News & Politics

LGBTQ-Rights Pioneer Frank Kameny Gets His Due in a New Book

What you need to know about one of DC’s most important historic figures.

Frank Kameny. Photograph courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Frank Kameny Papers, Library of Congress).

A new book, The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America, offers an in-depth look at the life and times of an LGBTQ pioneer.

What it’s about: Frank Kameny, a Harvard-trained astronomer fired from his job with the Army Map Service in 1957 for being gay. Kameny cofounded the Mattachine Society of Washington, an early gay-rights organization; was the first openly gay candidate for Congress in 1971; and spent his life fighting for LGBTQ Americans.

Who wrote it: Eric Cervini. The book got its start in 2013 during college. “I was in need of a topic for a research paper in an undergraduate urban history seminar,” he writes, “and after searching for ‘Harvey Milk,’ the only gay activist I knew, Harvard’s library database suggested Kameny’s name.”

Seminal event: In April 1965—marking “Washington’s first organized demonstration of homosexuals,” as Cervini puts it—Kameny led a group of ten men and women to picket the White House.

Funniest tidbit: At a 1964 convention of “homophile” organizations—the term at the time for pro-gay groups—at DC’s Sheraton-Park Hotel, “a confused Sheraton employee” posted signs announcing “East Coast Hemophile Organizations.”

Most moving moment: In 2009, John Berry, the openly gay director of the Office of Personnel Management—successor to the Civil Service Commission—read a letter to the activist: “In what we know today was a shameful action, the United States Civil Service Commission in 1957 upheld your dismissal from your job solely on the basis of your sexual orientation. . . . With courage and strength, you fought back. Please accept our apology for the consequences of the previous policy of the United States government.” Kameny, age 84, rose and replied: “Apology accepted.” He died two years later.

This article appears in the August 2020 issue of Washingtonian.

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Senior Managing Editor

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor; from 1999 to 2007, he was a features editor. In another lifetime, he was assistant managing editor. Somewhere in the middle, he was managing editor of Common Boundary magazine and senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity. His personal essays have been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays. He teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.