The Death of a Gay American Icon: Frank Kameny 1925-2011

Stephanie DonaldEven when Frank Kameny was still alive his actual place in history was much debated and I even participated in the controversy.

Was Frank a pioneer in gay rights or was he an assimilationist?

I’m sure that future generations will debate these issues and more but for now the fact of the matter is that I lost a friend yesterday on National Coming Out Day. How ironic could that possibly be?

Frank was a World War II veteran who, once discharged from the military, went back to school and earned his PhD and went to work for the Army corps of Engineers as an astronomer.

However, in 1957, Frank was arrested in Lafayette Park in Washington D.C. for “immoral acts”, photographed and released. At first it didn’t seem that anything would come of the incident and for many weeks things seemed pretty much normal.

But as they say, all good things must come to an end. A member of the civil service commission came around to ask Kameny about his arrest and Frank didn’t lie.

Perhaps when history reflects upon Dr. Franklin Kameny they will place him upon the mantle with George Washington and the story of the cherry tree because Frank couldn’t tell a lie and he paid dearly for it through theDr. Frank Edward Kameny years.

For those of you who take it for granted now, back in the 1950s, the government declared that homosexuals couldn’t hold security clearances because (wait for this ridiculous reason) because if foreign agents found out they could blackmail the person into revealing secrets because of their homosexuality.

Frank was fired instantly and spent the next 20 years trying to get that rule changed. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order declaring that homosexuals may hold even the highest level security clearance with no prejudice.

Frank stood next to Jimmy Carter when the order was signed.

In those years between 1957 in the McCarthy era when homosexuals were actually considered lower than communists, unless of course you happened to be socialist and homosexual like my friend David McReynolds, Frank met up my other good friend, Jack Nichols, and the two embarked on the greatest adventure two friends could hope for. The started the Washington D.C. chapter of the Mattachine Society in 1961.

In those years Frank met many civil servants who were terrified of losing their jobs because of their “dirty little secret” and during those years the police often didn’t even arrest people in gay bars but just photographed them and released them. The next morning those pictures and their names would appear in the Washington Post and the Evening Star newspapers for the entire world to see.

frank-kameny-and-mattachine-society-of-washington-members-marching-1970Frank became like a renaissance paralegal expert and confidant, friend and morale expert to dozens of people at the meetings of the Mattachine.

I guess one of the things I didn’t like about what Frank did was to charge these people for filing their civil service appeals because there was virtually no chance for those appeals to be successful and he never told those he helped (and charged them the equivalent of what attorneys of the day were charging to represent their clients) that he had never won a single case. He gave them hope when there was literally none for them and there are some people I’ve run into through the years who held a grudge against him for the money they spent in futility.

But I suppose that when one looks at all those years that Frank spent in selfless service to the gay rights movement that he deserved to get at least a little back from our community.

And selflessly he did give and fought through many of the hardest years that homosexuals existed in the United States.

While he, Jack Nichols, Lige Clarke, Barbara Gittings, Kay Lahusen, Randy Wicker and so many others marched and asked for others to march with them the thousands of other homosexuals who huddled in dark bars, gathered in the bushes of Lafayette Square and led double lives to hide their sexuality ran and hid while a few brave souls like Frank stood in the light and with a warm smile said, “Gay is good!”

It took people like Frank to show that if you stood up and admitted that you were gay to the world that your life wouldn’t come to an end. He was a leader in every sense of the word and an icon to everyone who knew him even to the end.

In 1977 his struggle to end the witch hunt against gay and lesbian civil servants ended with an executive order from President Jimmy Carter even if he didn’t get a formal apology until June 24, 2009 when John Berry,John Berry formerly apologizes to Dr. Kameny also an openly gay man, serving as the Director of the Office of Personnel Management, formerly apologized to him for his firing from civil service.

I remember having a telephone conversation with Frank one time about what might have happened if he hadn’t been fired from his job in 1957. It was one of those wistful, “What if’s?” ramblings about how things might have turned out.

“I wanted to be part of NASA,” he said with straightforward tone. “I would have pushed to be one of the first people to land on the moon!”

I’ve never been one who believed that planting the American flag on the moon was a good idea. I always thought that it implied ownership even though the United States had signed a treaty with the Soviet Union and other nations stating that just because we got there first it didn’t mean or imply any ownership of the moon but still, it seemed like a nightmare of Gay_is_Goodnationalism and I mentioned to Frank during the course of our conversation. He agreed off-hand but didn’t say anything else.

“What would you have taken to moon, Frank?” I asked coyly.

“I would have taken a copy of the Bill of Rights and a copy of Donald Webster Cory’s “Homosexuality in America!”

By Stephanie Donald


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