HOUSTON VOICE • DECEMBER 17, 1999
by DAVID BIANCO
Astronomer turned gay actwist
by DAVID BIANCO
Who is Frank Kameny?
The son of middle-class Jewish New
Yorkers, Frank Kameny, who was bom in
1925, was a child prodigy who entered college
to study physics at age 15. But his education
was interrupted by active duty in the armed
forces during World War II.
In the mid-1950s, while enrolled in the
Ph.D. program in astronomy at Harvard,
Kameny spent a year researching at the
University of Arizona. While in Tucson, he
came out to himself and began frequenting
the city's gay nightlife. "I took to it like a duck
to water," he later quipped.
After earning his Ph.D. in 1956, Kameny
accepted a teaching position at Georgetown
University in Washington, D.C. After one academic year, he moved to a civil service job
with the U.S. Army Map Service in July 1957.
But Kameny's gay identity soon clashed with
his professional life.
"I wasn't about to be [a covert kind of person] simply because I was working for the
government," he once said. Late one night in
Lafayette Park, a popular gay cruising area
across from the White House, Kameny was
arrested "for investigation" of a morals
charge, but quickly released.
Nothing came of the incident immediately.
But that fall, Kameny was on assignment in
i [await when his supervisor requested his
immediate return to Washington. An investigator with the Civil Service Commission had
been tipped off about Kameny's arrest. After
only a few months on the job, Kameny was
fired, and in January 1958, he learned that he
was barred from all future employment with
the federal government.
Even though this was the start of the Space
Age and his skills were in demand, Kameny
was unable to find employment. In 1959,
Kameny finally found a fallback position in
physics. But his experience spurred him to
"My dismissal amounted to a declaration of
war against me by the government," Kameny
said. "And I tend not to lose my wars."
Kameny went through a lengthy process of
suing the government to get his job back, but
his efforts failed. After three years, Kameny's
attorney retired from the case and advised
Kameny to give up the fight, too. But
the activist decided to pursue it on his own
and learned how to file a writ with the
U.S. Supreme Court. But in March 1961,
the high court rejected Kameny's petition
to hear his case.
With advice from the New York City chapter of the Mattachine Society, Kameny and a
friend established the Washington, D.C.
branch of that organization, which had started 10 years earlier in Los Angeles. The first
meeting of the D.C. chapter, held on Nov. 15,
Frank Kameny took to gay life 'like a duck to
water' and became a leading activist in the
beginning of the gay rights movement.
1961, drew about 12 men and women, who
elected Kameny as the new group's president.
Unlike many other gay leaders of the time,
Kameny embraced direct action along the
lines of the black civil rights movement.
Instead of accommodating the established
opinion that gays were sick and perverted,
Kameny believed that gay people should
fight a "down-to-earth, grass-roots, sometimes tooth-and-nail" battle.
In 1962, the Washington Mattachine began
its direct-action campaign. The first move
was to send out a news release about its
formation to elected officials in Washington.
It also began publishing a newsletter called
"The Gazette," and mailed it to officials
like J. Edgar Hoover.
Under Kameny's leadership, the D.C.
Mattachine charged to the forefront of the
nascent gay rights movement. The chapter
focused on trying to reform the government's
exclusionary policies toward gays in federal
employment and successfully lobbied the
ACLU to take up the cause. They also organized the first gay demonstration of the White
House in April 1965.
A few months later, the U.S Court of
Appeals for the first time decided that the
rejection of an application for federal
employment on the grounds of "homosexual
conduct" was "too vague." Dogged by
a long line of similar court cases, the Civil
Service Commission formally amended its
anti-gay policy in 1975. After 18 years,
Kameny was vindicated.
Following the Stonewall riots, the D.C.
Mattachine was eclipsed by newer gay
groups. Although his leadership waned,
Kameny's activism continued. For his pioneering efforts, Kameny is considered one of
the fathers of the gay rights movement.
David Bianco is theautlior of "Gay Essentials,"
a collection of his history columns. He can be
reached care of this publication or at
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