Every gay person in North America, I would expect, has heard of the Stonewall uprising. The uprising, which took place outside the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York, in June of 1969, was motivated by a police raid on the bar, and is generally credited with initiating the modern gay-rights movement. No doubt Stonewall was one of the splashiest events in the early phases of the movement's history, bringing wider attention to the issue of gay rights and raising the consciousness of gay people to whom it had never occurred that they had a right to dignity, let alone that they might actually take to the streets and stand up for that dignity.
But before there was a Stonewall uprising, there was Frank Kameny, who died on October 11. There is no one who deserves the title “father of the gay-rights movement” more than he. He was fighting for gay rights more than a decade before Stonewall. Four years before the Stonewall's customers, along with numerous other local gays, erupted into a spontaneous, raucous, large-scale demonstration in Sheridan Square, Kameny and a small number of gutsy friends were organizing an orderly picket march outside the White House. To compare a photograph of those picketers – the men in neatly pressed Fifties-style suits and ties and the women in equally conservative garb – with pictures of the Stonewall riots underscores the dramatic differences in American society, and in the gay-rights movement, that a mere four years would bring.
My friend John Corvino sums up Frank's legacy:
When Dr. Franklin Kameny was fired from his government job in 1957 for being gay, there was no national gay civil rights movement. It took pioneers like him to make it happen.
A Harvard-trained Ph.D. and World War II veteran, Frank lost his job as an Army Map Service astronomer for being a homosexual. Unsure of his future employability and outraged by the injustice, he petitioned all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. That firing and subsequent refusal sparked a tireless lifetime of activism.
(Incidentally, in 2009 the Federal Office of Personnel Management finally issued Frank a formal apology for the firing. In his inimitable style, he promptly replied that he was looking forward to his five decades of back pay.)
In 1961 Frank co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington D.C.—a “homophile organization” based on the original group in California. Soon thereafter, in 1963, he began a decades-long campaign to revoke D.C.’s sodomy law. He personally drafted the repeal bill that was passed 30 years later.
In 1965, he picketed in front of the White House for gay rights. Signs from that demonstration, stored in his attic for decades, are now in the Smithsonian’s collection.
In 1971, he became the first openly gay person to run for Congress. (He came in fourth, which itself was a kind of victory given the anti-gay sentiment of the era.) He was instrumental in the battle that led to the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973. He continued to fight over the decades against employment discrimination, sodomy laws, the military ban—unjust discrimination in all its forms.
More on Frank's life here. My friend Jonathan Rauch also pays tribute:
Frank Kameny made my life better. He made countless gay people’s lives better. He showed us the meaning of courage. He showed us the power of standing up for ourselves. He renewed our belief in moral suasion against ignorance and hostility. And he made his country, our country, truer to the better angels of its nature.
Philosophically and temperamentally, Frank was not exactly a perfect fit with the dominant strain of the gay-activist movement that developed out of Stonewall. He was not a far-left utopian who despised religion, capitalism, the military, cherished gay marginality and rebelliousness for its own sake, and sought to overthrow American society and American institutions. No, he believed in the values set forth in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and he simply wanted gay people to have a place at the American table, just like their straight brothers and sisters. To see self-confident, well-adjusted young gay people today who cannot imagine ever being in the closet or feeling ashamed of their sexual orientation is to see a world that Frank helped bring into being. He had an immeasurable impact on the lives of people who have never heard his name.
I only met Frank in person once – last year, in Washington, over dinner with a few other gay friends. But I had known him for years as a very active fellow member of a listserv to which we both belonged. He was the oldest member of the list, but also, perhaps, the feistiest – never rude, but always insistent. His constant message: don't just complain about these things among yourselves. Get out there! Contact the media. Write your member of Congress. Spread the word! Make a difference! He practiced what he preached, and in doing so helped shape an America truer to its founding principles – an America in which gay people can live with greater personal liberty and integrity, and pursue happiness as freely as everyone else.