Remembering Frank Kameny

I was in San Francisco yesterday, about to go on stage to deliver a National Coming Out Day lecture, when I learned of the death of Frank Kameny. He was 86, and he died peacefully at home, apparently of heart failure.

Frank is a giant of the gay rights movement, and I hope his passing gets the attention it deserves—both to honor a great man, and to remind everyone of important but neglected chapters of our history. When Dr. Franklin Kameny was fired from his government job in 1957 for being gay, there was no national gay civil rights movement. It took pioneers like him to make it happen.

A Harvard-trained Ph.D. and World War II veteran, Frank lost his job as an Army Map Service astronomer for being a homosexual. Unsure of his future employability and outraged by the injustice, he petitioned all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. That firing and subsequent refusal sparked a tireless lifetime of activism.

(Incidentally, in 2009 the Federal Office of Personnel Management finally issued Frank a formal apology for the firing. In his inimitable style, he promptly replied that he was looking forward to his five decades of back pay.)

In 1961 Frank co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington D.C.—a “homophile organization” based on the original group in California.  Soon thereafter, in 1963, he began a decades-long campaign to revoke D.C.’s sodomy law. He personally drafted the repeal bill that was passed 30 years later.

In 1965, he picketed in front of the White House for gay rights. Signs from that demonstration, stored in his attic for decades, are now in the Smithsonian’s collection.

In 1971, he became the first openly gay person to run for Congress. (He came in fourth, which itself was a kind of victory given the anti-gay sentiment of the era.) He was instrumental in the battle that led to the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973. He continued to fight over the decades against employment discrimination, sodomy laws, the military ban—unjust discrimination in all its forms.

Even in his 80s, Frank continued to send off pointed letters in pursuit of justice. He was fond of reminding me and other “young” activists, whenever he heard us complaining amongst ourselves, “Don’t tell us. Tell them. Contact the people who can do something about it.” (Even now I can hear his booming, irrepressible voice.) He served as an invaluable moral elder to me and multiple generations of gay activists, whom he constantly reminded of the slogan he coined in 1968: “Gay is good!”

One of my favorite personal experiences with him happened shortly after the 2004 documentary “Gay Pioneers” was released. Frank came to Detroit to speak at a screening of the film, and he visited my house for dinner. Frank was not much of a drinker, but when I offered after-dinner drinks in my living room, he asked if I had any peach schnapps. Oddly enough, I did, so I poured him some. Then some more, and more again, not really keeping track. Finally, when it was time to leave for the film, we all stood up…

…and Frank proceeded to trip over my coffee table and fall flat on the floor.

Everyone gasped. A news headline flashed before my mind: “Young gay writer kills veteran gay activist with cordial.” But then Frank laughed, spryly jumped up, and boomed in his unforgettable voice, “Too much peach schnapps!!!”

We proceeded to the movie, and as usual, Frank delivered a brilliant, commanding, rousing speech.

As soon as I fly home, I’ll be raising a glass of peach schnapps to Frank Kameny. Always remember: Gay is good.

4 Comments for “Remembering Frank Kameny”

  1. posted by Karen Mottola on

    Gay is great. Let us thank Frank.

    Thanks, John, for an apt tribute and history lesson.

  2. posted by adam on

    a poignant tribute. thank you.

    i miss reading corvino’s regular friday columns on


  3. posted by George Meyer on

    I met Frank at the Washington, DC gay organization’s monthly meetings in the early 1980s even before AIDS became an issue. He had a distinctive voice, sharp and urgent but also accommodating others. One of the big issues at the time was the proposed constitutional amendment to give DC statehood and the group debated on whether to support it or not. Frank was a passionate supporter of this amendment and I think I was the only person to speak out against it since the proposed statehood constitution spoke of the “right to a job” and other things that I thought were clearly unconstitutional. Frank shot me a withering look and the group voted almost unanimously to support it. Despite our differences, I respected him greatly. Frank was a tireless supporter of gay rights as he saw them and should be remembered for his absolute courage in standing up for what he thought was right, at the start of the gay rights movement in the US.

  4. posted by TomJeffersonIII on

    What political party did Frank run for Congress under? What was his platform?

Comments are closed.