Frank Kameny, R.I.P.

Frank Kameny, whose name was practically a synonym for pioneering gay civil-rights leadership, died today at his home in Washington, D.C., at the age of 86.  One news account summarized some of his work:

Kameny’s beginnings in advocacy work came after he was fired from his job as an astronomer for the Army Map Service in 1957. He challenged the firing, though, and took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although the court declined to hear the case, an activist was born.

Kameny went on to become one of the leading advocates for lesbian and gay equality in the years before — and since — Stonewall. In 1961, he co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington. In 1965, he and others with the group famously picketed the White House in shirts and ties, sending a letter to the White House explaining their presence.

Kameny, along with Barbara Gittings, successfully worked with others to convince the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of disorders in 1973. The next year, he and Gittings served as counsel to Otis Fancis Tabler, Jr., successfully keeping the Defense Department employee from having his security clearance revoked due to being gay.

He filed the first gay-rights brief in the Supreme Court, in his own federal discharge case, in 1961.  He lived to see not only the end of the ban on federal employment for gays and lesbians, but the decriminalization of private sexual acts between adults of the same sex, the demedicalization of homosexuality by the APA’s decision in 1973, the enactment of laws to protect people from discrimination in employment, housing, education, and medical care, the beginning of gay marriage, and recently the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  (He served in World War II.) A slogan, coined by him in the 1960s, was “Gay is Good.” Not O.K. or tolerable, but good.  He once sent the police chief a letter inviting him to have sex with Frank at Frank’s home at a select hour. He hoped the police would come arrest him, permitting him to challenge the Virginia sodomy law.  They didn’t take that bait, but the few remaining sodomy laws were declared unconstitutional in 2003.  No small amount of each of these changes was directly attributable or traceable to Kameny. 

I had the honor to meet Frank on a couple of occasions over the past ten years.  He was cantankerous, had a mischevious smile, and was deliberately provocative.  He didn’t sugarcoat anything or consider the political effect of what he said or did  He lived his life openly and honestly, a heroic act for someone of his time.  He constantly reminded you not to direct your persuasion inward toward those who agree with you, but outward toward those who aren’t yet convinced.  His work showed that the greatest constitutional friend of gays and lesbians has been the First Amendment.

He was the last lion, a living link to an entire era of gay male activism that has now expired. But the effects of what he did — which can be seen in the happier and freer lives of millions of people — will be felt long after him.

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