A gay Air Force sergeant and four gay military veterans in full dress uniform joined gay D.C. Council members David Catania and Jim Graham as pallbearers at a memorial viewing on Thursday honoring the late gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny.
The contingent of pall-bearers, including gay former Army Lt. Dan Choi, carried an American flag draped coffin bearing Kameny’s remains into the main hall of the historic Carnegie Library in downtown Washington, where the viewing was held.
Friends and activists who knew Kameny during his 50 year tenure as one of the nation’s and D.C.’s leading LGBT rights advocates said the ceremony and memorial viewing of his closed coffin was a befitting sendoff for a man they said improved the lives of millions of LGBT Americans.
Members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington opened the ceremony by singing the National Anthem as D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, four D.C. Council members and a contingent of friends and activists stood near the coffin.
Hundreds of activists, community allies, public officials, and D.C. residents who knew Kameny or knew of his work filed past the coffin between 3 p.m. and the start of the ceremony at 6:60 p.m. Among them was John Berry, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the highest ranking openly gay appointee in the Obama administration.
The Rev. Elder Troy Perry, founder of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, which caters to mostly LGBT congregations throughout the country, traveled from his home base in Los Angeles to attend the event. Perry, an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights for more than 30, worked with Kameny on national LGBT related projects in the 1970s and 1980s.
Mayor Gray said Kameny’s civil rights work led to a “massive, positive change” in the way LGBT people live their lives both in D.C. and across the nation.
“Frank Kameny is one of the most significant figures in the history of the American gay rights movement,” Gray told the gathering. “It was a poignant coincident that Dr. Kameny passed away on National Coming Out Day because he came out as a proud gay man in an era in which there were virtually no social and legal supports for sexual minorities who chose to live their lives openly in this country.”
Organizers of the ceremony, led by local activists and Kameny friends Charles Francis and Bob Witeck, placed at one end of the coffin a picket sign that Kameny made for a 1962 gay rights protest he organized outside the White House. The sign, still attached to its original wood stick handle, states, “Homosexuals Ask for the Right to the Pursuit of Happiness.”
At the other end of coffin stood a portrait of Kameny painted by local gay artist Don Patron.
Norton, a leader of the black civil rights movement, said Kameny’s acts of “defiance” and “raw, pure undiluted courage” during the decades he fought oppression against LGBT people put him in a place similar to that of black civil rights legend Rosa Parks.
Norton noted that Kameny began his fight for equality and justice for LGBT people shortly after he was fired for being gay from his job as an astronomer with the U.S. government in the late 1950s.
“Frank Kameny no more set out to sacrifice his livelihood when he refused to deny his sexual orientation to federal authorities than Rosa Parks intended to give up her work as a seamstress when she refused to move to the back of the bus,” Norton said. “Rosa Parks got tired of suppressing her full identity and her full dignity. So did Frank Kameny,” said Norton, adding, “There is a special place in our country for people like Frank Kameny. The phrase he coined, ‘Gay is Good,’ is every bit as significant as Black is Beautiful.”
Kameny died in his home Oct. 11 at the age of 86. Organizers of his memorial said a larger community memorial celebration of his life will take place Nov. 15 at a location to be announced.
“He was a great man who made it possible for me to be who I am,” said Rick Wood, a D.C. gay activist who said Kameny helped him organize the city’s first gay youth group 25 years ago.
“When I heard of Frank’s passing I was heartbroken but also grateful for the fearless and brave life that he led,” said Catania. “We’re all better off for having had Frank walk this earth. He changed minds and opened hearts to acceptance and tolerance in Washington and all over the world.”
Graham, who said he got to know Kameny during Graham’s tenure as director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, called Kameny an “extraordinary” figure on the Washington scene for half a century.
“It is not possible to overstate the contribution that has been made by Frank Kameny for human rights, for gay and lesbian people and for everybody because, in point of fact, he was concerned about everybody,” Graham said.
Rick Rosendall, vice president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance and a friend and colleague of Kameny’s for more than 20 years, read from a chapter Kameny wrote for a book about the early “homophile movement” that was published during Kameny’s early years of activism. Kameny’s message in the book chapter was intended for a gay audience.
“It’s time to open the closet door and let in the fresh air and the sunshine,” Rosendall quoted Kameny as saying. “It is time to doff and discard the secrecy, the disguise and the camouflage. It is time to hold up your heads and to look the world squarely in the eye as the homosexuals that you are, confident of your equality, confident in the knowledge that as objects of prejudice and victims of discrimination, you are right and they are wrong, and confident of the rightness of what you are and the goodness of what you do. It is time to live your homosexuality fully, joyously, openly and proudly, assured that morally, socially, physically, psychologically, emotionally, and in every other way – gay is good.”
Joining the contingent of gay military pallbearers were four members of the D.C. Police Department’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, who served as pallbearers at the conclusion of the ceremony. With participants and well wishers lining the steps and plaza outside the Carnegie Library, the GLLU members and two of the gay military veterans carried Kameny’s coffin to a hearse on the street
Kameny’s friends and activist colleagues said they arranged for Kameny’s body to be cremated, based on Kameny’s expressed wishes, shortly after his death on Oct. 11. An urn bearing his ashes had been placed in the coffin for the ceremony.
Witeck said he and others close to Kameny had yet to decide on a burial site or other resting place for the Kameny’s ashes. One place under consideration, Witeck said, is D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery.