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The first person to tell America: 'Gay is Good'

When 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 Washington, D.C.

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 skeletal.”

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 inequalities.

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 most famous.

“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 association’s attention.

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,” said Kameny.

Six months later, on December 15, 1973, the APA changed its position.

“We were all cured, en masse,” Kameny said.

Kameny organized the first protests by gays and lesbians in 1965 with a picket at the White House.

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 him.

“Soliciting a felony is a felony,” Kameny said.

“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 added.

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 repeal document.

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 banning gays.

“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 work intersected.

In 1971, Congress gave the District of Columbia a non-voting delegate. That seat is now held by Kameny’s friend Eleanor Holmes Norton.

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 board.

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 www.kamneypapers.org.

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 long way.”

“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.

Erick Resnick
reports for Cleveland's
Gay People's Chronicle