In Washington, DC yesterday, a man namedFrank Kameny died quietly at home. He was 86. Fittingly enough, Kameny’s death happened onNational Coming Out Day, something we’ve been celebrating since 1988, when it was created to commemorate the great 1987March on Washington, that October day when a quarter-million LGBT citizens came to their nation’s capitol to remind the rest of the country that they too were Americans and wouldn’t accept being treated as anything less. That such an event took place at all, that we still celebrate it nearly a quarter of a century later, that more people than ever before are out, that DADT is history now, that same-sex marriage is a reality—none of these things could have happened if pioneers like Frank Kameny hadn’t paved the way for us.
“Hero” doesn’t seem big enough somehow to describe what Kameny was, what he accomplished, what he risked, but he was a hero and much more. He was out, proud, and fighting for his civil rights during times when it was truly dangerous, when doing so could get you fired, jailed, publicly shamed. All that and more happened to Kameny but he chose not to accept it.
That 1987 march was actually the second GLBT march on Washington, but decades before either, years before even the Stonewall Riots, Frank Kameny started fighting back. His career as an activist began in 1957, after he was fired for being gay.
Kameny, a WWII veteran, earned a PhD in astronomy from Harvard, taught for a year, then became a federal employee in 1957, working for the U.S. Army Map Service in DC. Not only was he fired within a year for being gay, he was (as was customary at the time) banned from from future federal employment. He appealed his termination all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.
In 1965, Kameny was an organizer of the first-ever gay and lesbian protest at the White House to draw attention to government discrimination against homosexuals. Another LGBT pioneer, Jack Nichols, describes the event.
As we marched, I looked about at our well-dressed little band. Kameny had insisted that we seven men must wear suits and ties, and the women, dresses and heels. New Yorkers later complained that we Washingtonians looked like a convention of undertakers, but given the temper of the times, Kameny’s insistence was apropos. “If you’re asking for equal employment rights,” he intoned, “look employable!” In the staid nation’s capital, dressing for the occasion was, in spite of New York critics, proper.
We paraded in a small circle. Behind lampposts stood unknown persons photographing us. Were they government agents? Perrin and Otto wore sunglasses so absolute identification would be difficult should they fall prey to security investigations. We walked for an hour that passed, as I’d predicted, without incident. A few tourists gawked and there were one or two snickers, more from confusion than from prejudice.
We’d hoped for more publicity than we got. Only The Afro-American carried a small item about what we’d done. But we’d done it, and that was what mattered. We’d stood up against the power structure, putting our bodies on the line. Nothing had happened except that we’d been galvanized, and, to a certain extent, immunized against fear.”
Forty-four years later, Kameny was present in the Oval Office as President Obama signed a memorandum extending (limited) federal benefits to partners of gay federal employees.