Not long after I arrived in Washington in October 2006, I went with Lou Chibbaro to a discussion meeting at HRC headquarters. The heads of several of the national gay groups were on a panel. Frank Kameny, who died Tuesday, was not, but was sitting in the front row. Somebody fumbled on a factoid of some sort — Kameny piped up immediately and in a stern and heated tone, corrected them, then segued into a fiery rant about injustice.
Lou leaned over to me and said, “What you’re hearing is classic Frank Kameny.” I only knew Frank by name prior to that evening. I would come to know him rather well through my work at the Blade over the coming years.
Frank certainly could be prickly — one doesn’t become a rabble rouser to the degree he was by being sweet and cuddly. But he was always very gracious to me and was willing to do anything reasonable to help accommodate my deadlines and help any way he could. I interviewed him many times in my five years at the Blade. We talked at length in 2009 — I’m so glad I have the interview recorded — about his work founding the Mattachine Society, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next month. Our peg was the 40th anniversary of Stonewall. Frank’s opinion was that his earlier work with the Society, though small at the time, made the societal soil fertile for Stonewall a few years later and that without that, Stonewall never would have happened.
“I’m 100 perent convinced of that,” Frank said.
I can still hear in my head his description of attending the first Pride parade in New York and the utter astonishment in his voice at the number of people there. He was utterly flabbergasted.
“Right there it was in front of one’s eyes!” he said incredulously.
One of my favorite visits with Frank was also one of the most low key. I spent about an hour with him at his cluttered house in the fall of 2009 to take his photo. I’m no great photographer but Callie, our photographer at the time, didn’t have a car and Frank didn’t live near a Metro stop. It was just easier for me to swing by and take it. It was part of a photo project we did for our 40th anniversary in which we re-created several photos from the Blade’s archives. The late Doug Hinkle had taken a shot of Frank at his desk sometime in the ’70s. It wasn’t a particularly earth-shattering photo, but we wanted then-and-now shots of Frank in our retrospective. Frank took me to his upstairs den. It hadn’t changed hardly at all since the original shot was taken. He remembered exactly how he had been positioned in the original and picked up his rotary phone in exactly the same way. It was fun to see all his many accolades on the wall and observe him on his home turf. He apologized for the mess. The carpet and furniture were tattered. Talk radio played in the background. He was in no hurry and we took our time experimenting with angles and lenses.
Just about a month ago, Frank and I had another lovely phone chat. Knowing he was a night owl, I tried him one Tuesday evening about 10-ish. He much preferred late night calls to early morning ones. We talked at length about an effort that was underway to have him awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Sadly, this did not happen. I certainly have never personally known anyone more deserving. Frank knew an effort was underway by some activists. He said it would have been a lovely capstone to his life’s work.
I’m sure much will be written about Frank in the coming days. I have nothing particularly groundbreaking to add — I wasn’t there at the great moments in his life. I’m excited to hear what Lou, who has known him decades longer than I, will have to share. But I am glad that I got to know Frank and provide him with a little bit of the media limelight he so clearly enjoyed. It made me so happy to hear how excited he was to walk into town every Friday and pick up the Blade, a practice he’d been doing for years. You could tell he truly loved our paper — which he helped found. And we certainly loved him.
I would like to especially point out and publicly thank Marvin Carter for all his efforts helping Frank in recent years. Marvin did lots of little practical stuff for Frank and Marvin, please know that your efforts were appreciated by all of us who knew and admired Frank.