Franklin Kameny, 1925–2011

The astronomer who fought for gay rights

Franklin Kameny was out and proud long before most people knew what being “gay” meant. Fired in 1957 from his job as an Army Map Service astronomer because of his sexual orientation, he challenged his dismissal in court, calling the government’s treatment of him an “affront to human dignity.” Kameny mounted multiple legal appeals, until the Supreme Court denied his petition in 1961. Despite that setback, his high-publicity campaign gave the battle for gay rights a human face. “Frank Kameny was our Rosa Parks,” said Richard Socarides, president of the advocacy group Equality Matters.

Born in New York City, Kameny spent much of his early life hiding his sexuality. He enlisted in the Army during World War II, later telling an interviewer, “They asked, I didn’t tell.” After seeing combat in Germany, he earned an astronomy doctorate from Harvard. He was soon hired by the Army Map Service, “but lasted only five months when the government learned he had been arrested by the morals squad” at a Washington, D.C., cruising ground, said The New York Times. Unable to find work, Kameny threw himself into activism. He co-founded a “pioneering gay activist group,” the Mattachine Society of Washington, in 1961, and four years later led the first gay rights protest outside the White House. Kameny’s defiant motto was “gay is good,’’ and it freed a generation of self-loathing gays to think of themselves differently.

His campaigning led to real change. Kameny helped persuade the American Psychiatric Association to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973. “In one fell swoop, 15 million gay people were cured!” he said. And in 1975, the government reversed its ban on employing gay people. “In recent years, Kameny saw changes in society that he never thought possible,” said the Associated Press. In 2009, he stood in the Oval Office as President Obama signed a directive extending benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. And this year he saw the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy repealed. “Being gay has become infinitely better than it was,” he said.

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