The first person to tell
America: 'Gay is Good'
the Army fired Frank Kameny
50 years ago, he began an era
Cleveland--“If I’m not remembered for
anything else, I want to remembered for
coining the slogan, ‘Gay is Good,’ ”
said Dr. Franklin E. Kameny.
Kameny, 82, was interviewed by the Gay
People’s Chronicle before he gave the
keynote address at the American Veterans for
Equal Rights national convention in Cleveland
on April 21.
Kameny is one of the most important figures
in the struggle for LGBT equality, having been
the movement’s intellectual base, its
conscience and its driving force.
After serving as a combat soldier in Europe
during World War II, Kameny finished the
Ph.D. in astronomy he started at Harvard at
age 15. After teaching at Georgetown
University, Kameny took a civil service job as
an astronomer in the Army Map Service in
Shortly afterward, Kameny was investigated
on a morals charge after being discovered in
Lafayette Park, a gay cruising area across the
street from the White House.
Kameny was fired from the Army job in 1957,
and in 1958 learned that he had been barred by
the Civil Service Commission any future
employment with the government.
This was the beginning of a new homophile
movement, 11 years before the Stonewall
riots--one that was militant, active, and
unafraid of confrontation. It was also a sharp
contrast to what the groups in San Francisco
and New York were doing at the time.
“It’s not my personality. It did not
suit my temperment,” said Kameny of the
organizations at the time, which were largely
invisible and were known for asking the
powerful for recognition, then retreating when
it did not come.
Kameny immediately sued the government for
his job back, but lost. When his lawyer would
not appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court,
Kameny petitioned the court himself to hear
the case, which the high court denied.
“Earning a living was difficult after I
got fired,” said Kameny. “I had Treasury
bonds that held me for a while, but there was
an eight month period in 1959 when I lived on
20 cents of food a day. I ended up practically
Kameny added that without a security
clearance, good jobs in the private sector
were not available either, and gays were
barred from getting security clearances then.
At that point, it was 1961, and for Kameny,
the battle was just beginning.
That year, he and Jack Nichols launched the
Mattachine Society of Washington, which was
more aggressive than the unaffiliated San
Francisco group of the same name. Kameny’s
group began demanding rights and picketing.
Kameny wanted change in several areas: an
end to the ban on homosexuals serving in the
military, an end to the ban on homosexuals
getting security clearances and government
jobs, the repeal of “sodomy” laws against
gay sex, and the removal of homosexuality from
the list of mental disorders. Kameny was the
first to seriously challenge any of these
He laments that of all these
accomplishments, the only one left unachieved
is the military ban.
Kameny said the most important one was
getting homosexuality removed from the list of
mental disorders, for which he is also the
“No one was going to give rights to
loonies,” said Kameny. “So we had to find
out if it was true.”
“If it turned out to be justified, we
would have to make the best of it, but if it
was not justified, it had to be found out and
gotten rid of.”
“I am a scientist,” said Kameny, “and
I know good the difference between good
science and bad science.”
“What I found [examining the science used
to justify the mental disorder claim] was the
most sloppy, slipshod, pseudo-science
imagineable,” Kameny said.
“They were just making assumptions, but
they never looked at the assumptions” to see
if they were accurate, Kameny said.
Kameny, with the help of Barbara Gittings
and others, showed up at American Psychiatric
Association conferences every year starting in
1963 with acts of disobedience, theatrics like
kissing booths, and as vendors, to get the
Finally, in 1973, Kameny and Gittings
appeared on a panel with gay psychiartist John
E. Fryer--disguised as Dr. H. Anonymous. They
pointed out the errors in the science.
“That shifted the burden of proof,”
Six months later, on December 15, 1973, the
APA changed its position.
“We were all cured, en masse,” Kameny
Kameny organized the first protests by gays
and lesbians in 1965 with a picket at the
Every Fourth of July during the late 1960s,
the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C.
picketed at Independence Hall in Philadelphia,
in what became known as “Annual Reminders”
of the lack of gay civil rights.
Kameny wrote letters to public officials,
requesting for them to engage in sodomy with
“Soliciting a felony is a felony,”
“The police chief wrote back that even if
he were to accept, his wife would not stand
for it,” Kameny said.
There were never any arrests for this, he
Kameny got four couples in the Gay
Liberation Front to sign affidavits saying
they engage in sodomy regularly, and dared
prosecutors to prosecute them.
“The prosecutor wrote back saying that
only those eight and no one else could engage
in sodomy,” Kameny said. “I wrote back
asking if they could only do it together or
could they each do it with all the others.
They never answered back.”
Thirty years, one month, four days and 11 hours
after Kameny’s testimony against the sodomy
laws, Washington, D.C. repealed theirs. It was
September 11, 1993. Kameny drafted the
Half the states had removed the laws by
then. Ten years later, the Supreme Court
struck down the 15 still standing.
Kameny said he doesn’t rank his
accomplishments, but said his favorite phone
call came 18 years after he started fighting
the government over civil service rules
“A high-level official in the Civil
Service Commission called and said ‘The
government has decided to change its policy to
suit you,’ ” Kameny said.
Kameny was also active in Washington, D.C.
politics, and often the city and gay rights
In 1971, Congress gave the District of
Columbia a non-voting delegate. That seat is
now held by Kameny’s friend Eleanor Holmes
But Kameny ran for the seat in 1971,
becoming the first openly gay federal
candidate in the U.S. He finished fourth of
six. His campaign launched another gay rights
group, the Gay Activists Alliance of
Washington, D.C., which is still active.
“Because I finished fourth and not
sixth,” said Kameny, “we got the attention
of reform-minded Democrats and it moved me
into the forefront. We were able to be out
there with our issues. My being gay was an
issue in the race.”
Kameny later served as the city’s first
gay Human Rights Commission member. He also
served 20 years on its Selective Service draft
Kameny describes himself as a pack-rat. He
kept all his papers and every picket sign in
his attic--but they’re not there now. Last
October the papers became part of the Library
of Congress, and they can be seen today at
The signs are in the Smithsonian.
“I’m absolutely delighted,” said
Kameny, “that the signs are part of the same
collection that includes a small wooden desk
where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration
of Independance, ink wells used by Abraham
Lincoln to write the Emancipation
Proclamation, and papers from Dr. Martin
Luther King. No one would have ever imagined
in 1965 that our carefully lettered signs
would be there.”
But Kameny said he’s most proud of the
slogan “Gay is Good,” which he said was
inspired by Stokely Carmichael’s phrase
“Black is Beautiful.”
“We needed a slogan,” said Kameny.
“and we needed to be proactive. It wasn’t
good enough to say ‘gay isn’t bad.’ ”
Kameny said he first heard the term “gay”
to describe homosexuals in 1954. He believes
it had been used for 200 years in French
literature. He had a boyfriend then, but has
been single most of his life.
Kameny said the activism and political work
did not get in the way of his social life or
chances at a relationship.
“There was no trade-off to a personal
life,” Kameny said. “I had a reasonable
social life, and I have never been interested
in one-to-one relationships.”
“I believe variety is the spice of life
in food, and it might as well be in other
things, too,” Kameny said.
Overall, Kameny says he’s pleased with
how the movement has turned out, though he
finds little things to be critical of.
“We have not resolved all the
problems,” he said, “but we have come a
“The tide is with us. We are right, and
those who oppose us are wrong. We are
American. Those who oppose us are
un-American,” Kameny concluded.
reports for Cleveland's