For all their undoubted bravery, the men and women who waged the battle for civil rights for black Americans in the 1950s and ’60s were not alone in their struggles. They had behind them and on their side black civil rights organizations, black churches, some white liberals in churches and synagogues, some sympathetic coverage in the news media, and, as early as Brown v. Board of Education, the federal government.
Frank Kameny, who died last week (Oct. 11) at the age of 86, had virtually no one behind him or on his side when he began fighting for civil rights for gay Americans like himself in the late 1950s. Back then, homosexuals were all but alone, deemed either immoral or mentally ill or both, presumed unfit for government service, politically powerless, and invisible in information or entertainment media.
Kameny did as much as to change that, probably more, than any other single person. Speakers at a program last week sponsored by the Rainbow History Project of Washington, D.C., rightly remembered him as having laid the philosophical basis for the gay rights movement. Kameny led the legal fight to remove homosexuality as the basis for disqualification from working for the federal government. He led the successful effort to get the American Psychiatric Association to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental illness. And he coined the phrase, “Gay is good,” which over time gave gays and lesbians self-esteem and self-confidence and eventually helped change society’s views of homosexuality as well.
Kameny, a World War II veteran and Harvard-trained astronomer, started the fight out of necessity after having been fired from his job as an astronomer with the U.S. Army’s Map Service. (It is commonly reported that Kameny was arrested for cruising in Washington's Lafayette Park, but in his later appeal Kameny attributed his dismissal to his truthful disclosure on an employment form of a prior arrest in San Francisco on a baseless charge that was later expunged.) He fought his dismissal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, representing himself on his own in a strongly argued plea that his personal life had nothing to do with his government service. The justices refused to hear the case. (The 1961 petition is available here, as part of the Rainbow History Project’s Frank Kameny pages.)
In the same year, Kameny founded one of the first gay rights organizations, the Mattachine Society of Washington. There were other organizations of the same name founded in the 1950s in Los Angeles and San Francisco. (Mattacino was a character in Italian theater, a court jester of sorts.) The Washington organization was independent, however, both in form and spirit. Unlike the California organizations, Kameny resolved to be as public as possible in advocating for the rights of gays and lesbians.
It was in that spirit that Kameny led the first gay rights picketing in front of the White House on April 17, 1965 four years before the raid on the Stonewall bar in New York City that is often treated as the beginning of the gay rights movement. The demonstration drew no news coverage except a brief mention in Washington’s Afro American newspaper, but the placards that Kameny and his dozen or so allies carried have now been turned over along with Kameny’s papers to the Library of Congress. Six years later, in 1971, Kameny ran for the District of Columbia’s non-voting seat in the House of Representatives. He was the first openly gay person to seek federal office in the United States.
Kameny was equally bold in challenging the psychiatric establishment to remove homosexuality from its authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the so-called DSM). As speakers at the Rainbow History program recalled, Kameny led a small band of gay guerrillas into the APA’s annual meeting at a Washington, D.C., hotel, stormed the stage, and lectured the startled psychiatrists that they were all wrong about homosexuality.
Along with public advocacy, Kameny and the Mattachine Society also functioned as a self-help organization for gays and lesbians. A friend recalled to me having called the group’s hot line for medical advice after having his first same-sex experience. The society published a pamphlet with advice about what to do if arrested on sex-related charges. And Kameny provided his apartment as a way station for visiting gay activists.
The APA delisted homosexuality in 1973. Two years later, the U.S. Civil Service Commission decided that homosexuality was no longer. Eventually, the District of Columbia police retreated from targeting gays for arrests for consensual sex. And in 2003, the Supreme Court ruled, in Lawrence v. Texas, that an individual’s “intimate relationships” were of no concern to the government, at least as far as criminal law was concerned.
Kameny lived long enough to be recognized as a gay rights hero. The
obituary in the New York Times and the appreciation on the CBS program “Sunday Morning” included pictures of Kameny with President Obama in the White House, four decades after he picketed outside its gates. Kameny recognized the changes, but he was also unchanged in his determination. He was not satisfied that Congress has yet to make it illegal to discriminate in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation. He was not satisfied that marriage equality remains a goal, not a fact. But he could take some pride in having accomplished to some extent the goal set out in the initial charter of the Mattachine Society of Washington: “to secure for homosexuals the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”