The Arty Semite

Happy Birthday Frank Kameny: A Gay Rights Pioneer Reaches 85

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

Things are not always easy for a nice Jewish boy from Queens who happens to be 50 years ahead of his time. On May 21, Franklin Kameny will be 85 years old. As “Leaders from the 1960s: A Biographical Sourcebook of American Activism” (Greenwood Press) explains, in 1957 Kameny, a World War II combat veteran and Harvard PhD in astronomy, was fired from his job as an astronomer in the Army Map Service in Washington, D.C., simply because he was gay. Radicalized, Kameny became a vocal activist at a time when other downtrodden and discriminated-against gay people scarcely dared to show their faces in public.

In 1960, Kameny protested his firing right up to the Supreme Court, marking the first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation. As a Jew, he wrote that the U.S. government’s anti-gay policies were “no less illegal and no less odious than discrimination based upon religious or racial grounds.” Kameny lost his case, but soon co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, a pioneering gay/lesbian civil rights organization, and even made an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1971.

Since 2006, Kameny’s papers, old picket signs, and other memorabilia are housed in the Library of Congress, and a collection of Kameny’s writings is due from Alyson Books in August. But Kameny is far from a merely historical figure. Last year, the Director of the Office of Personnel Management formally apologized to Kameny on behalf of the U.S. government for his 1957 firing. Last month, when President Obama signed a memorandum expanding benefits for partners of gay Federal employees, Kameny stood next to him for photographs.

Still combative, Kameny wrote a scorching letter to Tom Brokaw after the latter’s 2007 history “Boom!: Talking About the Sixties: What Happened, How It Shaped Today, Lessons for Tomorrow” (Random House), which completely omitted any mention of the gay liberation movement. At the end of a long missive to Brokaw dripping with sarcasm, Kameny concluded: “Gay is good. You are not.”

Affectionately known as “Moses” to fellow activists today, Kameny calls for reflection, at this time of birthday tributes, on how far American society has advanced since his youth, and how far it still has to go.

Watch Frank Kameny accept the Out & Equal LGBT Workplace Equality Pioneer Award in 2007:

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: LGBT Rights, Tom Brokaw, Frank Kameny

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover!
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.