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Franklin Edward "Frank" Kameny (May 21, 1925 – October 11, 2011) was an American gay rights activist. He has been referred to as "one of the most significant figures" in the American gay rights movement.
In 1957, Kameny was dismissed from his position as an astronomer in the U.S. Army's Army Map Service in Washington, D.C. because of his homosexuality, leading him to begin "a Herculean struggle with the American establishment" that would "spearhead a new period of militancy in the homosexual rights movement of the early 1960s".
Kameny formally appealed his firing by the U.S. Civil Service Commission due to homosexuality. Although unsuccessful, the proceeding was notable as the first known civil rights claim based on sexual orientation pursued in a U.S. court.
Kameny was born to Ashkenazi Jewish parents in New York City. He attended Richmond Hill High School and graduated in 1941. In 1941, at age 16, Kameny went to Queens College to learn physics and at age 17 he told his parents that he was an atheist. He was drafted into the United States Army before completion. He served in the Army throughout World War II in Europe, and later served 20 years on the Selective Service board. After leaving the Army, he returned to Queens College and graduated with a baccalaureate in physics in 1948. Kameny then enrolled at Harvard University; while a teaching fellow at Harvard, he refused to sign a loyalty oath without attaching qualifiers, and exhibited a skepticism against accepted orthodoxies. He graduated with both a master's degree (1949) and doctorate (1956) in astronomy. His doctoral thesis was entitled A Photoelectric Study of Some RV Tauri and Yellow Semiregular Variables and was written under the supervision of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.
While on a cross-country return trip from Tucson, where he had just completed his research for his PhD thesis, he was arrested by plainclothes police officers at a San Francisco bus terminal after a stranger had approached and groped him. He was promised that his criminal record would be expunged after serving three years' probation, relieving him from worrying about his employment prospects and any attempt at fighting the charges.
Relocating to Washington, D.C., Kameny taught for a year in the Astronomy Department of Georgetown University and was hired in July 1957 by the United States Army Map Service. When they learned of his San Francisco arrest, Kameny's superiors questioned him, but he refused to provide information regarding his sexual orientation. Kameny was fired by the commission soon afterward. In January 1958, he was barred from future employment by the federal government. As author Douglass Shand-Tucci later wrote,
Kameny was the most conventional of men, focused utterly on his work, at Harvard and at Georgetown... He was thus all the more rudely shocked when the same fate befell him as we've seen befall Prescott Townsend, class of 1918, decades before... He was arrested. Later he would be fired. And, like Townsend, Kameny was radicalized.
Kameny appealed his firing through the judicial system, losing twice before seeking review from the United States Supreme Court, which turned down his petition for certiorari. After devoting himself to activism, Kameny never held a paid job again and was supported by friends and family for the rest of his life. Despite his outspoken activism, he rarely discussed his personal life and never had any long-term relationships with other men, stating merely that he had no time for them. He stated, "If I disagree with someone, I give them a chance to convince me they are right. And if they fail, then I am right and they are wrong and I will just have to fight them until they change."
Kameny eschewed conventional racial designations; throughout his life, he consistently cited his race as "human".
In 1961 Kameny and Jack Nichols, fellow co-founder of the Washington, D.C., branch of the Mattachine Society, launched some of the earliest public protests by gays and lesbians with a picket line at the White House on April 17, 1965. In coalition with New York's Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, the picketing expanded to target the United Nations, the Pentagon, the United States Civil Service Commission, and Philadelphia's Independence Hall for what became known as the Annual Reminder for gay rights. Kameny also wrote to President Kennedy asking him to change the rules on homosexuals being purged from the government.
In 1963, Kameny and Mattachine launched a campaign to overturn D.C. sodomy laws; he personally drafted a bill that finally passed in 1993. He also worked to remove the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder from the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
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