Frank Kameny: Gay rights pioneer who took on the US government

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The Independent Online

A pioneer of the gay rights movement in the United States, Frank Kameny led the struggle for equality all the way to the Supreme Court. Kameny, who coined the phrase "Gayis good" in 1968, was atrailblazer in an era when terms like "coming out" and "gay" meant very different things than they do today. The leader and legal strategist of what coalesced into a movement, Kameny went on to challenge discriminatory laws and the idea that homosexuality is a mental disorder – a notion that was finally dismissed in 1973 by the American Psychiatric Association, who deleted it from their list of illnesses.

A native New Yorker with a Harvard doctorate, Kameny took up the struggle for gay rights in 1957 following his dismissal as a government astronomer from the Army Map Service. When investigators from the Civil Service Commission discovered that he had been arrested by undercover policemen, his employment was terminated five months after it had started.

At the time, under Executive Order 10450 signed by President Eisenhower in 1953, all gay people were automatically denied security clearance and "sexual perversion" was considered grounds for dismissal from government employment – a common occurrence in the 1950s.

Kameny went to court, arguing that his treatment at the hands of the federal government was an "affront to human dignity". He went to the Supreme Court but they declined to hear his case in 1961; in 2009, the US government, through its Office of Personnel Management, formally apologised for his dismissal. "It took 50 years, but I won my case," he said.

Franklin Edward Kameny was born in New York City in 1925. From an early age he went regularly to the New York Planetarium and wanted to become an astronomer and then an astronaut. He studied at Queens College and served in the Army in Germany and the Netherlands during the Second World War. He earned his PhD from Harvard in 1956 and was hired as an astronomer by the Army Map Service.

In 1961, with a handful of friends, Kameny started one of the first gay-rights organisations, the Mattachine Society. Homosexuals were triply condemned, the Society said: the medical establishment deemed them mentally ill, the law made them criminals and religions branded them sinners. Four years before the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, Kameny and a dozen others picketed the White House, the Pentagon and elsewhere to demand equality.

The Civil Service Commission explicitly rescinded Executive Order 10450 in 1975 thanks to a series of court decisions in which Kameny was involved. Once more, Kameny's years of protest eventually paid off when President Clinton signed the executive order in 1995 that allowed gays to obtain security clearances. In 2009, Kameny witnessed President Obama sign the executive order that granted benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees.

In 2006, gay rights groups bought thousands of documents and memorabilia amassed by Kameny and donated about 70,000 items to the Library of Congress and Smithsonian Institute.

Last year Kameny celebrated the repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy instituted by Clinton in 1993 which prevented openly gay and lesbian people from serving in the US armed forces.

With the legalisation of gay marriages in Washington DC in 2010, Kameny attended the first weddings. That same year the District of Columbia named a portion of 17th Street as "Frank Kameny Way."

John Berry, the director of the US Office of Personnel Management said, "He helped make it possible for countless patriotic Americans to hold security clearances and high government positions, including me." Kameny died on "National Coming Out Day".

Franklin Kameny, gay rights activist: born New York City 21 May 1925; died Washington DC 11 October 2011.