THE GAY CIVIL RIGHTS movement has lost a giant. Frank Kameny, a New York-born World War II veteran and Harvard PhD who lost his job as a civilian Army astronomer because of his sexual orientation, died Tuesday at his home in Northwest Washington. He was 86.
D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) called Mr. Kameny “a founding father of the pride movement.” This designation offers only a hint at his role in the fight for equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Americans.
Mr. Kameny was out, loud and proud when almost no one else was. When the Army Map Service fired him in 1957 for being gay, he petitioned the Supreme Court to argue that the government’s treatment of him was an “affront to human dignity.” His civil rights argument for gays would be the first before the high court. In 1965, four years before the Stonewall riots in New York, Mr. Kameny and 25 other activists, including Barbara Gittings, considered the “Founding Mother” of the gay civil rights movement, picketed the White House. According to Charles Francis, a founder of the Kameny Papers Project, when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) held its conference in Washington in 1971, Mr. Kameny crashed the event, seized the microphone and said, “We’re not the problem. You’re the problem!”
While the change Mr. Kameny sought didn’t happen quickly, the bold activism he helped spearhead eventually got results. In 1973, the APA stopped classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder. In 1995, President Clinton signed an executive order allowing gay men and lesbians to hold security clearances. In 2009, with Mr. Kameny at his side in the Oval Office, President Obama signed an executive order granting benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees.
That same year, Mr. Kameny received a formal apology from the U.S. government for his firing. It was delivered by John Berry, the openly gay director of the Office of Personnel Management. Mr. Kameny lived to see the end last month of the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military. And his pioneering push for equality in the 1960s now informs the effort to overturn California’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
Thanks to Mr. Kameny’s sense of history, the Library of Congress holds 77,000 items from his attic. The National Museum of American History has 12 of the picket signs Mr. Kameny and others used in that 1965 White House protest. Only one is on display now; displaying all 12 would be a fitting tribute to a man who sacrificed much so that gay men and lesbians would not suffer second-class citizenship in a nation that promises equality for all.