We lost a great American hero last Tuesday: Dr. Frank Kameny.
Fired for being gay in 1957, the man whose fight breathed life into the nascent LGBT rights movement lived just long enough to see the U.S. Armed Forces end its own discriminatory practice. His path through life was marked by his courage, intelligence, leadership and sheer determination; he made it possible for countless patriotic Americans to hold security clearances and high government positions, including me. And in so doing, he showed everyone what was possible for every employer in our country.
He set down his uniform after serving in the Army in World War II and took a civilian position as an astronomer in the Army Map Service in Washington, D.C. When he was fired from that job because of his homosexuality, Dr. Kameny fought back with the fervent passion of a true patriot. He vigorously protested his dismissal and argued his case all the way to the Supreme Court, where he wrote his own brief to the Court, describing “a persecution and discrimination not one whit more warranted or justified than those against … other minority groups.”
Losing his case only strengthened his resolve to win for his community the birthright of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He set out to fight a second war for his country, this one a Herculean struggle on the home front. No one at the time would have predicted that his lonely struggle would transform into the national human rights movement we recognize today.
Frank Kameny has been described as the perfect gay storm, a Harvard-trained scientist with a sharp, critical eye. The wall of resistance he encountered when he challenged his dismissal back in 1957 would have been insurmountable to most people. With no more support than his brilliant mind and powerful lungs, he faced down the United States government, and made possible my career and many others.
Kameny co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, and pressed for fair and equal treatment of gay employees in the federal government by fighting security clearance denials, employment restrictions and dismissals. He declared his homosexuality a God-given blessing and coined the phrase “Gay is Good.” He fought tirelessly against police entrapment, and provided legal assistance to gay servicemen and women.
I know that Dr. Kameny never viewed his lifelong fight as finished — with DOMA still on the books, bullying epidemic in schools and challenges to many state laws and amendments still underway, there is more yet to do. His eagerness to always tackle the unfinished business brought us far. Through his courage, intelligence, resourcefulness and tenacity, he brought others into the fight and over time, the seeds he planted bore fruit. Homosexuality is no longer regarded as a pathology. Civil servants cannot be fired for being gay. Security clearances cannot be denied merely on the basis of sexual orientation. Invasive laws against consensual sex acts have been ruled unconstitutional. Our best and bravest can serve their country openly and with honor.
He honored me personally by attending my swearing-in as head of the Office of Personnel Management, and showed his ability to forgive by accepting my official apology on behalf of the government for the sad and discredited termination of his federal employment by the U.S. Civil Service Commission. We presented and he accepted OPM’s highest honor, the Theodore Roosevelt Award, given to those who are courageous in defense of our nation’s Merit Principles. Dr. Kameny also made clear how tickled he was that John Macy, the anti-gay head of the Civil Service Commission who fired him, was eventually succeeded by a gay man.
He knew, as I know, how direct the line is between his battles and my opportunities. Frank Kameny opened the door — I and countless others are honored and humbled to pass through.
John Berry is director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.