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Gay History – October 11: The Life and Death of Heroic Gay Rights Activist Frank Kameny (May 21, 1925 – October 11, 2011)

Frank Kameny was one of the most significant figures and iconic figures in the American gay rights movement.

 In 1957, Frank Kameny was dismissed from his position as an astronomer in the Army Map Service in Washington, D.C. because of his homosexuality leading him to begin “a Herculean struggle with the American establishment that would transform the gay rights movement” and “spearhead a new period of homosexual rights movement of the early 1960’s.

Kameny appealed his firing through the judicial system, losing twice before seeking review from the United States Supreme Court, which turned down his petition for certiorari.  After devoting himself to activism, Kameny never held a paid job again and was supported by friends and family for the rest of his life. Despite his outspoken activism, he rarely discussed his personal life and never had any long-term relationships with other men, stating merely that he had no time for them.

 In August, 1961 Kameny and Jack Nichols co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington,[an organization that pressed aggressively for gay and lesbian civil rights. The goals of the Mattachine Society were “to unify, to educate, and to lead.”

Kameny and the Mattachine worked diligently for fair and equal treatment of gay employees in the federal government by fighting security clearance denials, employment restrictions and dismissals, and working with other groups to press for equality for gay citizens.

In 1963, Kameny also launched a campaign to overturn D.C. sodomy laws; he personally drafted a bill finally passed in 1993. He also worked to remove the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder from the American Psychiatric Association’s manual of mental disorders.

Kameny launched the first organized public protests by gays and lesbians with a picket line at the White House on April 17, 1965 and  expanded the picketing to the Pentagon, the U.S. Civil Service Commission, and to Philadelphia’s Independence Hall for what became known as the Annual Reminder for gay rights.

In 1971, Kameny became the first openly gay candidate for the United States Congress when he ran in the District of Columbia’s first election for a non-voting Congressional delegate. Following his defeat by Democrat Walter E. Fauntroy, Kameny and his campaign organization created the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Washington, D.C., an organization which continues to lobby government and press the case for equal rights. 

Kameny realized that the battle had to be fought on more than one front; that the negative images of homosexuals, which had even permeated the self-identity of gay and lesbian people themselves, also had to be challenged. In 1966, he coined the slogan, “Gay is Good.” Then in 1971, he demanded microphone time at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association where he challenged their speculative theories as being entirely unscientific and harmful to the psychological well-being of millions

He described the day – December 15, 1973, when the American Psychological Association finally removed homosexuality from its manual of mental disorders – as the day “we were cured en masse by the psychiatrists.”

Kameny suffered from heart disease in his last years, but maintained a full schedule of public appearances, his last being a speech to an LGBT group in Washington DC on September 30, 2011.

In 1975, he was appointed a Commissioner of the D.C. Commission on Human Rights, thereby becoming the first gay municipal appointee.

Frank Kameny was found dead in his Washington home of a heart attack on October 11th, 2011 National Coming Out Day.

Frank Kameny was and always will be one of the greatest gay american activists and heros that our movement will ever have.  And many today would be well served to use him as a role model in our fight for equality.

Frank Kameny young

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Will Kohler

Will Kohler is one of America's best known LGBT historians, He is also a a accredited journalist and the owner of Back2Stonewall.com. A longtime gay activist Will fought on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic with ACT-UP and continues fighting today for LGBT acceptance and full equality. Will’s work has been referenced on such notable media venues as BBC News, CNN, MSNBC, The Washington Post, The Daily Wall Street Journal, Hollywood Reporter, and Raw Story. Back2Stonewall has been recently added to the Library of Congress' LGBTQ+ Studies Web Archive. Mr. Kohler is available for comment, interviews and lectures on LGBT History. Contact: Will@Back2Stonewall.com

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