Kameny, Franklin

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KAMENY, Franklin

KAMENY, Franklin (b. 21 May 1925), homophile, gay rights activist.

Frank Kameny was born in Queens, New York, to a middle-class Jewish family. A precocious child, Kameny took an early interest in science and by the age of seven had decided on a career in astronomy. Graduating from Richmond Hill High School at the age of sixteen, he studied physics at New York's Queens College. After a tour of duty during World War II as a U.S. Army mortar crewman, Kameny won a fellowship to Harvard University, where he earned a Ph.D. in astronomy in 1956.

After a year as a research and teaching assistant in Georgetown University's Astronomy department, Kameny transferred to the Army Map Service, where he managed astronomical observation projects to map accurate distances between the earth's land masses. But when a routine government security screening in 1957 revealed that he had been arrested on a morals charge in a known gay cruising area, he was dismissed from his civilian job. Unable to obtain a security clearance and thus unable to work as an astronomer, Kameny became dependent on charity. Unlike the thousands of other victims of the "lavender scare," Kameny decided to fight his dismissal. When administrative appeals failed and the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled against him, his attorney abandoned the case. In his own brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, Kameny compared the government's antigay policies with discrimination based on religious or racial grounds. Adopting the rhetoric of civil rights, he asserted that he and fifteen million other Americans were being treated as second-class citizens because of their homosexuality.

In 1961, when the Supreme Court refused to hear his case, Kameny enlisted others in the cause and founded the Mattachine Society of Washington (MSW). As the group's president (1961–1965), Kameny was one of the few homosexuals in America willing to appear publicly using his own name. Calling his group the "NAACP of the homosexual minority," Kameny introduced traditional tactics of political reform to the LGBT movement—distributing press releases, testifying before committees, lobbying government officials, and filing legal challenges. In MSW's 1963 dispute with the District of Columbia over a license to raise charitable donations, Kameny became the first openly gay person to testify publicly before a congressional committee. In the spring and summer of 1965 he organized a series of historic LGBT pickets in front of the White House and other government buildings in Washington, D.C. Through speaking engagements around the country and leadership roles in groups such as the East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO), Kameny spread his message of activism, radicalizing existing gay organizations and helping new groups form in other cities.

Acting as a paralegal, Kameny represented hundreds of gay and lesbian military personnel, civil servants, and contractors in disputes with the federal government. With the aid of the local American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapter, which he helped found in 1961, Kameny encouraged a series of test discrimination cases in the courts to challenge the Civil Service Commission's exclusion of gays and lesbians, forcing a reversal of policy in 1975. Kameny was also involved in the first legal steps to challenge the U.S. military's policy of discharging gay and lesbian service members, including the case of gay Air Force Sergeant Leonard Matlovich. And by the late 1970s he succeeded in forcing the federal government to begin granting gays and lesbians security clearances.

In addition, Kameny led a sustained lobbying effort aimed at undoing the official position of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) that homosexuality was a mental illness. As a scientist, he appeared in public debates with professional psychiatrists, asserting that their understanding of homosexuality was based on a skewed sampling of psychiatric patients. In 1965 he led the MSW to declare that homosexuality was not a sickness but an orientation equivalent to heterosexuality. After watching Stokley Carmichael on television in 1968 chanting "black is beautiful" to enthusiastic crowds of African Americans, Kameny coined the slogan "gay is good," hoping that it would help his community overcome years of internalized homophobia. At the 1971 APA convention in Washington, D.C., Kameny joined members of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in storming the convention and taking over the proceedings. Under pressure from LGBT activists and psychiatrists, the APA voted in 1973 to remove homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM).

In 1971, when the U.S. Congress permitted the District of Columbia to elect a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives, Kameny ventured into local politics and became the first openly gay person to run for Congress. Coming in fourth in the six-way race, he succeeded in garnering publicity for his "personal freedoms" platform and in politicizing the local LGBT community. After the election, Kameny's campaign committee reorganized into a local Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), a nonpartisan political group dedicated to securing full rights and privileges of citizenship for the gay and lesbian community of the District of Columbia. Kameny and the GAA were instrumental in securing passage of the D.C. Human Rights Law in 1973, one of the nation's first laws to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians. In 1975 he was appointed to the District's Human Rights Commission, the first openly gay mayoral appointee in the nation's capital. After serving for seven years, he was appointed to the city's Board of Appeals and Review. For over three decades, Kameny had served as an active member of, and elder statesmen to, the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, a powerful advocate for the gay and lesbian community with local officials, the media, the police, and the school system.

In recognition of his long-time activism, Kameny was asked to serve on the board of the National Gay Task Force (NGTF) in 1973. As a NGTF board member, he was among a group of LGBT leaders who met with officials of the Carter administration in 1977—the first such White House meeting in U.S. history. At the local level, Kameny was an outspoken defender of civil liberties on all matters sexual, leading fights against D.C.'s antisodomy law and defending the rights of bars featuring nude dancers. For over forty years, he has remained a formidable voice in the movements for LGBT rights and sexual freedom.


Bayer, Ronald. Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis. New York: Basic Books, 1981.

Clendinen, Dudley, and Adam Nagourney. Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

D'Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Johnson, David K. The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Marcus, Eric. Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights 1945–1990: An Oral History. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Murdoch, Joyce, and Deb Price. Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. The Supreme Court. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Tobin, Kay, and Randy Wicker. The Gay Crusaders. New York: Paperback Library, 1972.

David K. Johnson

see alsoamerican civil liberties union (aclu); antidiscrimination law and policy; cory, donald webster; electoral politics; employment law and policy; federal law and policy; gay activists alliance; homophile movement; mattachine society; medicine, medicalization, and the medical model; military law and policy; national gay and lesbian task force (ngltf); psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and sexology.