Veteran gay rights leader Frank Kameny, who is credited with founding the gay activist movement in Washington 41 years ago, returned to Cambridge, Mass., last month to receive an award from the Harvard University Gay & Lesbian Caucus. Kameny, 77, received a master’s degree from Harvard in 1949 and his Ph.D. there in 1956 — both in the field of astronomy.
With Harvard University President Lawrence Summers looking on, about 200 Harvard gay students and gay alumni gave Kameny a standing ovation on June 6 as an official with the Gay & Lesbian Caucus introduced Kameny at a ceremony on the Harvard campus.
The award presented to Kameny at the ceremony honors him for “his longstanding advocacy and activism and his incredible personal commitment and contribution to the lives of all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.”
In an interview this week, Kameny said his return to Harvard brought back memories of his pre-gay activist days — including his studies at Harvard, his early ambitions to become an astronomer and become involved in the U.S. space program, and his service in the military during World War II.
Kameny rarely talks about his pre-activist days in his public appearances on behalf of gay rights. His friends and colleagues in the gay rights movement say those early years played a key role in shaping what observers say has been Kameny’s groundbreaking work on behalf of gays in D.C. and throughout the nation.
Long-time activists know Kameny for his role as founder in 1961 of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., the first gay rights group in the nation’s capital. Shortly after its founding, Kameny broke new ground by leading the first ever gay rights protests in front of the White House, Pentagon and State Department.
Those who know Kameny say few people are aware of his use of the scientific principles and knowledge he acquired in the study of physics and astronomy to debunk the psychiatric theories of the 1950s and 1960s, which held that homosexuality was an illness and that gays suffered from a psychiatric disorder.
In his 1981 book, “Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis,” researcher Ronald Bayer credits Kameny with almost single-handedly persuading the early homophile movement to change its position of accepting the prevailing psychiatric theories that gays were disordered to the posture that these theories were scientifically unsound and must be refuted.
Kameny said his love for science began in his teenage years in New York City’s borough of Queens. He graduated from Richmond Hill High School in 1941, at the age of 16, after skipping two grades, in part, because of his exceptional aptitude for science and math. In September 1941, Kameny began his undergraduate studies in physics at New York’s Queens College.
He said he had expected to immerse himself “in the sheer joy” of courses in math and physics, along with other college related activities. But all of that changed abruptly three months later when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. “Nothing was the same after that,” Kameny said.
Two years later, in May 1943, Kameny enlisted in the Army, signing his enlistment papers three days before his 18th birthday. In September of that year, he was called into active duty, where he remained until March 1946. Although he had two years of college under his belt, Kameny said his Army superiors assigned him to a mortar crew with the 58th Armored Infantry, which was part of the Army’s 8th Armored Division in Europe.
Before he knew it, Kameny said, he was engaged in front-line combat in France, Holland and Germany. Some of his most harrowing moments, he said, came during the Battle of the Bulge, where the German army made a ferocious effort to break through the lines of allied forces. Stationed in trenches during freezing whether, Kameny recounts how he and his fellow soldiers endured German artillery fire while trying to catch some sleep in the dead of night.
“I came within a hair’s breadth of losing my life several times,” Kameny said. “If you hear the whistle of a shell and then the explosion, you’re OK,” he said. “But if the whistle stops suddenly, before the explosion, you’re in gave danger of being hit.”
Years later, Kameny would wear the combat medal he earned in the Battle of the Bulge as he led the D.C. Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance in presenting its annual Memorial Day wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
Space ambitions jettisoned
At the conclusion of the war, Kameny returned to Queens College after being discharged from the Army in 1946. He completed his undergraduate work less than two years later and began his studies at Harvard. While there, he taught astronomy at Yale University and later traveled to Arizona and Northern Island, where he conducted research in astronomy at internationally acclaimed observatories. After receiving his PhD. at Harvard in 1956, he began teaching astronomy at Georgetown University.
In 1957, he left Georgetown after being recruited by the government to take a job as an astronomer with the Army Map Service in Washington. The nation’s race against the Russians for superiority in space had just begun in full force. Kameny had set his sights, among other things, on a possible role in the U.S. space program. A short time later, Congress created the National Aeronautics & Space Administration. Kameny has said he would have seriously considered applying to become an astronaut. But that was not to come about.
Just five months into his job at the Army Map Service, U.S. government security officials discovered Kameny was gay and opened an investigation into Kameny’s alleged “threat” to national security. Within a few weeks, he was dismissed from his job, with his name placed on a list of people labeled as government security risks.
Kameny fought his dismissal in court, taking it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he became the first to challenge a firing by the federal government on grounds of sexual orientation. The high court let stand a lower court ruling against Kameny, effectively ending his career as a civil servant and an astronomer.
What Kameny did next, as the saying goes, is part of history — at least the history of the U.S. gay civil rights movement. His longtime friend and fellow activist, Craig Howell, has said that had it not been for the government’s discovery of his sexual orientation, Kameny would likely have become one of the world’s eminent astronomers.
“The government’s loss became our gain,” said Howell.