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Pioneer fighter for gay rights

By David Carter, Special to CNN
President Obama shakes hands with Frank Kameny after extending benefits to same-sex partners of federal workers in 2009.
President Obama shakes hands with Frank Kameny after extending benefits to same-sex partners of federal workers in 2009.
  • Frank Kameny was discharged from the Army in 1957 for being gay
  • David Carter says Kameny was instrumental in crafting the gay rights movement
  • Kameny modeled the movement on the civil rights campaign, Carter says
  • Kameny rejected the idea that homosexuality was a disease or a crime

Editor's note: David Carter is the author of "Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution," the basis for the American Experience film "Stonewall Uprising" that will be shown on PBS in April. He is working on a biography of Frank Kameny.

New York (CNN) -- This week President Barack Obama signed into law the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," which banned gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. armed forces.

A seat at the front of the audience was reserved for 85-year-old Frank Kameny, who attended wearing the Combat Infantryman Badge that he was awarded for his service in World War II. Kameny recalls his service fighting in the wake of the Battle of the Bulge by saying, "I dug my way across Europe slit trench by slit trench, practically."

But Kameny was not invited because of any heroism he demonstrated in World War II, but rather for a much greater act of courage than even that conflict had demanded of him. He was invited because it was Kameny who began the assault on the military policy of discharging homosexuals by leading a demonstration at the Pentagon in 1965.

Indeed, it was Kameny who called upon the minuscule pre-Stonewall gay rights movement -- known then as the homophile movement -- to model itself upon the civil rights movement.

It was Kameny who began the assault on the military policy of discharging homosexuals by leading a demonstration at the Pentagon in 1965.
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This may not sound radical today, but in the mid-1960s homosexuality was seen as the ultimate taboo. As the homophile movement stated, homosexuals were triply condemned: The medical establishment deemed them mentally ill, the law made them criminals, and religions branded them sinners.

At a time when lesbians and gay men were so totally ostracized, the homophile movement had decided its best tactic was to embrace the label of sickness: at least that seemed a half-step up from being criminals. But Kameny felt that such an approach was counterproductive, and that rather than begging for crumbs, gay people should demand equality with heterosexuals. To gain equality, he argued, the movement should renounce the sickness theory and embrace militant tactics.

Kameny succeeded to an astonishing degree. He led the fight for tactics such as public demonstrations, went on the attack against the Civil Service Commission for its policy of firing homosexuals and spearheaded an effort to get the homophile movement to take the position that homosexuality was not only not a mental illness but was on a par with heterosexuality. In 1968, he got the only existing national association of gay rights organizations to adopt as its slogan a phrase that Kameny had coined, "Gay Is Good." Kameny himself had been discharged from the Army Map Service in 1957 for being gay.

His relentless efforts paid off by not only making the homophile movement more militant but in changing laws and policies. In 1975, in response to a series of court decisions in which Kameny was involved, the Civil Service Commission announced that it was ending its ban on employing homosexuals.

That same year the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness as the result of a drive organized by Kameny. Long before the Supreme Court declared sodomy laws unconstitutional in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas ruling, Kameny had crafted strong legal arguments for overturning such laws, including the first brief submitted to the Supreme Court for nondiscrimination against gay people, filed by Kameny in 1961.

While waging all these other battles, Kameny did not shirk the Pentagon. To give but one example, when a decorated Air Force veteran of the Vietnam War reached out to Kameny for support with a phone call from Florida in 1974, Kameny mentioned that he was looking for a military test case to take to the Supreme Court. Kameny was seeking someone with a model record who had been kicked out of the military simply for being homosexual.

Months later, the Air Force veteran volunteered to serve as that case. In 1975, carefully coached and prepared by Kameny and a lawyer, Technical Sgt. Leonard Matlovich handed a letter to his superior officer stating that he was a homosexual, and the Matlovich case became a national news story.

Still, success in ending the military's discriminatory policy eluded the combined efforts of Kameny and hundreds of other activists and a slew of organizations until this week. Asked why it had taken so long to change the military's policy, Kameny responded that it was a policy that went back to George Washington's day.

Where does this leave the national movement for equality for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and the transgendered? Many would probably say that the biggest remaining LGBT issue is the right to marry.

But what most Americans, gay or straight, do not realize is that if a lesbian is fired from her job or thrown out of her apartment by her landlord or denied credit because of her sexual orientation, she cannot go to the federal government for redress. The reason she can't is because 60 years after gay people began to fight for their rights, Congress has not extended basic civil rights protection to LGBT people.

Not only has Congress failed to pass a comprehensive law that would outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation -- protecting us in the realms of housing, employment, public accommodations and credit, for example -- but, to its shame, Congress has not even passed a much narrower law, Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, that would have given LGBT people protection only in the realm of employment.

Of course, the right to marry is an important issue, but it is high time that Congress pass a law to extend civil rights that are more basic than marriage to LGBT citizens.

Today, Washington has named a street for Frank Kameny and his 1965 picket signs are in the Smithsonian Institution, but if Congress were to pass basic civil rights protection for America's LGBT citizens, it would be the greatest tribute yet to Kameny's pioneering work.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Carter.