Okay, kids, gather around. Grandpa has one of his stories. This one is about one of the early pioneers of LGBTQ Rights: astronomer Franklin E. Kameny (1925-2011).
In 1957, Kameny was fired from his government job in the Army Map Service for being a “sexual pervert”. He appealed his firing all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He lost in a SCOTUS ruling in 1961, but months later, Kameny co-founded a Mattachine Society chapter in Washington D.C., the first Gay Rights organization in the nation’s capital.
In 1962, the Mattachine Society applied for and was granted a city license to fundraise in Washington D.C. When Congress learned that an organization working on behalf of homosexuals had received a permit, many in Congress began to swoon and nearly pass out. Congress has jurisdiction over the capital city, and in 1963 they had had enough of the queers.
Congressman John Dowdy of the great state of Texas introduced a bill to amend the existing District of Columbia Charitable Solicitations Act. Dowdy’s bill stipulated that before granting a fundraising license in the district, the Board of Commissioners had to certify that the organization would “benefit or assist in promoting the health, welfare, and the morals of the District of Columbia”.
Dowdy made sure that The Mattachine Society was the impetus behind the bill and its intended target:
The acts of these people are banned under the laws of God, the laws of nature, and are in violation of the laws of man. I think a situation which requires them to be permitted a license to solicit charitable funds for the promotion of their sexual deviations is a bad law and should be changed forthwith.
As president of The D.C. Mattachine Society, Kameny requested that a representative of the organization be permitted to testify at any hearings held on the bill. In response, the House of Representatives invited Kameny to be that speaker. Gay people had probably spoken at congressional hearings, but no openly gay person had ever testified before Congress.
On August 8, 1963, Kameny appeared before the House Committee on the District of Columbia. In his prepared statement and in his exchanges with committee members, Kameny emphasized that The Mattachine Society was a legitimate Civil Rights organization, not a social club.
The hearings covered subjects such as the “nature-versus-nurture” debate, same-sex marriage, The Bible, gay people serving in the federal government, and The Mattachine Society’s bylaws and activities. Kamney told the committee:
Our primary effort, thus far has been an attempt, by lawful means, to alter present discriminatory policy against the homosexual minority—a minority perhaps almost as large as the Negro minority.
He summed up the organization’s goals as:
To secure for the homosexual the right, as a human being, to develop and achieve his full potential and dignity; and the right, as a citizen, to make his maximum contribution to the society in which he lives.
We are not interested in recruiting heterosexuals into the ranks of the homosexual… an impossibility anyway, despite popular belief to the contrary. Our primary effort, thus far, has been an attempt to alter present discriminatory policy against the homosexual minority.
Kameny kept his cool throughout the hearings. At one point, Dowdy contrasted unfavorably, the way Texas handled the issue of homosexuality versus Washington D.C. He said that where he came from: “people did not go ‘bragging’ about such things. Kameny responded:
This is a matter on which one doesn’t brag but one doesn’t have to be ashamed of something for which there is no reason to be ashamed.
Some of the discussion at the hearings was about the use of pseudonyms by Mattachine Society members, which shielded them from harassment and discrimination, real concerns in an era when LGBTQ people were routinely fired. Some members of the committee suggested that the use of “fictitious names” constituted fraud.
This revelation prompted the D.C. Board of Commissioners to consider revoking The Mattachine Society’s license because of “false information” on its application. The organization chose to relinquish its permit voluntarily. According to city regulations, any organization that raised less than $1,500 per year was eligible for a permit exemption, and Mattachine had failed to raise that amount.
The D.C. Commissioners themselves objected to the bill, and so did a few of the House committee members who questioned its constitutionality.
An amended version of Dowdy’s bill passed in the House. The Senate took no action on the bill, and it died at the end of the term. During his exchanges with the hostile congressmen, Kameny advocated for self-acceptance and refused shame.
Kameny went on to become a chief organizer of the first Gay Rights demonstrations in the nation’s capital. In 1965, he led protests at the White House, Pentagon, and the Civil Service Commission. Kameny and the D.C. Mattachine Society joined with other Gay Rights organizations for the Annual Reminder protests at Independence Hall in Philadelphia every Independence Day from 1965 to 1969.
In 1971, Kameny ran for D.C.’s single delegate to Congress. He lost the election, but it was the first time an openly gay candidate had run for Congress. Following that race, Kameny and his campaign organization created the Gay and Lesbian Alliance, which continues to lobby Congress on LGBTQ issues. He became the first openly gay person appointed to D.C.’s Human Rights Commission.
Another first: On the same day as the Congressional hearings, The Washington Post ran an editorial titled Unpopular Causes defending the Mattachine’s “clear right to make a plea for public support”. It was the first time a major American newspaper has run any sort of pro-Gay Rights editorial.
The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History includes a display of Kamen’s signs and buttons.
In 2009, Kameny’s home in Washington, D.C. was designated as a D.C. Historic Landmark; John Berry, Barack Obama‘s director of the Office of Personnel Management apologized to Kameny on behalf of the U.S. government and presented him the department’s prestigious Theodore Roosevelt Award.
In 2010, a portion of 17th Street in Dupont Circle was renamed Frank Kameny Way.
Kameny died on National Coming Out Day in 2011. In 2015, Kameny received a U.S. Veterans Administration memorial headstone, at D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery at his memorial site; the headstone was dedicated during a ceremony on the morning of November 11, 2015; Veteran’s Day 2015. In front of that headstone lays a marker inscribed with the slogan “Gay is Good”. Kameny coined that slogan, and in a 2009 AP interview said about coining it:
If I am remembered for anything I hope it will be that.