Frank Kameny was out and proud before people knew what being “gay” meant.
Fired from his job as a government astronomer in 1957 for being gay, he refused to go away quietly. Instead, he got louder. He took his case to the Supreme Court in 1961 and helped stage the first gay rights march in front of the White House and Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in 1965.
Kameny died Tuesday at 86, leaving a 50-year legacy as an advocate who chipped away at countless other barriers for gay people in America. Kameny served as the initial protester, leader and legal strategist of what would become a movement, one historian said.
“Frank Kameny was the Rosa Parks and the Martin Luther King and the Thurgood Marshall of the gay rights movement,” Yale Law Professor William Eskridge told The Associated Press in May when Kameny’s papers became part of a Library of Congress exhibit on U.S. constitutional history.
“Frank never accumulated a nest egg or a retirement fund or any of that,” Eskridge said Wednesday after learning of Kameny’s death. “His full-time occupation was activism.”
In recent years, Kameny saw changes in society that he never thought possible. Gay marriage became legal in a handful of states, including his adopted city of Washington. In 2009 he stood in the Oval Office as President Barack Obama signed a directive extending benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. Most recently he celebrated the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.
“Being gay has become infinitely better than it was,” he said in May.
Kameny was proud of his work toward gaining equality for gays and lesbians. When his petition to the Supreme Court was put on display at the Library of Congress, he was clearly tickled.
“I suppose you can say at this point, I have become one of the creators of the United States,” he told the AP, echoing the exhibit title “Creating the United States.”
Gay rights groups said it was Kameny’s work that helped make life better for gay Americans and called him a pioneer and an inspiration. He had been in poor health and died on what is celebrated as National Coming Out Day, when many gay people celebrate coming out and encourage others to have the courage to do the same.
In 2009, Kameny said he wanted to be remembered most for coining the phrase “Gay is Good” in 1968 to counter an onslaught of negative language about gays and lesbians.
Franklin Edward Kameny was born May 21, 1925, in New York City. He graduated from Queens College and served in World War II before earning a doctorate in astronomy from Harvard.
He was a government astronomer for just five months when he was asked to meet with federal investigators. He had been arrested for a misdemeanor in San Francisco that tipped off the civil service that Kameny was probably gay, and was fired, Eskridge said.
Kameny didn’t back down. He contested his firing, writing letters to the U.S. Civil Service Commission, both houses of Congress and eventually the White House. He sued and lost in lower courts but pressed on with a lengthy brief in 1961 that is now regarded as the first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation to be brought to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court denied his petition.
Soon after, he co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, which advocated for equal rights for gays and lesbians.
In 1965, Kameny and 10 others became the first to stage a gay rights protest in front of the White House and later at the Pentagon and in Philadelphia.
“First class citizenship for homosexuals,” their signs read, along with “Homosexuals ask for the right to the pursuit of happiness.” They wore suits and dresses at Kameny’s insistence.
He wrote to then-president Lyndon Jonson saying gay people were second-class citizens “in a country which claims that it has no second-class citizens.”
Kameny’s sister, Edna Lavey, 83, said her brother was championing gay issues when the subject was still taboo.
“The word gay did not exist yet,” she said Wednesday from her home in New York. “Before that time homosexuality was never mentioned. It was a different world then.”
Lavey said her brother was willing to endure verbal abuse and tormenting to try to win people over.
“My brother didn’t care how unpleasantly he was treated,” she said, adding that as long as he was getting publicity for his cause, that was all he cared about. “He wanted homosexuality to be recognized as something not abnormal, just another way of living.”
Kameny’s early activism and advocacy for soldiers and federal workers who faced discrimination provided a model for the civil rights group Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union’s agenda on gay rights. He also helped persuade the American Psychiatric Association to delete homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 1973.
Friends and his sister said Kameny never spoke of having a long-term boyfriend or partner.
“Frank was guarded and private,” said Bob Witeck, a Kameny friend for three decades. “Often when asked about it, he said he didn’t have time for that.”
He didn’t have a regular job for most of his life, depending on friends and family for support.
In later years, Kameny was increasingly recognized for his work as a gay rights pioneer.
A self-described “pack rat,” Kameny amassed thousands of documents related to his activism and gay rights history.
In 2006, gay rights groups had the papers appraised and bought them from Kameny for $75,000. They donated some 70,000 items from his collection – ranging from letters to buttons and picket signs – to the Library of Congress and Smithsonian.
In 2009 the U.S. Office of Personnel Management issued a formal apology to him for being fired solely based on his sexual orientation. The office is headed by John Berry, who is gay.
On Wednesday, Berry said Kameny was a hero who was feisty and combative and whose “force of will led to victory in a decades-long fight for equality.”
Berry said Kameny “showed his ability to forgive” by accepting his official apology “for the sad and discredited termination of his federal employment.”
When gay marriage became legal in the nation’s capital in 2010, Kameny attended the first weddings. That same year the District of Columbia designated a portion of 17th Street as “Frank Kameny Way.”
Planning is under way for a memorial service in November.
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