Remembering Gay Rights Activist Frank Kameny (1925-2011)

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has artifacts from Kameny’s early days in the gay rights movement in its collection

Frank Kameny
Frank Kameny donated picket signs to Brent Glass, former director of NMAH, and curator Harry Rubenstein in 2006. Photo by Harold Dorwin

On hearing the news that pioneering gay rights activist Frank Kameny died on Tuesday at 86 years of age, I started digging through some of his papers—neatly digitized by the Kameny Papers Project. Of the memorabilia in the online archives, I was particularly intrigued by some instructions for picketing disseminated by the Mattachine Society of Washington, an equal rights advocate group for gays and lesbians that Kameny co-founded in 1961.

The Society’s precepts were: “Picketing is not an occasion for an assertion of personality, individuality, ego, rebellion, generalized non-conformity or anti-conformity. It is an occasion for an organized effort, by a group or a movement, as such, working in a calculated, coordinated fashion, to make its existence, message, and grievances known where they need to be known. Therefore the individual picketer serves, merely, to carry a sign or to increase the size of the demonstration; not he, but his sign should attract notice and attention.”

It went on to include rules for the signs, one of which stated, “Signs will be neatly and clearly lettered.”

In its collection, the National Museum of American History has 12 such picket signs, donated by Kameny in 2006, that were used in civil rights marches and protests for homosexual citizens at the White House, Pentagon and U.S. Civil Service Commission in the 1960s. In clear print, the posters say things like “First Class Citizenship for Homosexuals” and “Discrimination Against Homosexuals Is As Immoral As Discrimination Against Negroes and Jews.” One, with the inscription “Homosexual Citizens Want to Serve Their Country Too,” is currently on display, with other protest material, in the museum’s American Presidency exhibition. And, another, which reads “Sexual Preference is Irrelevant to Federal Employment,” was actually used by activist Barbara Gittings, who Kameny called the “Founding Mother” of the gay rights movement, at an early protest at the White House.

Kameny was personally invested in the cause because of the discrimination he had faced. In 1957, only five months into working as an astronomer for the government’s Army Map Service, the Harvard graduate was fired on the grounds that federal investigators had learned that he was a homosexual. Kameny fought the decision. In 1961, he became the first to petition the Supreme Court with a discrimination claim based on sexual orientation. The Supreme Court denied his case, but he went on to devote his career to gay rights. He led the first ever protest for gay rights in front of the White House in 1965, and through his efforts in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses.

“He was a very smart, blunt, articulate man. He didn’t pull his punches, which is one of the things that many people loved about him and many people found hard to take. He put himself out there. And he didn’t give up. He was relentless, like a dog on a bone,” says Katherine Ott, curator in the division of medicine and science at the National Museum of American History, who met the activist on a few occasions. “At one point he had the Washington chapter of the Mattachine Society writing letters to members of Congress, the Supreme Court, to the Pentagon and to the U.S. Civil Service Commission, with grievances about discrimination against LGBTQ people. He had a lot of energy, and he was on it.”

Kameny, who called himself a “pack rat,” saved many artifacts from the early days of the gay rights movement in the attic of his home in Washington, D.C. Arguably, he had the most complete record of the movement. So, when he started thinking about who to bequeath the objects to about seven years ago, museums, libraries and archives were clamoring. “We had been talking to him for awhile,” says Ott. “We really wanted to have something here.” In 2006, he donated more than 70,000 letters, documents and memorabilia to the nation. His papers went to the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. And the National Museum of American History acquired picket signs and a few campaign buttons for its politics and reform collection.

“The posters are great because they are handmade. You can see the passion and commitment in them,” says Ott. A couple of the buttons have the slogan “Gay is Good” on them, which Kameny coined in 1968. The phrase was inspired by Stokely Carmichael’s “Black is Beautiful.” Kameny told the Washington Post in 2005 that if he could only be remembered for one thing, he wanted to be remembered as the guy who came up with that slogan.

Ott hopes that people continue to recognize Kameny’s involvement in a movement that really contributed to “that evolving understanding of what it means to be gay that we’re benefiting from now.”

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