Frank Kameny dies at 86; gay rights activist

Frank Kameny, who became a pioneer in the gay rights movement after he was fired from his job as a government astronomer in 1957 for being gay, died Tuesday at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 86.

Kameny had been in declining health, said Bob Witeck, a friend for three decades.

Gay rights groups mourned his passing Tuesday, saying that it was National Coming Out Day, when many gay people celebrate coming out and encourage others to have the courage to do the same.

“While so many have been impatient about the pace of progress, there was Frank, insisting we recognize that, in the last two years, he was regularly invited as a guest of honor by the very government that fired him simply for being gay,” said Rea Carey, the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, in a statement.


Kameny said in 2009 that his contributions to the gay rights struggle had only recently begun to sink in. He said at the time he wanted to be remembered most for coming up with the slogan “Gay is Good” in 1968 to counter an onslaught of negativism aimed at gays and lesbians.

Kameny was born May 21, 1925, in New York. In 1943, when he turned 18, he enlisted in the Army to serve in World War II. “They asked, I didn’t tell,” Kameny said in an interview last year with the Charlottesville (Va.) Libertarian Examiner.

After the war he attended Harvard and received a doctorate in astronomy in 1956. He had been working as an astronomer for the Army Map Service for five months when he was asked to meet with federal investigators. They told him they had information he was gay, and he was dismissed.

Kameny didn’t leave quietly, however. He contested his firing by the U.S. Civil Service Commission by writing letters to the agency, both houses of Congress and eventually the White House.


He sued and lost in the lower courts, but pressed on with a lengthy brief in 1961 that is now regarded as the first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation to be brought to the U.S. Supreme Court. Soon after, he co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, an offshoot of a group founded in Los Angeles that advocated for equal rights for gays and lesbians.

In 1965, Kameny and 10 others became the first to stage a gay rights protest in front of the White House and later at the Pentagon and elsewhere.

In the last years of his life, Kameny was increasingly recognized for his work as a gay rights pioneer. In 2009 he received a formal apology for being fired solely based on his sexual orientation. The apology came from the successor to the U.S. Civil Service Commission, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. The office is headed by John Berry, who is openly gay.

“Being gay has become infinitely better than it was,” Kameny said earlier this year when documents from his collection of gay rights history went on display for the first time at the Library of Congress. “The fundamental theme underneath all of that is simply equality.”

Survivors include a sister.