“If society and I differ on something, I’m willing to give the matter a second look. If we still differ, then I am right, and society is wrong, and society can go on its way as long as it doesn’t get in my way. But if it does, there’s going to be a fight, and I’m not going to be the one who backs down.”
– Frank Kameny (The Gay Revolution, Faderman, p.130-131)
In 1957, a man named Frank Kameny would go on to lose his position as an astronomer at U.S. Army’s Map Service. He, like many others, was a victim of the Lavender Scare - a menace that destroyed the lives of queer people in the United States. It resulted in dismissal from your station and destroyed hopes of finding another job in your field or any job for that matter. But Kameny, never one to sit down and take anything, protested his treatment. He took his case to the Supreme Court, but his petition got denied. This one act of injustice would start Kameny on a mission. Not to change things for himself, but to change things for his entire community. Some would say he was too radical or militant, and for his time, he most definitely was. But, it’s that kind of radical militancy that helped him change the lives of his people.
His story is an interesting one to tell. His activism managed to alienate both the straight and gay community of his time. Each side believed he wanted too much. The straight community tried to snuff him out, and the gay community begged him not to fight as hard as he did. But Kameny wanted to prove that “Gay is Good.” Homosexuals were the same as heterosexuals and should be treated as such.
Lillian Faderman writes in The Gay Revolution, “...no one gay leader of the past has been widely chronicled as having had the most foresight, with which contemporary LGBT people couldn’t have won their decisive civil rights victories. But if any one person deserves such credit, it is Frank Kameny.” And she tells the truth. Frank Kameny, in 1961, would start the Washington, DC chapter of the Mattachine Society. He declared that his organization would challenge every federal law that limited the rights of the homosexual. He sent his declarations to every newspaper, as well as Congress, the Supreme Court, and Vice President Johnson.
Responses didn’t matter to Kameny; he wanted visibility. He never stopped sending high powered government officials his many different publications. He even ran into some trouble with the FBI, whom he sent copies of the Mattachine newsletter and his publication, the Gazette. Seeing as the First Amendment existed, they could not charge him for sending copies. J. Edgar Hoover would receive copies until his death in 1972.
Kameny also used his position in the Mattachine Society to fight for “the American homosexual.” He sought out victims to represent in legal proceedings, the first of those was a Midwesterner, Bruce Scott. Scott had a long career in the Labor Department, but like so many before him got fired for supposedly eliciting sex in a men’s bathroom in 1947. He admitted he was homosexual and they forced him to resign. With the help of the ACLU, the trial, Scott v. Macy, went to court. It was a hard fight, which seemed almost hopeless. The first judge assigned to the case, Judge George L. Hart, threw the case out. But Kameny didn’t give up; he convinced a defeated Scott to push for an appeal. Scott finally won and was to receive eligibility for government employment. But, the Civil Service Commission did nothing to reinstate him. So, he and Kameny filed a second appeal. The second appeal affirmed what the first stated. This was one of the first major legal victories of the LGBTQ+ movement. It wasn’t perfect, Scott couldn’t deal with the pain of waiting and would eventually go on o find work in Chicago. Still, it was a stepping stone.
Kameny would go on to represent dozens of civil servants throughout the 1960s to save their jobs and give them the security they deserved. His fights would not go unnoticed, because in 1971, the ban on homosexuals would be lifted, partly because of Kameny’s constant legal battles.
On top of his legal battles, Kameny wanted to inject himself in the public consciousness. He sought to do the same as African Americans a the time which meant a lot of protesting. Kameny had very specific rules for his protests. The homosexual needed to look just like the “average” American. Men would wear nice suits, with ties and dress shoes. Women would wear skirts with heels. Doing this would prove that the homosexual was just like any other American. They were a moderate success, his picketing at Foggy Bottom in Washington D.C. gained some media buzz. Still, it wasn't enough to take hold of the public consciousness like other civil rights organizations such as the Black Panthers.
Alas, Kameny’s way of thinking would soon fade out. Soon, the LGBTQ+ community would realize that they were not “just Americans,” they were a minority. They had a culture and a way of life that they deserved to live however they wanted. The idea of the “American homosexual” became dated. That doesn’t mean they didn’t matter. Frank Kameny gave his life to ensure that gays and lesbians in his country received the treatment they deserved. His austerity and unwavering devotion to his mission made it possible for future generations to keep fighting. Frank Kameny passed away in 2011. In 2009, he received a formal apology from the openly gay Director of Personnel, John Berry, along with the Theodore Roosevelt Award. His letters and other correspondence are forever preserved at the Library of Congress. Kameny was a true visionary, and his contribution to the LGBTQ+ movement is one that deserves to be in history books.
"We are honorable people who deal with others honorably, and in good faith, we expect to be dealt with in the same fashion—especially by our governmental officials.” - Frank
Kameny to the House of Un-American Activities Committee.
Shann Smith is a writer/occasional actor living in NYC. He is currently getting ready to produce his first play, Super, Off-Off Broadway and start his theater company, The Queer Collective. He is incredibly passionate about the LGBTQ+ movement and is happy to have helped Making Queer History's amazing cause! Please follow him @shanndsmith on twitter and Instagram, and on Tumblr @ shanndsmith.tumblr.com.
Capehart, Jonathan. “Frank Kameny: American hero.” The Washington Post, The Washington
Post, October 12th, 2011, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/post/frank-
Faderman, Lillian. The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle. New York: Simon and
Schuster, 2015. Print.
Harrity, Christopher. “Gay is Good: The Letters of Franklin Kameny.” The Advocate, The
Advocate, October 15th, 2014, http://www.advocate.com/politics/2014/10/15/gay-good-letters-
Rauch, Jonathan. “A Priah’s Triumph - and America’s” The Atlantic, The Atlantic Monthly
Group, December 2006, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/12/a-pariahs-