Frank Kameny was born in New York City in 1925, the son of immigrants from Austria-Hungary who had, by the time of his birth, achieved a comfortable middle-class life. Precocious doesn’t begin to describe the young Kameny, who taught himself to read when he was four years old and who had by the age of six decided on a career as an astronomer. He entered college at 16, but World War II intervened. He saw combat in Europe as part of a mortar crew in the closing days of the war; the horrors of battle left an indelible impression on him. Upon returning to the United States, Kameny resumed his studies and graduated from Harvard in 1956 with a PhD in astronomy and plans to enter academia at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
Kameny’s life was, by all accounts, off to a brilliant start for what promised to be a career of exceptional achievement. The only problem? Frank Kameny was queer. As Cervini repeatedly stresses, Kameny was first and foremost a man of reason. Confronted as a teenager with his attraction to other boys and, ever the taxonomist, having identified the condition as homosexuality, he initially resisted the conclusion he was a homosexual. But reason won out: “If his condition — however long it lasted — conflicted with society, and if rejecting himself was ipso facto illogical, then he had no choice but to reject society itself.”
In that simple equation lay the seeds of what would grow into the modern LGTBQ movement. Underlying that movement, from its inception until now, was the decision taken by millions of men and women that Kameny made as a teenager. He chose to privilege his experience and truth over the opinions and judgments of the culture: simultaneously, a great No and a great Yes. Yet, like all such experiences, Kameny’s coming out to himself was only the beginning, not the end. He then had to adapt his life to the revelation. He tackled that challenge with the same systematic approach that had characterized his pursuit of his doctorate. Arriving in DC, he said, “I simply proceeded to go to gay bars every single night, seven nights a week.” Cervini writes, “He concluded it was most efficient to meet people in quantity, not quality. Then, after a year or so, he would have the raw material to build a social life of his own.”
This passage reveals a rather surprising, but ultimately indispensable aspect of Kameny’s personality. He was not, as might be assumed of a scientist, either retiring or introverted. Rather, he was a tireless connector and organizer of people and after only a year in DC, he had become “the undeniable expert on gay Washington.” And there it might have rested — professor by day and gay social maven by night — except that Georgetown University denied him tenure. He found employment with the federal government “creat[ing] incredibly precise maps for the Army Map Service (AMS.)” That was only a temporary post in his mind; with the Soviet Union’s launch of the first Sputnik satellite in 1957, the space race was on. The federal government began the process of creating a space agency — what we now know as NASA — under the direction of former scientist to the Nazis, Wernher von Braun. Kameny planned to join the new agency first as an astronomer and maybe eventually, he hoped, as an astronaut.
The United States in the last half of the 1950s, was a white, straight, middle-class Utopia that ignored or repressed anything that might mar its Technicolor image, happy to turn away from those pesky Black Civil Rights agitators in the South, or the weirdo Beats on the West Coast. Yet, this placid paradise was haunted by specters of the Other, often identified as communist in the days of Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare, dark forces gathering in the shadows to plan attacks on the American way of life. The internal enemies, who might look like you or me, were even scarier than the Russians or the Chinese, and these included not only communist sympathizers, but also homosexuals, or worse: commie queers. Draconian measures were introduced to keep these freaks at bay. Cervini reports that in 1947, Harry Truman “established the Federal Employee Loyalty Program, and the government began investigating its employees to determine their loyalty.” That same year, the Senate gave the Secretary of State “‘absolute discretion’ to purge employees, including homosexuals, who threatened the national security” and to root them out of ranks of government employment.
Thus, in November 1957, Kameny was summoned to Washington from Hawaii, where he had been working for the army, and escorted into a room where two Civil Service Commission investigators bluntly asked him whether he was a homosexual, as reports they’d received had indicated. The evidence they had? On August 28, 1956, after the closing banquet of the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Berkeley, 21-year-old Frank Kameny went into a public toilet and allowed another man, as the police report put it, to “reach over and touch [his] private parts.” The incident lasted only a few seconds. The record of that arrest, and Kameny’s subsequent guilty plea to lewd conduct was what landed him in the room with the investigators.
What comment, if any, did Kameny wish to make about the information he was homosexual? Plenty, as it turned out. He would go on commenting on that information for the rest of his life.
Cervini’s complex and layered narrative contains many threads, but the two central ones concern Kameny’s legal battle to overturn his dismissal from federal employment, a 15-year fight he carried all the way up to the United States Supreme Court, and how his personal fight evolved into a public crusade he led for homosexual equality. The two threads met when Kameny expanded his personal strategy of suing the government to force it to justify its discriminatory policies against gay and lesbian employees by sponsoring similar lawsuits by other plaintiffs whom he personally recruited. But seeking legal redress was not the only, or even the most important, avenue of Kameny’s activism. Calling on his social and organizing strengths, he co-founded (and for all intents and purposes dominated) the Washington branch of the Mattachine Society (MSW), the earliest of the so-called homophile rights’ organizations.
(Branch is not exactly accurate, perhaps, as MSW was frequently in conflict with the New York branch of the organization, not to mention other homophile groups; indeed, the fierce, internecine battles among the tiny gay and lesbian organizations of the late 1950s and 1960s take up pages of Cervini’s book. Like so many other revolutionary movements, the men and women of these organizations often found themselves in circular firing squads; that they accomplished as much as they did is a wonder.)
From his perch as MSW’s longtime president, Kameny and allies, including women like Lilli Vincenz and Barbara Gittings, embarked on a truly audacious and incredibly brave course of action, given the almost universal animus directed toward homosexuals in the midcentury and MSW’s minuscule numbers. Just to name two: Kameny’s appearance before a Congressional committee and the first picketing of the White House by gay and lesbian activists.
Cervini is not afraid to quote at length from interviews and primary sources, but he does so skillfully rather than heaving big, undigestible chunks into the narrative. This is no more apparent than in his description of Kameny’s appearance before a House committee led by John Dowdy, a Texas Democrat of whom it was said: “He’s against Negroes and queers — and down here that’s unbeatable.” Dowdy’s committee oversaw the District of Columbia. He had proposed a law specifically aimed at forcing the District to revoke MSW’s charitable charter on morality grounds. The bill was a patent violation of the First Amendment; even the Washington Post opined against it.
When Kameny came to testify against the bill — the first openly gay person to appear before Congress — he found himself at the receiving end of the rankest forms of bigotry, including being asked his position on bestiality. This line of argument that equated homosexuality with bestiality and also pedophile and incest became part of the arsenal of the right’s attack on the LGBTQ movement; opponents to gay marriage for example wondered if people would next be allowed to marry their pets and, more seriously, claimed it would legalize incest. Kameny, confronted with this kind of lurid and hysterical questioning, responded thoughtfully and with his characteristic precision. To us, this may not seem like a great achievement, but being hauled before Congress in 1963, the McCarthy hearings still tingling in the air, was an intimidating and even terrifying summons. Holding your own in that court was a tremendous act of courage.
Just as courageous was the appearance, on April 17, 1965, of a group of conservatively dressed women and men in front of the White House carrying picket signs in support of employment protections for homosexuals. The lead sign proclaimed: Fifteen Million U.S. Homosexuals Protest Federal Treatment, while others demanded honorable discharges and security clearances, and, referring to Nazi concentration camps and the Fidel Castro’s work camps for gay Cubans, pointedly asking: IS THE U.S. MUCH BETTER? While this protest earned almost no media coverage, it marked a step of gay and lesbians out of their closets and out of the shadows to make explicit their demands for full American citizenship.
The changes in Kameny’s thinking about being homosexual were as important as his public activism. Early on Kameny, like other homophile leaders of the time, declined to take a position on whether homosexuality was mental illness. By 1964, he had not only pressured MSW to reject the “sickness” label, but had proclaimed in a TV interview that “[h]omosexual acts on the part of consenting adults are moral in a positive sense, and are good and are right for the individual and for society.” This was an era when Time magazine, with a circulation of three million, described homosexuality as a “pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality.” Kameny would encapsulate his view of homosexuality in the motto he coined in 1968: Gay is Good.
Kameny deliberately patterned the slogan on the Black Power cry: Black is Beautiful. As Cervini repeatedly observes, many of Kameny’s tactics and much of his thinking as an activist were explicitly drawn from the Black Civil Rights movements of the early to mid-1960s, and his movement found some support in the Black community. MSW’s support, however, was not reciprocated. As Cervini reports,
[T]he MSW made no major effort to attract African American members, no outreach to Black organizations or civic groups, no invitations to homophile conferences. Once, when a Black man appeared at a public MSW meeting, sitting alone among a sea of white, the other members started at him, wondering if he was a federal agent.
Under Kameny’s leadership, MSW was not only functionally racist, it had a woman problem, too. Despite the participation of women like Gittings and Vincenz, MSW remained largely male. At one contentious meeting with the New York chapter of the lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis, Kameny physically assaulted Shirley Willer, who was presiding over the meeting. After this, Vincenz, his lesbian friend, “began contemplating how to manage Kameny, a tempestuous astronomer who suffered from clear ‘symptoms of emotional disturbance.’”
That’s an understatement. Cervini’s many examples of Kameny’s domineering and inflexible personality make it clear he was, or could be, a deeply problematic person. Kameny was obsessed with presenting homosexuals as respectable, middle-class people. His conservativism was not necessarily the majority view among early gay and lesbian activists. Harry Hay, the actual founder of the Mattachine Society and an ex-communist, had intended the organization to serve as the impetus for, Cervini writes, “a militant, politically active, and proud homosexual minority.” But Kameny was what would later be called in the movement an assimilationist — he had no desire to fundamentally challenge the American social order, he simply wanted a place at its table.
That meant suppressing queer people that he and other early gay and lesbian leaders believed would reinforce negative stereotypes about homosexuals, chiefly drag queens and leathermen. To that end, Kameny imposed dress codes on the people he allowed on MSW’s picket lines — coats and ties for the gentlemen, dresses for the ladies.
He required men to have recent haircuts and fresh shaves; he discouraged beards. He approved all signs in advance; they needed neat and clear lettering. He required marchers to carry the signs assigned to them and to maintain their correct, logical ordering. He prohibited picketers from talking among themselves; he did not allow them to smoke or to take refreshment.
This level of obsessiveness really does hint at a psychological disorder. Mercurial and difficult, Kameny had allies and supporters who recognized his courage and ability, but he evidently had few real friends and even his allies got tired of him, at one point even deposing him as MSW’s president (he was later reinstalled). The man who proclaimed “Gay is Good” never had more than transient relations with other men. The man who fought so long and hard for his federal government job never again worked as an astronomer after his 1957 firing and died in near poverty.
If there are weaknesses in Cervini’s narrative, one is his failure to explicitly connect Kameny’s privilege as a white, educated man to his activism. It’s clear that Kameny believed he was entitled to work as an astronomer regardless of his sexual orientation, and that sense of frustrated entitlement fueled his activism. Kameny not only felt he had the right to demand audiences with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, but was genuinely enraged when they failed to grant them. One cannot imagine, by contrast, Sylvia Rivera or Marsha P. Johnson, the Stonewall vets who founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, expecting to be received in the White House. Kameny undoubtedly believed that, by virtue of his status, he fully deserved the title “Father of the Homophile Movement” bestowed on him by Dick Leitsch, head of the New York Mattachine Society.
Cervini also chooses to summarize the events of Kameny’s life after 1971. This is understandable, given the length of his biography, but the story of how Kameny faded in obscurity and poverty is the story of many of the early LGBTQ activists. The question is why the community allowed this to happen to Kameny. Granted, he could be pretty awful, but Cervini’s description of him in his sources and acknowledgments as, at age 80, “living in near destitution,” is heart-breaking and deserves elaboration.
There have not been so many heroes in the LGBTQ movement that we can afford to throw away the ones there are — monstres sacrés though they may be — and one is left wondering how Kameny found himself in such miserable circumstances at the end of his life. On the other hand, Eric Cervini’s amazingly researched and beautifully written biography guarantees that Kameny, warts and all, will take his place among the heroes of the social justice movements in the United States.
Michael Nava is the author of a groundbreaking series of novels featuring gay Latino criminal defense lawyer Henry Rios.