National Commentary

Frank Kameny, An American Hero

Frank Kameny, who at the age of 86 died of apparently natural causes in his Washington, D.C. home yesterday, qualified as a genuine American hero. He is to the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights what the towering heroes of similar struggles for racial, ethnic and gender equality have been.

Kameny stood up against the influence of the 1950s McCarthyite anti-homosexual witch hunts in the U.S. government by organizing picket lines in front of the White House in the mid-1960s, when no one else was doing it, and undertook a relentless, lifelong career for equality.

He ran for public office, picketed and railed loudly against injustice in an era when no one, except in the rarefied circles of literary or artistic elites, dared publicly declare their homosexuality. He, and a small stalwart legion of brave cohorts, preceded by years the recognized jump-start of the modern LGBT movement, the Stonewall Riots of 1969.

He considered his crowning achievement his relentless and eventually successful lobbying effort to get the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973. That signal achievement changed the public perception of homosexuality, laying the groundwork for growing public acceptance and affirmation.

In recent years, Kameny’s contributions have become more and more recognized and appreciated. A milestone came when his many protest signs, leaflets, speeches and photographs of his earliest activist days were formally received into a special collection at the Smithsonian Institution. He was honored at the White House by President Obama, and a photo of he and I with Vice President Biden hangs in my office.

I am proud to have been a friend of Frank Kameny. We first met, I a young gay activist myself, in 1970 in San Francisco, when he led an audience discussion following a performance of the play, “Geese.” I reconnected with him in Washington, D.C. a number of years ago.

While Frank knew how to talk (often at length), his charm and readily-accessible sense of humor derived from his putting the movement ahead of himself in a natural, self-effacing way. Anything he did and said only mattered because it helped the cause.

Even in his 80s, he never lost touch with the struggle. He especially enjoyed coming down to DuPont Circle every Friday to pick up the latest edition of the Blade and Metro Weekly, the area’s two weeklies serving the LGBT community, and read them from cover to cover.

Along with two other pre-Stonewall LGBT activists and mutual friends, Lilli Vincenz and Nancy Davis, I invited Frank as my guest for the annual national dinner of the Human Rights Campaign in 2005, and often invited him to lunches at The Palm restaurant in downtown D.C.

Those lunches were not only to enjoy his company, but to provide opportunities for others of my friends, gay and otherwise, to meet him and appreciate this genuine hero of our movement. In October 2007, one marked the 20th anniversary of my news organization, the parent of my newspaper, the Falls Church News-Press. Frank was among eight other guests who celebrated at length on that memorable afternoon.

Upon learning of his passing yesterday, I heard from a number of young friends who were guests I invited to meet him at The Palm in recent years.

Simon Van Steyn was the most eloquent. In a text message to me, he wrote, “What a legend. I’m glad that I was able to meet him a few times. He unequivocally made the world a better place, which is the best contribution a person can make in their life. A life fulfilled in the plainest, yet deepest form. Surely he’s been well-received wherever he is now.”

He added on Facebook, “His courage, determination, and compassion served as a beacon for those living in fear and a touchstone for the civil rights actions he inspired and precipitated. He used his time, talents and energy to stand up for justice, while others were sitting down. For that he is a legend that will be honored always, surely in many words and praises, but the greatest testimony to Frank is the more fair and just world around us.”