “Apology accepted.”

Read more Retropolis:

‘Some sad and scary things’: Mister Rogers consoled kids by telling them the truth

Decades before ‘The L Word,’ she risked jail to create a magazine for lesbians

When progressive Portland banned blacks: Oregon’s shameful history as an ‘all-white’ state

Leo Frank was lynched for a murder he didn’t commit. Now neo-Nazis are trying to rewrite history.


Michael Rosenwald is an enterprise reporter writing about history, the social sciences, and culture. He also hosts Retropod, a daily podcast. Before joining The Post in 2004, he was a reporter at The Boston Globe.

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