Revisiting the Archive — Frank Kameny
In 1957, Frank Kameny was fired from his job at the U.S. Army Map Service for being gay. He went on to fight the federal government for 14 years and never lost his resolve. And he won! Inspiration for us all in these challenging times.
Visit our Season One episode webpage for background information, archival photos, and other resources.
Eric Marcus Narration: I’m Eric Marcus and this is Making Gay History.
I have no idea how many of these episodes we’ll be doing. This isn’t a regular Making Gay History season—more a place I’ve come to for some inspiration and comfort in these discombobulating, high-anxiety times.
Like many of you, my partner and I are staying close to home, doing our part in helping to slow the spread of Covid-19. And, we’re on call for our friends and neighbors who may need our help as the pandemic unfolds. But for the moment, I’m in our guest room talking to you from underneath a massage table, surrounded by down comforters, to try to reproduce some of that studio-quality sound at home. Close… but not exactly a studio.
Here in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, it’s a beautiful early spring day. I’m longing for my morning walk.
I begin every day—well, I used to begin every day—with a walk on the High Line. That’s an elevated park on an old railway line that’s just down the block from where we live. The last time I walked there was three days ago. The crocuses and the aconite were blooming—and the pussy willows and bloodroot, too. The High Line’s closed now because the walkways are often narrow and it’s impossible to keep apart from other people by the recommended six feet. But thinking of spring unfolding gives me hope that life will return to normal one day—and, well, I hope one day soon. I’m trying to be optimistic.
I also find hope in the stories of the extraordinary people I’ve had the privilege of introducing you to over the past three years. And while we’re all looking ahead into the unknown, I thought I’d take us back to the past and reintroduce you to some of the people whose spirit and determination and grit lift me up every day—especially now.
One of those people is Frank Kameny, a Harvard PhD astronomer who was fired from his government job in 1957. Because he was a homosexual. Frank wound up becoming one of the most militant and important thinkers and leaders of the LGBTQ civil rights movement long before it was called the LGBTQ civil rights movement.
Eric Marcus: Interview with Frank Kameny. June 3, 1989, at the home of Frank Kameny in Washington, DC. Interviewer is Eric Marcus.
EM Narration: I arrived at Frank Kameny’s house on a mild early June day. He lived in a modest two-story brick Colonial in a leafy prosperous neighborhood just outside the center of the city. The house was a bit scruffy around the edges and the lawn needed some attention, too.
Frank greeted me at the door wearing a white button-down shirt and gray slacks. He looked like a retired scientist out of central casting. And he also was a bit scruffy around the edges. We went directly to Frank’s office. Oh, my goodness, his office. There were stacks of files and unidentifiable dust-covered piles everywhere.
Frank took a seat behind his desk, motioned for me to sit, and was off and running even before I had the chance to clip my lapel mic to his shirt. From the way he spoke, you’d think he was addressing a lecture hall filled with hundreds instead of an audience of just one.
Frank Kameny: 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, and go along, and ultimately you will find what it is that I am modifying. So…
EM: And my tendency is to interrupt, so do whatever you need to.
FK: Alright. So, I was called in and [they] 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.
EM: You must have been shocked.
FK: Yes, of course. And, um, …
EM: How did they do it? Did they come into your office?
FK: No. They issue a… The way the government does anything, they issue you a letter.
EM: Did they say we’re dismissing you because you were a homosexual?
FK: Yes, for homosexuality. Such firings were not uncommon in that period.
EM: Were you depressed by it?
FK: Naturally, because I had no source of income. And 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 potato.
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, 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 obviously. And 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 principle, 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 I had been, that certiorari had been denied. That ended the formal case. But the battle went on for another 14 years.
EM: What the government essentially did is they turned an intellectual bookish astronomer into a radical.
FK: Thank you for using that word. I have had cases over the years that I’ve handled of 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…
EM: So by ’61 you had become radicalized.
FK: Oh, very much so. Very much so. So anyway…
EM: Oh, boy, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
FK: 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 of 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, predictably, in retrospect, responded accordingly. And that was the nature of the movement.
EM: People were frightened and they had good reason to be.
FK: It was not only frightened, it was simply a lack of intellectual strength. We had to defer to the experts.
EM: Oh, you hated that, didn’t you?
FK: 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.
EM: No one else was, except for the civil rights movement just…
FK: It was just beginning. Even within the gay movement, even more so. You weren’t supposed to be.
EM: Did you have an overall goal? A stated plan of what you were going to do as an organization?
FK: That was sort of set out in our statement of purposes, which I could dig out.
EM: Generally, what was it?
FK: 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.
EM: That wasn’t born in ’69, those ideas.
FK: Oh, certainly not! ’69 wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t come along.
EM: But as you well know, that’s not how it…
FK: Well, they’re wrong. We started—to digress before I get back—we started picketing here in ’65, which first created the mindset which allowed for gays doing openly public things by way of demonstration, as gays. There would not have been Stonewall if the mindset 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.
EM: What happened to your case, though?
FK: My case was dead with the Supreme Court. That ended that permanently.
EM: The commission changed its rule in ’75. You must recall first hearing about that.
FK: 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.
EM: So people were coming to you.
FK: Oh, yes, he had informed me 18 months before, in ’73, that they were beginning the process of changing their policy, but there were 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.
EM: July 3, 1975.
FK: Yes, 1975. 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…
EM: I’ve heard that phrase. Do you like being called a living legend?
FK: 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, I think, 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.
EM Narration: I hope that by hearing Frank Kameny’s voice and a bit of his story that you have a sense of why he continues to inspire me and so many others. At this challenging moment, when having to hunker down for days, perhaps weeks, feels like a lifetime, I’m reminded by Frank that we’ve got to take the long view. His successful battle with the federal government lasted 14 years and he never lost his resolve.
Frank Kameny died on October 11, 2011, just weeks before his house was listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Frank was 86.
Thanks for listening. And if you like what you’ve heard I hope you’ll consider supporting Making Gay History. Our usual institutional funding streams are now uncertain, so besides tightening our belts, we’re counting on you, our listeners, more than ever, to help us continue bringing LGBTQ history to life for tens of thousands of listeners around the world. To donate, please go to makinggayhistory.com. All of us at Making Gay History appreciate your support.
Many thanks to all my colleagues who produce this podcast. A special thanks to Sara Burningham, our founding editor and producer, for jumping into the breach and producing this episode. We’ll be back soon with another special episode from the Making Gay History archive. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you because I also draw inspiration from our listeners, like Mina, who just wrote to me from Russia.
So long. Stay safe. Until next time.