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Frank Kameny: The Accidental Activist
Taking on the federal government, gay life in the 1950s, the truth about Marion Barry, and more By James Kirchick
Comments () | Published October 4, 2010
Frank Kameny was fired from his civil-service job for being gay, but he fought back. Photograph by Simon Bruty.

Editor's note: On October, 11, 2011, Frank Kameny passed away. Below is our interview with him from 2010.

In 1957, Frank Kameny lost his job with the Army Map Service because he was gay. In being fired, the World War II veteran and Harvard PhD joined the ranks of men and women who, due to their real or perceived sexual orientation, were hounded out of government service.

Most moved on to other careers, but Kameny fought back, launching a legal battle that, while initially unsuccessful, helped ignite the gay-rights movement. In 1961, he cofounded the Mattachine Society of Washington, DC, one of the nation’s first gay organizations. Inspired by the slogan “Black is beautiful,” he coined the phrase “Gay is good,” which was adopted in the early days of the gay movement.

Last June, the government publicly apologized. Inside the building where he staged protests more than 50 years ago, Kameny listened as Office of Personnel Management director John Berry, himself openly gay, decried the department’s “shameful action” in upholding a policy “at odds with the bedrock principles underlying the merit-based civil service.”

Kameny, 85, has since been a guest at the White House, standing by President Obama as he signed a memorandum upgrading benefits for domestic partners of federal employees.

In 1971, Kameny launched an independent campaign to be DC’s delegate to the House of Representatives. He was instrumental in lobbying the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973, the federal government to lift its ban on gays in the civil service in 1975, and President Clinton to end the prohibition on gay people from receiving security clearances in 1995.

Four years ago, he donated thousands of letters, documents, and other memorabilia to the Library of Congress and Smithsonian. This year, a stretch of DC’s 17th Street in the Dupont Circle neighborhood was named Frank Kameny Way.

Kameny lives in the District’s Palisades neighborhood, where his house has been designated a historic landmark by DC’s Historic Preservation Review Board. At home, he talked about what he’s learned.

What was gay life like when you moved to Washington?

I moved here in September 1956 after completing my PhD in astronomy. There were a few gay bars here.

It was a very different era—culturally, legalistically, in every way. Gay people were “sick” and “criminals.” Parallel to the present military policy, which is finally being gotten ridden of, there was a rigid civil-service gay ban.

In 1949–50, there were two Senate committees—the Hoey committee, chaired by North Carolina senator Clyde Hoey, and the Wherry Committee, chaired by Nebraska senator Kenneth Wherry—that issued reports raising all kinds of objections to gay people working in government.

Keep in mind that DC didn’t have home rule then—Congress was our government. The Wherry Committee report directed the DC police department to ferret out gay people so they could be reported to the Civil Service Commission and either fired or denied jobs. Plainclothes police would go in and get people to discuss going home together and having sex—and arrest them. The arrest itself could be disposed of easily. But your name would go on a list, which would be forwarded to the Civil Service Commission. And that would mean if you had a civil-service job, you wouldn’t have it much longer.


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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 10/04/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Articles