Frank Kameny left us earlier this week. He died peacefully
in his sleep at his home in Washington, D.C. Thankfully, he did not live as he
died. He lived loud. He was relentless, argumentative, and articulate. Because
he was those things, we are all safer and healthier for it.
The details of Kameny's life and activism have been written
up in obits in The Advocate, The Washington
Post, The New York Times, and elsewhere. The factual details assure his place
in history, but there is another, less concrete aspect to the importance of his
At 86, he was one of the last of that generation of
activists who moved gay rights forward by making public spectacles of
themselves, in the best sense of the term. They put on business suits and
dresses and picketed the White House and gave us a face and identity when the
prevalent stereotype of gay people was one of menacing perverts.
Kameny was nearly 50 before being gay was removed from
the list of psychiatric disorders. He was largely responsible for that famous
"cure with the stroke of a pen" in 1973.
Kameny has been the subject of numerous tributes, and he
deserves them all and more for his creativity and continual commitment to LGBT
rights. He was the nagging conscience of federal bureaucrats, prejudiced
psychiatrists, and yes, reticent "homosexuals." Kameny pushed everyone to
accept LGBT people as productive members of society and to include us in the
civil rights guaranteed under the Constitution.
He was known for pushing people. In the 1950s and 1960s, he pushed members of the Mattachine
Society to ditch their neutrality and get politicized. He clashed with many in
the homophile movement ranks over the importance of taking strong public
positions on gay rights. He pushed
back at the Civil Service Commission when it fired him from his Army job, and
at the Pentagon, and at the Supreme Court, and he pushed his friends and
acquaintances to push with him.
Kameny was unique in his combination of energy, intellect,
and political savvy. Kameny knew politics; others had unique skill with
literature, art, and organizing. They too pushed through the hatred and barriers and bashings: Harry
Hay, Chuck Roland, Barbara Gittings, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, Del Martin,
Bayard Rustin, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua. What Kameny and these lions
succeeded in doing through their risk-taking and doggedness was to provide
authentic and alternative ways of understanding sexuality and difference.
Katherine Ott is a curator at the Smithsonian's National
Museum of American History. Frank Kameny and the Kameny Papers Project donated
protest posters, buttons, and ephemera to the museum's Political History
Collection in 2006.