Frank Kameny: Father of the Gay Rights Movement

Day 1 of the Pride 30 Project for Pride Month, 2018.

Franklin Kameny, the “father of the Gay Rights Movement,” intended to be an astronaut, not an activist. After receiving a PhD in Astronomy from Harvard University, Kameny went to work for the Army Map Service (the precursor to NASA). His employment with the federal government, however, was short lived. He was fired in 1957 by the U.S. Civil Service Commission for his suspected homosexuality, refusing to answer questions about his sexuality when questioned by his superiors. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower had issued Executive Order 10450, that essentially established who could receive a federal security clearance. The order named as security risks Communists, subversives, drunks and drug users, and “sexual perverts.”

His career derailed, Kameny got radical, beginning his work as an activist by appealing his firing, going so far as writing a petition to the Supreme Court, which declined to consider his case. Kameny’s petition, however, was the first civil rights case based on sexual orientation filed in a U.S. court.

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.

Barbara Gittings, an early gay rights activist who Kamney affectionately referred to as the “mother of the Gay Rights Movement,” credited Kameny with being the first person to develop a coherent theory of gay rights. Gay people, Kameny argued, were not sick or wrong. They should not, therefore, adapt to a hostile society; instead, society should change in order to afford gays the full benefits of American citizenship. He often spoke of the “homosexual American citizen” as a way to highlight the fact that gays and lesbians were treated as second class. “I will define myself to my government,” Kameny boldly declared, “my government will not define me to me.” Inspired by the black Civil Rights Movement and Stokely Carmichael’s slogan “Black is Beautiful,” Kameny coined the phrase “Gay is Good” to encapsulate his philosophy of gay rights.

Kameny also worked with Gittings and other activists to lobby the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to remove homosexuality as a diagnostic category from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Most notably, at the 1972 APA conference held in Dallas, Texas, Kameny and Gittings organized a panel entitled “Psychiatry: Friend or Foe to Homosexuals — A Dialogue.” The panel was originally slated to feature two heterosexual psychiatrists in conversation with Kameny and Gittings, but Kay Tobin, Gittings’ partner, made the suggestion of adding a gay psychiatrist.

The only person willing to speak was Dr. John Fryer, and on the condition that he be allowed to participate in disguise. Fryer wore a rubber mask, used a voice-distortion microphone, and was billed on the panel as “Dr. H. Anonymous.” Fryer’s testimony was riveting despite his comical get-up, and the audience was moved by his description of needing to remain in the closet out of fear of losing his practice. In December of 1973, the APA board of trustees voted to pass a resolution, drafted in part by Kameny, to remove homosexuality from the DSM, effectively declassifying it as a mental illness.

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.

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. In July of 2014, he was invited to the White House to witness President Barack Obama sign an Executive Order prohibiting LGBT discrimination for federal contractors (the order has since been overturned by the Trump Administration). Kameny died on October 11th of 2011 (ironically, National Coming Out Day) at the age of 86.

Frank Kameny reminds us that equality and justice are not naturally or easily won, but are created and sustained through our individual and collective labor, and must be defended time and time again.

“We started with nothing,” he reflected, “and look what we have wrought!”