Bil Browning

America Has Lost a Hero: Frank Kameny

Filed By Bil Browning | October 12, 2011 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: Frank Kameny, gay activists, gay rights, obituary

Noted gay activist Frank Kameny, 86, has passed away peacefully in his sleep according to friends. 2006-10-05_feature_story_2341_3178.jpgI'd met Frank a couple of times (I just saw him at the HRC National Dinner last week) and it was always an honor to speak with someone I consider a personal hero. If he hadn't stepped out front during a time when it was dangerously radical to do so, I doubt this site would even exist; we build off the shoulders of his work every day.

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.

Despite that and many victories for equality since, it wasn't until 2009, that Kameny received a formal apology from the government for his firing. In a letter that called the firing ''a shameful action,'' the director of the Office of Personnel Management wrote to him, ''Please accept our apology for the consequences of the previous policy of the United States government, and please accept the gratitude and appreciation of the United States Office of Personnel Management for the work you have done to fight discrimination and protect the merit-based civil service system.''

Practically every LGBT organization in the United States has issued a release mourning the death of the beloved organizer. A sampling is after the jump.

(Photo courtesy of Metroweekly)

Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese

"Frank Kameny led an extraordinary life marked by heroic activism that set a path for the modern LGBT civil rights movement. From his early days fighting institutionalized discrimination in the federal workforce, Dr. Kameny taught us all that 'Gay is Good.' As we say goodbye to this trailblazer on National Coming Out Day, we remember the remarkable power we all have to change the world by living our lives like Frank -- openly, honestly and authentically."

Federal GLOBE: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Employees of the Federal Government

Frank served his country his whole life. In the military, in government service, and in making the country a more perfect union when the government he fought for and toiled for fired him. Frank was fired just for being gay. He had done nothing untoward, not been a threat. Rather he was working on important technology which his removal from government service delayed for decades.

But Frank did not get bitter. He did what American's have done since our founding--he righted the wrong. It did not come quickly or easily. Frank fought his dismissal all of the way to the Supreme Court. Frank fought the Civil Service Commission. Frank fought for the rights of every American to lead a good life. Frank was a leader for the LGBT movement when leaders were hard to find and paid dearly. Frank paid dearly.

Frank was the reason for Federal GLOBE to get started. Frank was our inspiration and was our father. He was our mother. He was our fairy/angel/mentor/pathblazer/blinding light. Frank was our inspiration. His meticulous research and articulation paved the way for LGBT civil rights advancements over the last 25 years.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Acting President Mike Thompson

"Frank Kameny sparked national change and set the example for gay and lesbian Americans to live their lives openly and proudly. He taught us the power that our visibility and stories have in changing hearts and minds. Today on National Coming Out Day, we honor Frank's legacy not only by remembering this pioneer, but by continuing his work to speak out and share our own stories."

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey

"The death of Frank Kameny is a profound loss and he will be greatly missed. No Washington LGBT event or White House meeting was complete without Frank. I always appreciated that he gave the 50-plus-year perspective, the long view. While so many have been impatient about the pace of progress, there was Frank, insisting we recognize that, in the last two years, he was regularly invited as a guest of honor by the very government that fired him simply for being gay. Yet, he never slowed down in demanding what should be, showing us what was possible and pushing for the very equality and liberation we are still fighting for. As the history books are written on the LGBT movement, no doubt Frank's life will serve as an inspiration to those who will never have the honor of meeting him, but who embody the very future he knew would come true one day. Indeed, Frank, Gay is Good."

Sue Hyde, Director, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change

"Frank Kameny's life spanned the baddest old days of the McCarthy-style witch hunts to the elations of winning marriage equality in the District of Columbia and beyond. In 1957, Frank lost his job, but he never lost his fierce fighting spirit, his blunt and witty command of language, or his commitment to eradicating homophobia. Frank was equally confident and strategic on the streets in front of the White House in 1965 as he was attending a White House meeting in 1977 at which he and a dozen other members of our community briefed then-Public Liaison Midge Costanza on much-needed changes in federal laws and policies. As the LGBT movement began to win in legislatures, courtrooms, and in public opinion, Frank's papers, artifacts and memories gained value. Frank Kameny wasn't only a keeper of our history, Frank created our history. His life and legacy carry us into our future."

National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director Kate Kendell

"Frank Kameny is among a small group of brave and uncompromising men and women without whom the modern civil rights movement for LGBT equality would have faltered. At a time when most lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals lived deeply shadowed and closeted lives, he stepped into the bright glare of public scrutiny and hostility and demanded respect and cultural evolution. It is fitting that his passing would happen on Coming Out Day. Were it not for his coming out, many of us would still be living a lie."

American Foundation for Equal Rights Board President Chad Griffin

"America has lost a hero today. Out and proud, Frank Kameny was fighting for equality long before the rest of us knew we could." He added, "Because there was one Frank Kameny, trailblazing and honest enough to speak out 50 years ago, there are now millions of Americans, coming out, speaking out and fighting for their basic civil rights. His is a legacy of bravery and tremendous impact and will live on in the hearts and minds of every American who values equality and justice."


Dr. Frank Kameny was a hero to the LGBT movement, and to generations of LGBT Americans. It was shocking to hear of his passing, though we know how happy he was to see "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal implemented last month. Just a few months ago we were deeply honored and humbled that Dr. Kameny agreed to share stories about his life, his work, and his commitment to full equality for LGBT people at GetEQUAL's one-year anniversary celebration. His assertion that "Gay is Good" was, and is, an iconic cornerstone of a shift in thinking that marked the first time LGBT people cut through historical hatred, and instead embraced their full dignity, worth, and equality.

In the past few days, we've lost many civil rights pioneers, giving us all some perspective about the pace and importance of our work. It is ironic that Frank left us on National Coming Out Day, after coming out decades ago, back in 1957, in his own act of civil disobedience. He lived a long life as an out and proud gay man, and we will honor Dr. Kameny by increasing our urgency for, deepening our commitment to, and renewing our passion for the fight for full equality for LGBT Americans.

Representative Barney Frank

"The death of Frank Kameny is a very sad day for those who believe that all people in this country should be treated fairly. No one in our history had a longer record of commitment to and leadership of the fight for civil rights for all. When he was himself the victim of discrimination decades ago, unlike almost every other victim of the homophobia that then pervaded the country, Frank Kameny fought back. His courageous, creative assault on bigotry is one of the rocks on which the movement for LGBT rights is founded, and the successes we have had in recent times owe a great deal to him."

"All of us who are continuing the fight will remain indebted to him, inspired by him, and regretful that we will no longer have the benefit of his advice, his encouragement, and perhaps most importantly, his impatience."

National Stonewall Democrats Executive Director Michael Mitchell

Last night, we lost a hero and a champion for LGBT rights. Dr. Frank Kameny was a courageous and undeniable force in our movement. In 1957, he was fired from his US Government job for being gay. The peaceful demonstrations he spearheaded predated the Stonewall Riots by several years, and no doubt opened a door to wider acceptance that allowed the fateful nights of 1969 to grab hold. He lived his life as an example of what it is to be tenacious and fearless.

In 2009, John Berry, on behalf of the US Government, apologized to Dr. Kameny for his firing and awarded him the Office of Personell Management's highest honor for his service. National Stonewall Democrats honored him as one of our Capital Champions as well -- In 2010 -- on the day before his 85th birthday. His body was frail, but his voice was powerful as he contextualized how far we've come as a movement in his lifetime.

I am saddened beyond words at the loss of this courageous pioneer. He holds a very special place in our hearts not only as a long-time activist, but also as a co-founder of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, which is a member of the Stonewall Democrats family. Frank Kameny's legacy lives on in the hearts of the many and diverse activists who continue in our collective fight for equality every day. He is already missed, but I am grateful for the time he spent with us.

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I'm just glad he finally got some of the honor he deserved in his last years. A true pioneer and icon.

It is truly sad we see sometimes 20-30 comments in a matter of minutes on other posts but only 2 comments about Dr. Kameny. This man was a pioneer in the struggle. Most of us might not be where we are today if this man had not set the groundwork for everything that followed. Yet my guess that at least 80% of the GLBT community have no idea who he is.
I think this quote from Yale Law professor William Eskridge sums it up. "Frank Kameny was the Rosa Parks and the Martin Luther King and the Thurgood Marshall of the gay rights movement." I hope everyone takes the time to learn about this man and what he did. He deserves to be as revered if not more than Harvey Milk. We lost a great hero and on of all days National Coming Out Day.

Some people have invested so much into the enshrinement of Stonewall as the beginning of "The Liberation Movement of the LGBT Tribe", that Frank Kameny and others are inconvenient to remember.

Many will consider it sacrilege, but, in fact, Frank DOES deserve a place of reverence higher than Harvey. That is not meant to deny things that Milk did accomplish, but they have been exploded entirely out of proportion to the reality of their actual measure—and much that's believed about him is simply untrue. For example:

1. In 1961, a year before Milk began an affair with Mattachine NY activist and eventual founder of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop Craig Rodwell, and EIGHT YEARS before Stonewall, Frank, in the first such case about gay job descrimination, filed an appeal to the Supreme Court of his being fired by the government. He also cofounded the DC Mattachine that year.

Frank wrote to the Supremes: "The government’s policies…are a stench in the nostrils of decent people, an offense against morality, an abandonment of reason, an affront to human dignity, an improper restraint upon proper freedom and liberty, a disgrace to any civilized society, and a violation of all that this nation stands for.”

Milk wasn't even publicly out then, insisting it would "kill" his parents, and wanted nothing to do with gay activism, telling Rodwell he was too open.

2. Three years later [and FIVE YEARS before Stonewall], Frank was telling other activists:

"We are dealing with an opposition which manifests itself—not always, but not infrequently—as a ruthless, unscrupulous foe who will give no quarter and to whom any standards of fair play are meaningless. Let us respond realistically. We are not playing a gentlemanly game of tiddly-winks or croquet or chess.”

The only "gay activism" that still meant anything to Harvey was f--king. But he did recruit his new lover into politics—joining Harvey in trying to get Right Wing Repug Barry Goldwater elected President.

3. The next year, 1965, when Frank and others were first picketing outside the Johnson White House, Harvey was still mourning the fact that Goldwater wasn't INSIDE.

4. TWO YEARS AFTER FRANK had become the first out gay to run for federal office [Congress], Harvey finally ran for office himself, Board of Supervisors in his new home of San Francisco. But while he was openly gay [as least locally] by then, his original motivation had nothing to do with advancing gay rights. It was because he was pissed off at being ordered to pre pay a tax on his camera store business. The Milk biopic paints San Francisco then as having no gay activists or groups of any worth. But the Daughters of Bilitis had formed there in 1955, the politically influential Society for Individual Rights had existed for nearly a decade, and the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club was two years old. The year before, the cofounder of both latter groups, Jim Foster, had been the first out gay person allowed to speak at a Democratic National Convention.

5. Harvey's involvement was NOT the main reason the Briggs anti gay teachers initiative was beaten. It was because loathsome Ronald Reagan came out against it at the prompting of David Mixner [in a meeting set up by a closeted Repug] who convinced him such a law could be abused by vindictive kids.

6. Harvey was not the first out gay elected to office. Nor the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th. He was the 5th. Even had he been, had he not been assassinated, there is not reason to believe he'd automatically be remembered any more than those four who came before him. Were he still serving, he might not be any better known today outside of San Francisco than gay state politicians Mark Leno and Tom Ammiano, and those serving in other parts of the country.

As I allude to in my post that appears below (but which I had posted earlier), I think it is essential that LGBT movement historians (whether inside or outside the movement themselves) correct the notion that gay activism began with the Stonewall Riots in 1969.

If we do not depart from this errant viewpoint, we will be denying not only the singular courage of Franklin Kameny, but also several other courageous and pioneering women and men, such as Barbara Gittings, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, and several men who founded the early Mattachine Society in NY. It would be an injustice for those of us belonging to the Baby Boom generation (and after) were to suppress or deny the contribution made by some even of the WWII generation. I have no protest against Harvey Milk taking his proper place in our history, but not at the expense of others who bravely paved the way even for him.

Something that bears remembering is that Frank Kameny was a mentor for Leonard Matlovich, the first man to openly challenge the ban on gays in the military. For years after his Supreme Court case, Kameny had been looking for a military person with a perfect performance record to challenge the anti-gay ban -- and Matlovich, being a race relations instructor in the Air Force, learned of Kameny and got in touch with him. The rest, once again, is history.

Despite our celebration of Stonewall as the start of it all, we should be willing to re-write our tribal myths and our community legends to fully include the courage and the contributions of Frank Kameny. One of the giants of our movement has now slipped into history.

There is nothing I can say beyond that his life stands as a wonderful legacy in the ongoing struggle for equality and respect for all. RIP Frank Kameny.

I think it's essential for us to get to know the heroes of the past - those who have fought and fought for rights for us; who've put up with discrimination of the most heinous type. On recognizing precisely who I really am after all, I find it most heartening to learn of the struggles that our forebears went through, to know that many have overcome the discrimination, the hate and the nastiness. It all makes it easier for me to begin to tell others "I am gay."