Franklin E. Kameny, 1925 - 2011
I am sad to relate the news that gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny died earlier today (Tuesday, October 11) in his own bed at the age of 86. He said many times that he wanted to die at his home on Cathedral Avenue, NW, and in the fullness of time he got his wish.
What to say about such a towering figure? I have been associated with him for my entire 33 ½ years as an activist, not only through GLAA but before that, when I invited him in the late winter of 1978 to debate gay rights before the Villanova Political Union on the campus of Villanova University, where I was then a senior. I remember the Dean of Student Activities, Fr. John Byrne, being outraged and saying to me (upon learning of my plans), “I will not allow the devil a forum in my own home.” To which I replied that Dr. Kameny was just a D.C. Human Rights Commissioner (as he was at the time), and that in any case we weren’t planning to invite him to Fr. Byrne’s private rooms. I am still amazed that I got away with that, given that Villanova was run by conservative Augustinian priests.
Frank was a force of nature. He was a man of high intelligence, endless nerve, and a steel spine. When his own government fired him for being gay in the late 1950s, he was filled with patriotic indignation, outraged that a country that he had defended in front-line combat in World War II would treat him so unjustly. He treated his firing as an act of war, and (as he has said countless times since) he was not in the habit of losing his wars. Unlike most other “homophile” activists at the time, Frank used his own name and refused to cower in fear. He did not think there was the slightest thing wrong with him. He appealed his case to the Supreme Court and wrote his own brief. His entire strategy was based on seizing the moral and intellectual high ground, specifically invoking America’s founding principles and demanding for gay people the birthright of any other American citizen. He did this at a time when he had no backup, no army of activists and fundraisers behind him. He took on the U.S. Civil Service Commission and the Department of Defense by himself, on his own wits and native courage.
Historian David Carter, who attended GLAA’s 40th anniversary reception last April, has interviewed Frank extensively for a book he is writing on him. Thank goodness for that, and for Frank’s longevity that enabled him to serve as a walking history book for so many, not only scholars and journalists but students to whom he happily gave interviews for school papers they were writing. For the preservation of Frank’s legacy, immense gratitude is owed to Charles Francis, organizer of the Kameny Papers Project. Thanks to Charles, the bulk of Frank’s papers are catalogued at the Library of Congress, and some of the picket signs he made for the first gay rights demonstration in front of the White House in 1965 are preserved at the Smithsonian. Thank goodness this was done before it was too late.
Frank was proudest of having coined the slogan, “Gay Is Good,” which was inspired by Stokely Carmichael’s “Black Is Beautiful.” Good for you, Frank. What a privilege it was for so many of us to know and work with this pioneer, who lived so long among us and saw his work bear fruit. Farewell and rest in peace to our great comrade and friend.
I am sure there will be more to report about plans to honor Frank, but for now I will just provide a number of relevant links. See below. I will also paste below the announcement of Frank’s death by Captain Edward Delgado of MPD’s Special Liaison Unit.
Vice President for Political Affairs
Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, D.C.
From: Delgado, Edward (MPD)
Sent: Tuesday, October 11, 2011 9:24 PM
Subject: [MPD-SLU] Dr. Franklin Kameny
It is with great sadness that I must report the death of Dr. Franklin Kameny, an activist and friend of the LGBT community. Dr. Kameny led some of the key battles for gay equality, picketing the White House and staging 4th of July protests in the mid-1960s. He was first to do a number of things: the first gay man to protest anti-gay government firings at the Supreme Court, the first openly gay man to run for D.C.'s non-voting seat in congress, the first to initiate coordinated responses to the anti-gay policies of the U.S. Government and of the Pentagon, the first to lead an organization that focused on anti-gay persecution. The Library of Congress acquired Kameny's papers; and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History featured the picket signs he carried in front of the White House.
In February 2009, Kameny's home in Washington was designated as a D.C. Historic Landmark by the District of Columbia's Historic Preservation Review Board. In 2009 he was presented with the Theodore Roosevelt Award. Dr. Kameny is a friend of the Metropolitan Police Department's Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit; which he advised during it's infancy stage. My condolences go out to the Kameny family and the entire LGBT community.