Scroll To Top

Frank Kameny

Frank Kameny


Andrew Noyes sits down with the veteran gay rights activist and discovers he's just as unapologetically outspoken today as he was when he coined the phrase "Gay is good" 40 years ago.

When legendary gay rights activist Frank Kameny got a telephone call from The Advocate with the dubious news that a story in the June 19 issue mistakenly reported that he'd died of AIDS complications, Mark Twain's famous one-liner came to mind. "Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated," the good-natured octogenarian chirped. Kameny, who turned 82 in May and does not have AIDS, still has a lot more living to do--and a lot more talking.

You're a guy who can truly say he's laughed in the face of his own mortality. Did the mistaken death notice make you think about your own transience? I feel differently about all of that now than I might have 20 or 30 years ago. I would be delighted to live for another 25 years, but I'm not going to. I recognize the fact that one of these days I'm just not going to be here. I've passed the statistical life expectancy by a few years, which means that I'm ahead of the pack!

Several pioneering LGBT figures have died in recent years. What do you think about the expiration of such an influential generation? There are very, very few of us left. I got into the movement a solid 10 years after it started, and all the people from that first decade are gone. Jack Nichols, with whom I worked closely, went in May two years ago. Barbara Gittings, who passed in February, was a cherished friend. At a purely intellectual level, I was aware that I was eventually going to get an unpleasant call. But I wasn't prepared for it emotionally when the call came. I really miss her.

How are you feeling these days? You seem sharper and more energetic than some people half your age! I continue to talk vigorously, but I don't have the stamina and endurance I once had. I used to walk with a brisk stride; now I walk with tiny old-man steps, and I don't like it. My worst dread is Alzheimer's. Every so often I have what they colloquially call a "senior moment," and I think, Oh, my God, has it started?

The U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy has made headlines recently. What does a World War II veteran like you think about the ban? I enlisted in the Army three days before my 18th birthday. They did ask, and I didn't tell. They asked whether I had "homosexual tendencies," and I was well aware that I did and it had gone well beyond tendencies. But I said no, and I have resented for 64 years that I had to lie in order to serve my country. All the major issues I dealt with over the years have been resolved except for gays in the military.

Equally newsworthy is the issue of same-sex marriage. Have you given the subject much thought? I'm strongly in favor of it, and it has taken shape in ways that people couldn't have predicted. We've gotten increasing numbers of civil union enactments, and it looks as if we'll be moving into an era where we'll have a lot of those. That means we'll be in the back of the bus, but at least we'll be on the bus.

Speaking of political hot potatoes, what about Rep. Mark Foley, the Florida Republican who left Washington last year after sexually explicit e-mails he sent to former teenage congressional pages surfaced? [Television news pundits] were castigating him as a pedophile and all that. You have to keep in mind the age of majority, which is everywhere 18, and the age of consent for sex are not the same. The age of consent in most places, including the District of Columbia, is 16. As far as the law is concerned, what he did was perfectly legal. Political wisdom? Now, that's a different matter. He didn't act as wisely as he might have.

So-called ex-gay organizations that purport to convert homosexuals into heterosexuals are nothing new, but they have gained prominence in recent years. What do you think about Exodus International and its brethren? I respond to them by saying all the people I know view their being gay as a wonderful stroke of good fortune and good luck to be celebrated. Even if change were simple, easy, quick, convenient, and possible, which it is not, why would we want to swap what is first-class, superior homosexuality for second-class, inferior heterosexuality?

James Dobson, Tony Perkins, the late Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson--what do these prominent names in conservative Christianity mean to you? They're there, and you have to recognize them as the opposition, and you oppose them. I refer to them collectively as the "nutty fundamentalists." People in this country, including President Bush himself, have used the term "Islamo-fascism." We have to be equally careful about Christiano-fascism. The only reason they're not just as bad is, for the moment, they can't get away with what the Muslims can get away with in the Middle East. They would be perfectly happy to do so.

Why isn't there a prominent spokesperson for the gay community, like Al Sharpton is for African-Americans? First of all, Al Sharpton is a spokesperson for the black community. You also have Jesse Jackson and lots of others. Back in the '60s when there were very few gay people appearing publicly, it was a tiny movement. Now you have a lot of people doing a lot of work for gay rights. People come forward and they're there and they speak. Instead of having a spokesperson, you have a sizable number of spokespeople.

What about a catchy slogan? In July 1968 I coined the slogan "Gay is good," which is the one thing, if nothing else, that I want to be remembered for. Our movement doesn't always handle its rhetoric well. It's not that gay is not bad, it's that gay is good. It's not that homosexuality is not sinful and immoral, it's that homosexuality is affirmatively virtuous and moral. Same-sex marriage is not going to damage the institution of marriage; it's going to enhance the institution of marriage.

Earlier this year more than 70,000 of your letters, papers, and picket signs chronicling your legacy of gay rights activism were received by the Library of Congress and Smithsonian Institution. How does that make you feel? Those signs are in a small subcollection of the [Smithsonian's National] Museum of American History, along with a wooden folding portable desk on which Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, a pair of ornate metal inkwells used by Abraham Lincoln to write the Emancipation Proclamation, and memorabilia from Martin Luther King's 1963 March on Washington. It makes me feel very good, very vindicated, and very satisfied.

Do you have any more treasures stashed in your attic? My attic isn't completely empty. There are still more papers to be uncovered because I am a pack rat--I don't throw anything away. There's a copy of every letter I've written, every letter I've received. Up until about 1995 I had every issue of the Washington Blade that had come out. I still have just about every issue of The Advocate.

What do you hope future generations of gay men and women will glean from the preservation of your papers? It will give them the knowledge of where things were and where they are and where they haven't yet gotten but will need to so things can move forward--so they can pick up the torch and run with it. Gay is good, but gay is not perfect. I hope my papers will encourage them to go out and make gay better.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Outtraveler Staff