In a memorial service on Capitol Hill Tuesday night, three members of Congress, an Obama administration official, and a Yale Law School professor described the late gay rights leader Frank Kameny as a major figure in the U.S. civil rights movement who changed the course of history for LGBT Americans and the nation.
More than 200 people turned out for the service, which was held in the historic caucus room at the Cannon House Office Building across the street from the U.S. Capitol.
“His life cleared the path that I and countless others followed into public service,” said John Berry, the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, who in 2009 became the Obama administration’s highest-level gay appointment.
“His unrelenting and unceasing fight for gay rights enabled other Americans to step out of the closet and into the full light of equality,” Berry told the gathering. “But most importantly, his long battle and eventual triumphs show the miracles that one person wrought upon the world.”
Berry’s sentiment was echoed by gay U.S. Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), and Yale Law School Professor William Eskridge Jr. Each told of how Kameny’s 50-year tenure as the nation’s preeminent gay rights strategist and advocate changed the course of the nation’s history and improved the lives of LGBT people and other Americans.
Gay rights advocate and Kameny friend Charles Francis said he and others who organized the memorial service chose to hold it on Nov. 15 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kameny’s co-founding of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. Gay historians consider Mattachine of Washington to be D.C’s and the nation’s first homosexual civil rights organization.
Francis noted that Kameny and fellow activist Jack Nichols started the organization in 1961 not long after the Cannon Caucus Room, where Kameny’s memorial service was being held, was the site of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s widely publicized hearings in which communists and homosexuals were said to be a threat to the nation.
Eskridge praised Kameny’s role as a legal strategist and noted that Kameny waged one of the first effective efforts to repeal state sodomy laws, which classified gay sex as a crime. Eskridge and Norton, who called Kameny a civil rights champion, each compared the gay rights leader to American civil rights heroes in the black civil rights movement such as Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall.
Norton said that Kameny’s decision to become the first known gay person to fight his dismissal on grounds of homosexuality from his federal government job as an astronomer in 1957 was similar to Rosa Parks’ refusal to sit in the back of the bus as an act of defiance of the South’s segregation laws.
“He wore that dismissal as a badge of honor,” Norton said. “It is Frank’s lonely act of defiance that sets him apart” at a time when it was unthinkable for gays to stand up for their rights, she said.
Eskridge said Kameny’s work to advance legal rights for LGBT people in the early years of his activism in the 1960s was especially remarkable because he wasn’t a lawyer.
He said that in 1961 Kameny became the first in the U.S. civil rights movement to argue that sexual orientation should be treated the same as race in connection with laws and policies that ban discrimination.
“Those were remarkably good arguments,” said Eskridge. “Today they can get you tenure at a university. But back then they could land you in jail.”
Rep. Frank said Frank Kameny was an inspiration and role model for him at a time when he grappled with how his own status as a gay man would impact his plans to enter the realm of politics and run for public office in Massachusetts.
Frank said one of Kameny’s many accomplishments in the gay rights movement was his self-confidence and aggressive and assertive demeanor in informing the world that his cause was just and right.
“He was certainly the opposite of the stereotype of a gay person as a shrinking violet,” Frank said.
Baldwin said she, too, considered Kameny a role model in her own coming out as a lesbian interested in becoming involved in public affairs and politics.
“My own introduction to Frank came when I was in college,” she said. “I was just coming out. I sought everything I could find to read about our LGBT leaders… And what I learned about Frank Kameny, the Mattachine Society and so many other pioneers made me incredibly proud,” she said.
Berry, who delivered the main eulogy for Kameny at the memorial service, said he had the honor as head of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management to extend to Kameny a formal apology on behalf of the government for Kameny’s dismissal from government service in 1957.
“The apology closed an important cycle in his life’s work,” said Berry, who noted that it came more than 50 years after Kameny has been credited with initiating and living to see a long list of changes that have improved the lives of LGBT people.
An end to a government ban on granting security clearances to gays, the end of the ban on gays from serving in the military, the elimination of anti-gay sodomy laws, and the removal of the psychiatric profession’s classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder are all actions that Kameny played a key role in bringing about, Berry said.
“We have lost one of the great champions of truth. His life was long and full, his victories many and great. He has left his mark upon the world, and its stewardship falls to us now,” Berry told the gathering.
“The end of Frank’s avenue must not be the end of ours. We must continue on the journey forward. It is up to us to carry on the battles yet un-won, to write history and guard the future and to morn this great soul.”
Among those attending the Kameny memorial service were gay U.S. Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who, along with Norton, Frank, and Baldwin, served as official congressional hosts for the event. Also attending were Gautam Raghavan, associate director of public engagement at the White House, who serves as White House liaison to the LGBT community; White House press spokesperson Shin Inouye; and D.C. Council members David Catania, Jim Graham, and Mary Cheh.