Kameny is “widely hailed as one of the most prominent figures of the U.S. LGBTQ rights movement,” Google writes in its Doodle blog post about the celebration of his life. Kameny died in Washington, D.C., in 2011 at the age of 86.
Here’s what you need to know about Frank Kameny:
1. Kameny Was Born in New York & Enrolled in Queens College to Study Physics When He Was 15
Frank Kameny was born May 21, 1925, in Queens, New York, according to the New York City LGBT Historic Sites Project. He attended Richmond Hill High School and enrolled in Queens College when he was 15.
“His early life in this home is where his interests and beliefs related to his academic career and activism were formed. It was here, before the age of seven, that he became interested in science and astronomy. It was also here during a dinner conversation at age 15 where he first formulated and articulated his position that eventually became his modus operandi related to activism,” according to the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project.
The website quotes Kameny as saying, “If I disagree with someone, I give them a chance to convince me they are right. And if they fail, then I am right and they are wrong and I will just have to fight them until they change.”
The New Yorker wrote in 2011, “Kameny was square and unromantic—an unlikely combatant for erotic freedom. ‘Not gifted with obvious charisma’ is the polite formulation of one historian of the gay movement. He had no interest in movies, sports, or popular music. By the time he was fifteen, he had concluded that society was wrong to censure homosexuality, but, apart from a little experimentation in summer camp, he postponed acting on his desires for almost a decade and a half.”
2. Kameny Graduated From Harvard With a Master’s Degree in Astronomy After Serving in World War II & Was Fired From His Job With the Army Map Service in 1957 Because He Was Gay
Kameny served in World War II in the Army, seeing combat in Europe, according to The Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.
“I enlisted on May 18, 1943, 3 days before my 18th birthday, because at that time the Army had a program called the Army Specialized Training Program, ASTP, under which they would, after your basic training was done, they would send you to colleges and universities for training in engineering or other such types of specialized training for use in the Army. But in order to be eligible for that, you had to enlist, not be drafted,” Kameny told the history project in a 2003 interview. “So it, it sounded like something very good, which hopefully might keep me out of lethal combat. And so I enlisted. At that time I was living in, with my family in New York City, burro ugh of Queens, and I enlisted and was … I was in college at that point and went to summer school for that summer, and then was called to active duty on September 20, 1943.”
After his time in the Army during World War II, Kameny returned to the U.S. and completed his undergraduate degree in physics at Queens College in 1948 and then enrolled at Harvard University, where he obtained a master’s degree in astronomy. He would later also earn his doctorate in astronomy at Harvard in 1956.
In 1957, Kameny was hired by the U.S. Army Map Service while living in Washington, D.C., according to The New Yorker. “But he lasted there only a few months: the U.S. government found out that he was homosexual, and he lost not only his job but also his security clearance, which almost all astronomy jobs then required. He spent the rest of his working life goading the government to treat homosexual employees fairly. By the time federal policy changed, in 1975, he had become a lion of the gay-civil-rights movement, which he seems to have relished, but his chance to study the stars had slipped away,” The New Yorker wrote in 2011.
Kameny appealed his firing all the way to the Supreme Court, representing himself pro see, according to The Washington Post. He told the Making Gay History podcast, “I had decided that basically what this amounted to was a declaration of war against me by my government.” Kameny wrote in his appeal:
In World War II, petitioner did not hesitate to fight the Germans, with bullets, in order to help preserve his rights and freedoms and liberties, and those of others. In 1960, it is ironically necessary that he fight the Americans, with words, in order to preserve, against tyrannical government, some of those same rights, freedoms and liberties, for himself and others. He asks this court, by its granting of a writ of certiorari, to allow him to engage in that battle.
Kameny, according to The Post, wrote in his appeal that it was not against the law to be gay in D.C., where he lived, but he was not allowed to hold a federal job because of his sexuality, “This clearly makes of the Federal employee a second-class citizen, since, upon pain of severe penalty, he may not engage, in his own time, and in his own private life, in activities in which all other citizens of the District of Columbia may freely and legally engage, and, in fact, he may not even arrange his life, or exist in a state legal to all residents of the District.”
He added, “More important, in there being nothing more than a reflection of ancient primitive, archaic, obsolete taboos, they are an anachronistic relic of the Stone Age carried over into the Space Age — and a harmful relic! What kind of people are these against whom our government is so viciously and uncompromisingly prejudiced.”
3. Kameny Dedicated His Life to Activism & Was the First Openly Gay Candidate for U.S. Congress
After the Supreme Court denied Kameny’s appeal, he dedicated his life to activism. He also ran for Congress in 1971, becoming the first openly gay person to do so.
According to historian Jeffry Iovannone, Kameny is known as the “father of the Gay Rights Movement.” Iovannone wrote in a 2018 Medium post:
In 1961, along with fellow activist Jack Nichols, Kameny started a Washington, D.C. branch of the Mattachine Society, an early homophile organization, founded in Los Angeles in 1950. Mattachine Washington organized some of the first protests against the federal government for gay rights, including a picket of the White House on April 17th of 1965. Mattachine Washington also helped to coordinate an annual picket at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, the site where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed. These pickets were known as the Annual Reminder, as a representation of the fact that gays did not possess first-class American citizenship. Following the Stonewall Inn Riots of 1969, the Annual Reminder was refashioned into Christopher Street Liberation Day, a precursor to today’s modern Pride celebrations.
Based on his extensive knowledge of how the federal government treated gays and lesbians, Kameny also counseled those who were discharged from the military due to their sexual orientation and sought to challenge the armed services’ exclusionary policies. One of his early test cases was Leonard Matlovich, a Vietnam veteran who, upon hearing of Kameny’s work to end the ban on gays in the military, became the first gay service member to intentionally out himself.
Iovannone added, “After being fired from the federal government, Kameny never held a formal job outside of being an activist, relying on the support of family and friends. Helping to build the Gay Rights Movement from the ground up, Kameny lived to see a great deal of change.”
4. Kameny Successfully Fought the American Psychiatric Association’s Classification of Homosexuality as Mental Disorder
Along with fighting for the Civil Service Commission to lift its ban on gay federal employees, which it did in 1975, Kameny also battled with the American Psychiatric Association to get it to remove the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder.
According to The Washington Post, “In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association stopped classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder. Kameny played a major role in that change. According to (Charles) Francis, Kameny ‘crashed the [APA] conference here in Washington, seized the microphone and said, ‘We’re not the problem. You’re the problem!’’ When President Clinton signed the executive order in 1995 that allowed gays to obtain security clearances, Kameny’s years of protest were the impetus.”
In 1974, Kameny and Elaine Noble debated Charles Socarides on TV about gay marriage.
“Frank was a revolutionary who lived to see the world change, and I’m comforted by that,” LGBT advocate Charles Francis told The Washington Blade. “He was the first gay American to root the argument for gay civil equality in the words of Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.”
Gay historian David K. Johnson told The Blade, ““Kameny’s style and tactics differed markedly from those of earlier homosexual leaders. By unabashedly proclaiming that homosexuality was neither sick nor immoral, Kameny helped move gays and lesbians out of the shadows of 1950s apologetic, self-help groups and into the sunlight of the civil rights movement, setting the tone for a movement that continues today.”
5. Kameny, Who Died of Heart Disease, Gave a Speech to an LGBT Group Just Days Before His Death in 2011
Kameny died of complications from heart disease in 2011, according to The Washington Blade. He remained active in the gay rights movement up until his death, speaking before an LGBT group on September 30, 2011, days before his October 11 death, according to The Blade. He died on National Coming Out Day.
Google writes on its Doodle blog, “In June 2010, Washington D.C. named a stretch of 17th Street NW near Dupont Circle ‘Frank Kameny Way’ in his honor. Thank you, Frank Kameny, for courageously paving the way for decades of progress!” Kameny was also in the White House when President Barack Obama signed the repeal of the military’s “Don’t ASk, Don’t Tell” policy.
In 2009, Kameny received an apology from the Civil Service Commission, according to The Washingtonian. It was sent to him by John Berry, who was the openly gay director of the Office of Personnel Management during the Obama administration. Berry wrote, “In what we know today was a shameful action, the United States Civil Service Commission in 1957 upheld your dismissal from your job solely on the basis of your sexual orientation. . . . With courage and strength, you fought back. Please accept our apology for the consequences of the previous policy of the United States government..”
Kameny replied, “Apology accepted.”