The Shmooze

Gay Rights Pioneer Franklin Kameny Dies

By Michael Kaminer

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Franklin Kameny, the pioneering gay rights leader whose Jewish identity inspired some of his historic activism, has died at age 86, the Washington Post reports.

As the Forward wrote last year in an 85th-birthday profile, Kameny “became a vocal activist at a time when other downtrodden and discriminated-against gay people scarcely dared to show their faces in public.” Rather than shrink from revealing his sexual orientation, Kameny “made it plain,” the Washington Post wrote.

Kameny’s death, on National Coming Out Day, occurred in a year in which gay men and lesbians were accorded the right to serve openly in the armed forces, as gay D.C. Council member David A. Catania told the Post last night. Through his efforts over the years, Kameny deserved to be known as one of the fathers of that shift from the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Catania told the Post.

Franklin Edward Kameny was born in 1925 into a “New York middle-class Jewish family,” according to gay site GLBTQ. A prodigy who had taught himself to read by the age of four, he entered Queens College at the age of 15 to study physics. He interrupted his education to serve in the armed forces during World War II. After the war he returned to his studies, and in 1956 he received a Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University.

Kameny’s “radicalization” was sparked in 1957 — a dozen years before Stonewall — after losing his job as a U.S. Army astronomer because he was gay. Three years later, Kameny protested his firing all the way up to the Supreme Court, marking the first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation.

As a Jew, the Forward noted, Kameny 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 Supreme Court case, but soon co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, a pioneering gay/lesbian civil rights organization which organized the first gay demonstration at the White House.

A few months after that demonstration, the U. S. Court of Appeals issued a groundbreaking decision, according to GLBTQ. The court held that rejection of an application for federal employment on the grounds of “homosexual conduct” was “too vague.”

Among the other victories for gay rights with which Kameny was associated was an executive order signed by President Bill Clinton permitting gays to be given security clearances, the Post said. Kameny himself also considered the District of Columbia’s repeal of an anti-sodomy law in early 1990s to be another achievement, according to the Post.

The federal government, “which had cast him aside, issued a formal apology in 2009 for letting him go,” the Post wrote. And the story of his struggle, chronicled in 77,000 pages of papers and memorabilia, was accepted in 2006 by the Library of Congress. Living into his 80s, he was able to recognize and revel in the turnaround of American actions and attitudes toward the gay community. Although he was aware that obstacles remained, he told a reporter last year that “it’s like a storybook ending.”


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