Episode 05 — Frank Kameny

A young Frank Kameny in an undated photo.

Here are the absolute basics of what you need to know about Frank Kameny, who lived a long and extraordinary life.  He was fired from his federal government job in 1957 because he was gay.  He didn’t just go home and pull the covers over his head.  He fought a successful eighteen-year-battle with the government to change the law so the same thing didn’t happen to other gay people.

Along the way Frank founded a militant gay rights group in 1961 in Washington, DC, and in 1965 organized the first public protests by gay people in front of the White House, among other places.  In 1968 Frank also coined the then-radical “Gay Is Good” battle cry.  Beginning in the early 1970’s he fought successfully (along with Barbara Gittings and others) to get homosexuality removed from the list of mental illnesses.  And Frank’s impressive list goes on.  And on.

First picket by members of the Washington Mattachine organization in front of the White House on April 17, 1965.
First picket by members of the Washington Mattachine organization in front of the White House on April 17, 1965, protesting the unjust treatment of homosexuals by the federal government. Frank Kameny is carrying a sign immediately to the right of the policeman. © Bettman/CORBIS

Listening to Frank’s episode you learn that he lived by three rules that should inspire us all:

  • Have absolute confidence in your beliefs;
  • Fight for what’s right;
  • Never, ever give up.

Knowing the basics of Frank Kameny’s life isn’t nearly enough, so we encourage you to explore some of the resources below.

For students and scholars, there is a treasure trove of Frank Kameny’s papers (77,000 items!) to be found at the The Library of Congress.

View a selection of items from Frank’s Library of Congress collection here.

You can also explore some of what’s available at The Library of Congress on a now out-of-date website devoted to Frank’s papers.

Here’s an article about some of the artifacts of Frank’s activist career that are in the possession of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Executive Order 10450 was used to fire gay people like Frank Kameny from their federal jobs.

In 2009 the U.S. Government officially apologized to Frank for his 1957 firing from his job with the Army Map Service because he was gay.  You can read about it here, including the government’s letter of apology.

Frank Kameny is featured in a ReDistricted comic anthology, which includes additional links and videos (including a fantastic Charles Osgood tribute to Frank on “CBS Sunday Morning” from October 16, 2011).

Gay is Good button
Frank Kameny coined the phrase “Gay Is Good” in 1968, patterned after Black is Beautiful. Courtesy of the Kameny Papers

For a collection of Frank’s letters, which provides insight into his remarkable life and work, have a look at Michael Long’s book, Gay Is Good:  The Life and Letters of Gay Rights Pioneer Frank Kameny.

You can find Frank Kameny’s oral history in Eric Marcus’s book Making Gay History.

Frank would have been very pleased to know (although he wouldn’t have been surprised!) that he rated a New York Times obituary.

FBI documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, regarding the founding meeting of Frank Kameny’s Washington Mattachine organization on August 1, 1961. Courtesy Randy Shilts
Participants in the East Coast Homophile Organization September 24-26, 1965 conference in New York City.
Participants in the East Coast Homophile Organization September 24-26, 1965 conference in New York City. The theme of the conference was “The Homosexual Citizen in the Great Society” Frank Kameny is second from right. Courtesy New York Public Library
FILE - In this June 17, 2009 file photo, President Barack Obama is congratulated by Franklin E. Kameny, right, after delivering brief remarks and signing a Presidential Memorandum regarding federal benefits and non-discrimination during a ceremony in the Oval Office of the White in Washington. 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 the age of 86, leaving behind 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. Applauding from left are, Vice President Joe Biden, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari, File)
Frank Kameny (far right) congratulates President Barack Obama after the President delivered remarks and signing a Presidential Memorandum regarding the provision of benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees during a ceremony in the White House Oval Office on Wednesday, June 17, 2009. Applauding from left to right is Vice President Joe Biden, Rep. Barney Frank, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman. AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari

Interview Transcript

Eric:  Interview with Frank Kameny.  June 3, 1989, at the home of Frank Kameny in Washington, DC.  Interviewer is Eric Marcus.

Frank:  You will learn when you talk to me that I cast my sentences by putting all the modifying clauses and words at the beginning.  And you have to listen, go along, and ultimately you will find what it is that I am modifying.  So…

Eric:  And my tendency is to interrupt, so do whatever you need to.

Frank:  So, I was called in and said that “We have information that leads us to believe that you are a homosexual.  Do you have any comment?”  I said, “What’s the information?”  They said, “We can’t tell you.”  And I said, “Well, then I can’t give you an answer.  You don’t deserve it.  And in any case, this is none of your business.”  Which got them upset because bureaucrats never like to be told that something is none of their business.  That basically was the interview.  Ultimately it resulted in my termination late that year.

Eric:  You must have been shocked.

Frank:  Well, yes, of course.

Eric:  How did they do it?  Did they come into your office?

Frank:  No.  They issue a…  the way the government does anything. They issue you a letter.

Eric:  Did they say we’re dismissing you because you were a homosexual?

Frank:  Yes, for homosexuality.  Such firings were not uncommon in that period.

Eric:  Were you depressed by it?

Frank: Naturally, because I had no source of income.  The next two or three years were extremely difficult.  In fact, by the time I got into 1959 I was living for about eight months on 20 cents worth of food a day, which even by 1959 prices was not terribly much.  It was a great day when I could afford five cents more and put a pat of butter on my mashed potatoe.

But meanwhile, by that time, I had decided that basically what this amounted to was a declaration of war against me by my government.  “A,” I don’t grant my government the right to declare war against me.  And “B,” I tend not to lose my wars.

I went through such appeal procedures as there were, which take you through the lower level of the bureaucracy and then on the philosophy that ultimately the head of the executive branch of the government is the president, you go to the top.  And I have always gone to the top on these things.  So I worked my way right on up without success, ultimately to letters to the president.

I… my feeling is that you always pursue things to their final conclusion.  I was put in touch with a local attorney who had been a congressman and who was willing then, my having exhausted everything, my having exhausted everything, to take my case on a contingent fee basis, since I had no money.

In 1960 the U.S. Court of Appeals turned it down.  And he indicated that he felt it was hopeless and therefore he didn’t want to pursue it further.  I said I did.  So he gave me a copy of the Supreme Court rules and told me about filing pro se documents.  Pro se means for yourself.  And in theory, any citizen can any time do anything that a lawyer will do, can do it for himself if he chooses.  It’s not always wise, but you have the prerogative under our system always of doing it for yourself.  You’re not required to have a lawyer.

I had the rule book.  I don’t know if you’re familiar with Supreme Court procedure.  It’s a double round.  You have two knocks at the door.  Your first effort is a knock at the door to say, “Will you let me in or won’t you let me in?”  And if they say, “No,” that ends it.  If they say, “Yes,” then you prepare all your briefs and really go at it.  The first knock is called a petition for writ of certiorari.

And so he gave me some other petitions.  And whenever I had questions, my philosophy then as now is, I pay for the government with my taxes, therefore they’re there to serve me.  So if I had questions I called up the Supreme Court.  Or walked over there and said, “Here’s my question.  Give me an answer,” which they did, very nicely, not the Justices of course.  I ultimately drafted and filed my own petition.

The government then put its disqualification of gays under the rubric of immoral conduct.  The word simply does not belong in any issuance in this country.  Morality is a matter of personal opinion and individual belief on which any American citizen may hold any view he wishes and upon which the government has no power or authority to have any view at all.  But more than that, then having stated a general principal, you have to apply it very specifically and pointedly to the case at hand and that was that in my view homosexuality is not only not immoral, but is affirmatively moral.  And that was the theme that underlay that.  And that was the direct address to the government’s policy.  And it had to be said and nobody else had ever said it that I know of in any kind of a formal court pleading.

And in March, not unpredictably, came the letter.  As I recall, it was on blue paper.  I still have it upstairs, signed by Chief Justice Warren, indicating that certiorari had been denied.  That ended the formal case.  But the battle went on for another fourteen years.

Eric:  What the government essentially did is they turned an intellectual bookish astronomer into a radical.

Frank:  Thank you for using that word.  I have had cases over the years that I’ve been handling this or meek, mild, unassertive, un-aggressive people who just want to go about doing their work and suddenly they are hit hard.  They are trampled upon with a hob-nailed boot and suddenly it does exactly that.  It radicalizes them!  And off they go marching militantly!  And case after case after case.  So anyway…

Eric:  So by ‘61 you had become radicalized.

Frank:  Oh, very much so.  Very much so.  So anyway…

Eric:  Oh, boy, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into.

Frank:  So, anyway, we founded the organization.  And now the movement of those days, and I say this next, not critically, and not necessarily derogatorily, because it was a very, very, very different era.  We were sick.  We were sinners.  We were perverts.  You have your long litany or pejoratives.  There was absolutely nothing whatsoever which anybody heard at any time anywhere at all which was other than negative!  Nothing!  And so the movement, predictively, in retrospect, responded accordingly.  And that was the nature of the movement.

Eric:  People were frightened and they had good reason to be.

Frank:  It was not only frightened, it was simply a lack of intellectual strength. We had to defer to the experts.

Eric:  Oh, you hated that, didn’t you.

Frank:  My answer was, “We are the experts on ourselves and we will tell the experts they have nothing to tell us!”  But it took a few years to get that across.

The movement of those days was a very unassertive, apologetic, defensive kind of structure.  Not taking strong positions.  Giving a hearing to everybody and saying, “All views must be heard, even those with the most harshly and viciously condemnatory.  As long as it dealt with homosexuality they must be given a fair hearing.”  Drivel!   And I…  That didn’t suit my personality.  And the Mattachine Society of Washington was formed around my personality.

We characterized ourselves within the movement as an activist militant organization.  Well, those were very dirty words in those days in the movement such as it was.  This was ’61 and ’62.

Eric:  No one else was, except for the civil rights movement just…

Frank:  It was just beginning.  Even within the gay movement, even more so.  You weren’t supposed to be.

Eric:  Did you have an overall goal?  A stated plan of what you were going to do as an organization?

Frank:  That was sort of set out in our statement of purposes, which I could dig out.

Eric:  Generally, what was it?

Frank:  Generally to work for gay rights, although gay rights as such wasn’t necessarily the phrase of choice of those days.  But to achieve equality for homosexuals and homosexuality against heterosexuals and heterosexuality.  Equality, I guess, was the primary theme.

Eric:  That wasn’t born in ’69, those ideas.

Frank:  Oh, certainly not!  ‘69 wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t come along.

Eric:  But as you know, that’s not how it…

Frank:  Well, they’re wrong.   We started—to digress before I get back—we started picketing here in ‘65, which first created the mind set which allowed for gays doing openly public things by way of demonstration, as gays.  There would not have been Stonewall if the mind set hadn’t already been established by us for that in ‘65, with our subsequent demonstrations year by year which were widely publicized in New York, at Independence Hall every Fourth of July each year after ’65.  And which was being publicized in ’69 in preparation for that one when Stonewall occurred.  And it would have never have occurred to gay people to do anything publicly if we hadn’t already started it.

Eric:  What happened to your case though?

Frank:  My case was dead with the Supreme Court.  That ended that permanently.

Eric:  The Commission changed its rule in ‘75.  You must recall first hearing about that.

Frank:  They called me up.  By that time I was on—I speak with obvious hyperbole and figuratively—on virtually daily communication with the general counsel of the Civil Service Commission.  He knew my cases.  He knew other things that had come along.

Eric:  So people were coming to you.

Frank:  Oh, yes, he had informed me eighteen months before in ‘73 that they were beginning the process of changing their policy, but there are a lot minds that had to be changed inside the Commission and he informed me that it was going to come out on July 4, except that July 4 was a holiday, so it was going to have to be July 3, very appropriately.  And that’s when they issued the news release and the formal change in policy.

Eric:  July 3, 1975.

Frank:  Yes, 1975.  And that carried the day very nicely, until, of course, in ‘78, under the Carter administration, the Civil Service Reform Act went through Congress and that abolished the Civil Service Commission under that name.  It’s the Office of Personnel Management, the O.P.M.  Changed all the laws.  So that, that’s one battle, one book, that has nicely been closed and put on a shelf as a complete success.

So at this point I’m sort of, I don’t know, people call me a living legend or…

Eric:  I’ve heard that phrase.  Do you like being called a living legend?

Frank:  It doesn’t bother me.  It’s complimentary.  Or humorously, the world’s oldest living homosexual.  Or the grandfather or the great-grandfather of the gay movement, which is not technically correct, as you well know.

Life takes its turnings, and you don’t foresee them.  But ultimately, in retrospect, life has been more exciting and stimulating and interesting and satisfying and rewarding and fulfilling than I ever could possibly have dreamed it would have been.