The leader who made gay rights a cause

Frank Kameny receives a pen President Obama used to sign a memorandum regarding non-discrimination June 17, 2009.

Story highlights

  • Frank Kameny died this week at the age of 86
  • David Carter says he was the intellectual force behind the gay rights movement
  • He says Kameny viewed gays as an oppressed minority and insisted on equality as a goal
  • Carter: Americans should be taught about the role of Kameny in inspiring the movement
America has lost her greatest leader in the fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality: Franklin E. Kameny, universally known as Frank Kameny. It is hard today to understand the courage it took for Kameny simply to fight to get his job back after he was fired from the government's Army Map Service in 1957 for being gay.
It is probably impossible for most people now to imagine the even greater courage it took in 1961 for him to start an organization to fight for 100% equality for homosexuals. But that is exactly what he did after he exhausted all personal avenues of appeal, including writing a stirring brief to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear his case.
While it is true that there was ongoing organized political activity on behalf of American homosexuals starting in 1951 with the founding of the Mattachine Society, that organization abandoned its approach of political activism and chose for its leader a cautious man, Hal Call.
Call advocated what was known in the homophile movement (the name the movement used then) as the "education and research" approach. Gay people had so little self-confidence at that time that they felt their only chance of gaining some tolerance was by asking psychiatrists to say that we were mentally ill and therefore should be pitied and given therapy instead of being incarcerated.
Before writing his Supreme Court brief, Kameny had sent letters to elected and appointed government officials to try to get his job back. But he had let the lawyers write the briefs for his court cases. When the last court of appeal was the Supreme Court, even his lawyer abandoned him, seeing the cause as hopeless. So Frank wrote his own brief, and he said that doing so forced him to think through all the arguments used by the government to discriminate against homosexuals.
David Carter
Kameny was extraordinarily intelligent, and the analysis he constructed was brilliant and radical for its time: We were simply another minority, and according to American values, as expressed in our founding documents, not only did we not deserve to be the objects of discrimination, but it was the government's duty to protect us from discrimination. But in 1961, the Supreme Court was not ready to hear this analysis, and it did not take the case.
Kameny's brief has now been published as the e-book "Petition Denied, Revolution Begun: Frank Kameny Petitions the Supreme Court," and it should be considered one of the foundational documents of the gay rights movement, a historic American document in the great line of inspired democratic texts that starts with the Flushing Remonstrance.
After the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, Kameny decided that he could prevail only through organized political activity. Within months of his case being declined, he managed to find enough people to start an organization for homosexual equality, the first of its kind.
It should be noted here that many people have confused his approach with that of the rest of the homophile movement because the name of the organization he founded was the Mattachine Society of Washington. However, Kameny had opposed using "Mattachine" because he wanted a name that was easily identifiable as gay; he was simply outvoted by the rest of the members.
But his approach went far beyond wanting the organization to be open about being open about its purpose. The Mattachine Constitution proclaimed its goal: "To equalize the status and the position of the homosexual with the status and position of the heterosexual by achieving equality under the law, equality of opportunity, and equality in the society of his fellow men, and by eliminating adverse prejudice, both private and official."
Progress was hard slogging for Kameny in the '60s. He and Mattachine Society of Washington co-founder Jack Nichols were passionate about the damage done by the American Psychiatric Association's classification of homosexuality as a mental illness. In the analysis of Kameny and others, gay people at the time were triply condemned as sinners, criminals and mentally ill, and Kameny came to take the position that "we cannot ask for our rights as a minority group ... from a position of inferiority or from a position ... as less than whole human beings. I feel that the entire homophile movement ... is going to stand or fall upon the question of whether or not homosexuality is a sickness and upon our taking a firm stand on it."
It was not, however, until four years after Kameny had founded the Mattachine Society of Washington that he could convince the organization he founded to take the official position that homosexuality is not a mental illness, making it the first gay organization to do so.
Kameny supported the idea of public demonstrations for homosexual rights, which was considered highly radical at the time, and when the first picket by the Mattachine Society of Washington was held in 1965, it did not notify the press for fear that it would be subject to violence or that some bureaucrat would find a way to prevent the demonstration.
But all was not slow progress and opposition. Kameny's fervor and the clarity of his vision had a catalytic effect on the movement. Barbara Gittings, one of the LGBT movement's most important figures, told me that "before I met Frank ... I had a very inchoate idea of how we could solve our problems. ... Frank came along and he had this very strong, very definite philosophy, and it crystallized my thinking. 'Well, yes, of course. If you take the position that Frank has taken, then you get a very clear view of what you have to do, and you don't have to fumble around anymore.' "
Kameny's passion and eloquence were a match for his analytical and political skills. When he was invited to speak by the Mattachine Society of New York, his speech galvanized the local militants who then ran for office and succeeded in getting rid of those leaders who had only supported the "education and research" approach.
Once elected, the militants promptly succeeded in ending police entrapment in New York City and began a court case to challenge the use of the state's liquor laws to make gay bars de facto illegal. These actions lay the foundations for the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, which in turn gave birth to the gay liberation phase of the gay civil rights movement. Now the movement had finally caught up with Kameny ... and mushroomed.
In the meantime, Kameny and his fellow pre-Stonewall activists continued their relentless fight against government discrimination: opposing every effort by the government to fire and harass lesbian and gay employees, embarrassing the government by showing how inane, stupid and cruel their regulations were, and outsmarting them.
By 1968, Kameny had gotten the national movement to adapt as its official slogan "Gay Is Good," a far cry from Hal Call's opposition even to the open use of the word "homosexuality." Kameny fought as relentlessly as a honey badger, with the result that even the federal government began to give up. He recalled how, just before the July 3, 1975, announcement by the U.S. Civil Service Commission of its reversal of its ban on the employment of gay people, he got a phone call from a "fairly high government official who told me that 'The government has decided to change its policies to suit you.' "
In 1973, Kameny probably achieved his single greatest policy victory when the fight he led succeeded in getting the American Psychiatric Association to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness. As he said, "In one fell swoop, 15 million gay people were cured!"
He did all this without caring for himself. He lived in poverty his entire adult life, after having enjoyed a good income as a scientist with a Harvard Ph.D. He never quit fighting, and he never quit caring. Long after the movement had become sizable in the 1980s, Kameny maintained a help line in his own home so that gay people in trouble could call him.
He did more than any other one individual to make the gay civil rights movement possible, ending the classification of gay people as mentally ill and laying the foundation for the overturn of sodomy laws. And he led the fight for gay people to be able to serve in the military by, for example, creating the Leonard Matlovich case, the first case that got national media attention about the issue of gay people being able to serve in the military. There is no doubt in my mind that he is the greatest activist in the history of the movement for equality for gay people.
This brings me to one final consideration, which is to ask why, if Kameny was such a great American, such a successful civil rights activist, most of the readers of this column will be hearing his name for the first time. When I was a youth in conservative Jesup, Georgia, in the 1960s, we were given "Soul on Ice" to read. The black civil rights movement was discussed in our classrooms. We knew the names of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, and we were taught about Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. the Board of Education.
Today, our youth are seeing gay issues discussed in the news, but how are they to understand these issues if they are not taught in social studies and history classes? The stark truth is that one of the reasons that our movement is not taught is simply homophobia.
The movement for gay civil rights has changed the modern world, much for the better. It is high time that this history be taught in our schools. Leaving that history out of today's classrooms is as ludicrous as not discussing the suffragist, feminist or black civil rights movements. All of these are important parts of American history, of civil rights history, and of human rights history. American schoolchildren need to learn the name of Frank Kameny as surely as they learn the names of Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan and Malcolm X. But this won't happen unless the LGBT movement makes this a demand.
I hope we do. Our children need this, and Kameny's life deserves it.