Local and national public officials joined D.C.’s LGBT community in remembering the life and accomplishments of veteran gay rights leader Frank Kameny at memorial events this fall following Kameny’s death in Washington on Oct. 11.
Kameny, 86, is credited with being one of the leading strategists for the early gay rights movement beginning at least a decade before the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York’s Greenwich Village, which historians consider the starting point for the modern LGBT rights movement.
LGBT movement leaders who knew Kameny say he laid the groundwork for the movement to advance following the Stonewall Riots and going forward, playing a pivotal role in advancing the cause of LGBT equality over a period of 50 years.
“Frank Kameny is one of the most significant figures in the history of the American gay rights movement,” said D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray at a Nov. 3 memorial viewing for Kameny at the city’s Carnegie Library building.
Gray was joined at the memorial viewing by several members of the D.C. City Council, including gay Council members David Catania (I-At-Large) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1); D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier and D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D).
A gay Air Force sergeant and four gay military veterans in full dress uniform, including gay former Army Lt. Dan Choi, joined Catania and Graham as pallbearers, carrying an American flag-draped coffin bearing Kameny’s remains into the building’s ceremonial atrium.
Organizers of the ceremony, led by local activists and Kameny friends Bob Witeck and Charles Frances, said the flag-draped coffin honored Kameny, among other things, for his service in the Army in World War II, where he served in combat in Europe.
Among other accomplishments, activists said Kameny became the first known gay person to publicly challenge an act of anti-gay discrimination when he sued the federal government for firing him from his job in 1957 as a civilian astronomer with the U.S. Army Map Service because of his sexual orientation.
After losing his case in the lower courts, Kameny set yet another precedent by bringing the first known gay-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court upheld a lower court ruling against Kameny and refused to take his case on the merits.
But in a 61-page legal brief petitioning the court to take the case, which Kameny wrote, he pulled together what some gay historians consider a gay rights manifesto that became the underpinning of the LGBT rights movement for years to come.
In a second memorial for Kameny held Nov. 15 at the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill, several public officials, including members of Congress and an Obama administration official, cited Kameny’s role as a national civil rights figure.
“His life cleared the path that I and countless others followed into public service,” said John Berry, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, who in 2009 became the Obama administration’s highest-level openly gay appointee.
“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.”
Kameny’s friends and colleagues said they were saddened over his passing but uplifted in knowing that Kameny lived to see many of the LGBT rights initiatives he fought for come to fruition, including an apology by the government, more than 50 years later, for its decision to fire him.
Kameny also lived to see the Library of Congress acquire more than 50,000 documents from his gay rights-related papers collection; the Smithsonian Institution’s American History Museum acquire and display picket signs he and his fellow activists carried in gay rights protests in the 1960s; the D.C. government’s naming a section of 17th Street, N.W., near Dupont Circle as Frank Kameny Way; and a decision by city officials to designate Kameny’s house as an historic landmark.
Arrangements are being made for a burial service for Kameny’s ashes at D.C.’s historic Congressional Cemetery in the spring.