Dr. Frank Kameny and his LGBT Legacy

Washington Blade photo by Doug Hinckle

At 5020 Cathedral Avenue NW in Washington, D.C, you’ll find the home and office of Dr. Kameny, the “father of the Gay Rights Movement.” The LGBT civil rights activist and co-founder of the Mattachine Society of Washington worked persistently to overturn sodomy laws in the 1960s. Frank Kameny, as most of the other activist’s through history, didn’t plan to become a gay historical figure. He was just a regular boy who happened to be gay and living in hostile times for LGBT people. In 1940, he was 15 years old at that time, and all he wanted to do was to study and get a higher education. Unfortunately, the world was in the middle of the war, and Frank had to go to serve his country. Being one of the lucky war survivors, Frank continued his studies and graduated from Harvard University with a doctorate in astronomy.

Losing his job for being gay

After his studies, Frank found employment at Georgetown University. One year later in July 1957, he received a better offer to work for the U.S. Army Map Service. This job was an excellent civil government opportunity and also in his field of expertise. However, soon after starting his new employment, he was submitted under investigation from the Civil Service Commission due to his homosexuality. In the same year, Frank was fired by his superiors at the Commission as he refused to answer questions relevant to his sexuality. During that period, the president of the United States had issued the executive order 10450, which regulated a federal security clearance. This order declared that various categories of people such as communists, drug addicts, alcoholics, and “sexual perverts” were not “fitting.” There were no exact definitions of the scope of the order, so it was applied subjectively.

Fighting for LGBT rights

At that time, homosexual individuals did not have any civil rights protection in society. Homosexuality was considered an absolute sinful sickness and even a criminal activity. Experiencing this injustice through his skin triggered Dr. Kameny to see the bigger picture and to take action. As an educated intellectual person who was familiar with the jurisdiction and the system, Dr. Kameny decided to pursue a legal path. In this earlier time where the Stonewall riots and gay civil rights were still waiting to happen, Frank Kameny could not count on a supportive community to back him up on his fight. Even his lawyer deserted him on this “lost cause” case. After losing several times in court while appealing to his case, he decided to aim for the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1961, the highest governing body denied his petition. As there were no more legal options left to support his cause, Frank realized that this battle was too big to fight on his own. But he was still determined not to give up.

Starting the LGBT Civil Rights Organization

At that time, there were already existing organizations for homosexual individuals. Frank approached one of them, the Mattachine Society of Los Angeles, which was founded by another activist named Henry Hay several years earlier. Together with his friend Jack Nichols, Frank Kameny founded the Washington DC branch of Mattachine Society. For their meetings, they used the Kameny house that served as Mattachine’s headquarters, archive, and informal counseling center. Additionally, gay and lesbian activists used this place as a haven. It was here where Dr. Franklin E. Kameny developed the civil rights strategies and tactics that later became the foundation of the modern gay rights movement.

Kameny house, Washington Blade photo by Michael Key

The group around Dr. Kameny and his allies started a decade’s long fight for the liberation and the change of society’s attitude towards homosexual people. Intending to increase visibility, they protested in front of the White House and also printed newsletters. Through these newsletters, they wanted to make allies outside the organization. They distributed them to members of the organization and even to politicians and to public figures of that time. Among them was J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI. His campaign focused on defeating discrimination affecting the hiring process for civil rights employments based on someone’s sexual orientation. His additional goal was for homosexual individuals to have equal rights on qualifying for the military service. After persistent efforts to change the public’s opinion, the U.S. Federal Court decided in 1975 that homosexuals were not automatically excluded from government employment any longer.
Barbara Gittings, known as the “mother of the Gay Rights Movement,” accredited Dr. Kameny as the first individual to develop a coherent theory of gay rights. Kameny regularly used the term “homosexual American citizen” and stated that “I will define myself to my government; my government will not define me to me.” Dr. Kameny created the slogan “Gay is Good” to capture his philosophy of gay rights.

Photo from www.kamenypapers.org

Homosexuality and mental illness

Another focus of Frank Kameny was to change the official classification of homosexuality as a mental illness. He believed that this was the base of all discrimination. This definition was used as an official fact by all governments to discriminate against homosexuals around the world. Any pro-homosexual statements were not allowed because homosexuality was considered an illness that is treatable and curable. With his engagement, Dr. Frank Kameny helped to overturn the American Psychiatric Association’s definition of homosexuality as a mental illness. In 1972 at the annual meeting in Dallas, Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings convinced the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to hold the debate “Psychiatry: Friend or Foe to the Homosexual?; A Dialogue”. The intention was to remove homosexuality as a diagnostic category from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The only person willing to speak was Dr. John Fryer under the condition that he would participate in wearing a mask and using a voice-distortion microphone. Fryer was introduced as “Dr. Henry Anonymous.” His appearance emphasized his statement on needing to remain “in the closet” out of fear of losing his practice. This act moved the audience.

By Kay Tobin Lahuse – New York Public Library Digital Gallery Image ID: 1606144, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52423400

The following year, on December 1973, the APA board of trustees voted to pass a resolution – partially drafted by Dr. Kameny – to remove homosexuality from the DSM and declassifying it as a mental illness. Dr. Kameny described that day as the day “when we were cured en masse by the psychiatrists.”

Photo from www.washingtonian.com

LGBT fights continues

During later years, in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, Dr. Frank Kameny was actively participating in all sorts of cases that were against the LGBT community. With his biggest campaigns that turned out to be successful after decades of battle on the acceptance of homosexuals to the army. Dr. Kameny was active and outspoken until the end of his life. He passed away on October 11, 2011, at the age of 86 years old in Washington, DC.

Thanks to individuals like Dr. Frank Kameny, many societies have the opportunity to live today a life freed from discrimination!

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