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.