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Frank Kameny: The Accidental Activist
Comments () | Published October 4, 2010

If you wanted to go to gay bar, how would you know it existed?

Through other people. I don’t have the faintest idea who told me, but I found out there was the somewhat famous—by some people’s standards, infamous—Chicken Hut on H Street near the White House. There were a couple of others, and I went to those.

All bars were required to close at midnight on Saturdays and Sundays. In the last hour before things closed, around 11, everyone asked, “Where is the party tonight?” They would rush out and get their six-pack of beer—liquor stores would still be open, the parties would be BYOB—and you would have parties in people’s jam-packed apartments.

So you were working in government and knew you were gay. What was that like from day to day?

I was an astronomer and I was doing my work. Through much of the fall of 1957, I was on a trip for the agency to the West Coast and Hawaii. While I was there, I got a call saying, “Come back—the civil service wants to question you.” I said, “Well, the taxpayers sent me out here, and I’ll come back when my scheduled trip is over.” Which I did.

Two civil-service investigators said, “We have information that leads us to believe you are a homosexual. Do you have any comment?” I said, “What’s the information?” They said, “We can’t tell you.” I said, “Well, I can’t respond, and in any case I don’t see how it’s relevant to any rational concern or business of the government.”

Things proceeded, and I was dismissed. I appealed through all the routes, administrative and judicial, and I believe I was the first person to have appealed one of these things. Ultimately, the American Civil Liberties Union took the case through the first few stages of the courts. But when we lost, they felt it was unlikely to prevail in the Supreme Court, so they gave me a list of rules for filing my own brief, which I did.

If you hadn’t been fired, would you have pursued this?

No I would not have. NASA was just being formed at that time. I would have transferred to NASA, as did many of the people I worked with at the Map Service, and would have expected to have a career there as an astronomer. I suspect that by now, if all of this hadn’t happened, I would simply be a retired government astronomer and that would have been it. Gay activism didn’t really exist at that point.

When my case was turned down by the Supreme Court, my feeling was that I had been faced with a problem that needed to be addressed on my behalf and for other people. There was no organization doing it very well, so in 1961 I cofounded one.

I still viewed myself as a physicist for most of the ’60s. Gay activism was developing, so gradually there was a shift of my own attention as we moved into the late ’60s.

Has DC been the center of the gay-rights movement?

I’ve said for many years that San Francisco was looked upon as the center, but DC is very much the success story of the gay movement.

Why is it the success story?

Things happened to come together that could just as easily not have. And we—the great collective “we”—have worked very hard to make things work out. We’ve had a generally receptive local government. We got the Human Rights Act in 1973, which I helped draft. The DC police used to be the enemy incarnate; now it has the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit. It was heartwarming to see in the last two gay-pride parades a police-department float enthusiastically cheered by gays, which would have been inconceivable way back.

Was there a point at which being gay in Washington opened up and people didn’t have to worry about being fired?

Anti-discrimination laws began to appear in various parts of the country in the late ’60s and early ’70s; the first that dealt specifically with gay rights was in East Lansing, Michigan, in 1972. Prior to that, as a result of my case, I had been in extensive communication with the Civil Service Commission, now the Office of Personnel Management. I was told firmly, “Oh, no, we don’t discriminate against gay people—we only exclude people who engage in those dreadful homosexual acts.”

It became clear that any nondiscrimination law had to cover not only your state of being but what you did. I impressed that on the people who were drafting DC’s Human Rights Act. As now written, it prohibits discrimination on the basis of homosexuality, heterosexuality, or bisexuality—by preference and by practice.

It covers employment, housing, access to public accommodation, education. It immediately opened things up for people in the District and was sort of a declaration of freedom for gay people so that whatever concerns you may have with employment or housing or hostile landlords, you had recourse.

When you ran for Congress in 1971, how much of your message was about gay rights?

It was split. I was very conscious of running a double-barreled, double-issue campaign. If you’re going to run for public office, you have to become expert on trash collection, road repair, and all the things that concern people, but I was running a parallel campaign on gay issues. I remember we had one press conference in the office of the Secretary of the Army in the Pentagon . . . .

How did you get in?

In those days, you walked into any government building you wanted to. At one point in the ’60s, I walked into the State Department, one of our worst enemies, and put up leaflets all over the building—in restrooms, on bulletin boards—advising people how to handle adverse personnel actions. I walked in, put ’em up, walked out. One time, my election staff handed in a letter for President Nixon at the White House gate, and that was strictly on gay issues.

I came in fourth out of six candidates, and that gave us entrée into the DC political scene, of which we made good use in the ensuing years.

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