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The scientific activist

Harvard award draws attention to Frank Kameny’s pre-activist days

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Veteran gay rights leader Frank Kameny, who is credited with founding the gay activist movement in Washington 41 years ago, returned to Cambridge, Mass., last month to receive an award from the Harvard University Gay & Lesbian Caucus. Kameny, 77, received a master’s degree from Harvard in 1949 and his Ph.D. there in 1956 — both in the field of astronomy.

With Harvard University President Lawrence Summers looking on, about 200 Harvard gay students and gay alumni gave Kameny a standing ovation on June 6 as an official with the Gay & Lesbian Caucus introduced Kameny at a ceremony on the Harvard campus.

The award presented to Kameny at the ceremony honors him for “his longstanding advocacy and activism and his incredible personal commitment and contribution to the lives of all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.”

In an interview this week, Kameny said his return to Harvard brought back memories of his pre-gay activist days — including his studies at Harvard, his early ambitions to become an astronomer and become involved in the U.S. space program, and his service in the military during World War II.

Kameny rarely talks about his pre-activist days in his public appearances on behalf of gay rights. His friends and colleagues in the gay rights movement say those early years played a key role in shaping what observers say has been Kameny’s groundbreaking work on behalf of gays in D.C. and throughout the nation.

Long-time activists know Kameny for his role as founder in 1961 of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., the first gay rights group in the nation’s capital. Shortly after its founding, Kameny broke new ground by leading the first ever gay rights protests in front of the White House, Pentagon and State Department.

Those who know Kameny say few people are aware of his use of the scientific principles and knowledge he acquired in the study of physics and astronomy to debunk the psychiatric theories of the 1950s and 1960s, which held that homosexuality was an illness and that gays suffered from a psychiatric disorder.

In his 1981 book, “Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis,” researcher Ronald Bayer credits Kameny with almost single-handedly persuading the early homophile movement to change its position of accepting the prevailing psychiatric theories that gays were disordered to the posture that these theories were scientifically unsound and must be refuted.

Kameny said his love for science began in his teenage years in New York City’s borough of Queens. He graduated from Richmond Hill High School in 1941, at the age of 16, after skipping two grades, in part, because of his exceptional aptitude for science and math. In September 1941, Kameny began his undergraduate studies in physics at New York’s Queens College.

He said he had expected to immerse himself “in the sheer joy” of courses in math and physics, along with other college related activities. But all of that changed abruptly three months later when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. “Nothing was the same after that,” Kameny said.

Two years later, in May 1943, Kameny enlisted in the Army, signing his enlistment papers three days before his 18th birthday. In September of that year, he was called into active duty, where he remained until March 1946. Although he had two years of college under his belt, Kameny said his Army superiors assigned him to a mortar crew with the 58th Armored Infantry, which was part of the Army’s 8th Armored Division in Europe.

Before he knew it, Kameny said, he was engaged in front-line combat in France, Holland and Germany. Some of his most harrowing moments, he said, came during the Battle of the Bulge, where the German army made a ferocious effort to break through the lines of allied forces. Stationed in trenches during freezing whether, Kameny recounts how he and his fellow soldiers endured German artillery fire while trying to catch some sleep in the dead of night.

“I came within a hair’s breadth of losing my life several times,” Kameny said. “If you hear the whistle of a shell and then the explosion, you’re OK,” he said. “But if the whistle stops suddenly, before the explosion, you’re in gave danger of being hit.”

Years later, Kameny would wear the combat medal he earned in the Battle of the Bulge as he led the D.C. Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance in presenting its annual Memorial Day wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

Space ambitions jettisoned

At the conclusion of the war, Kameny returned to Queens College after being discharged from the Army in 1946. He completed his undergraduate work less than two years later and began his studies at Harvard. While there, he taught astronomy at Yale University and later traveled to Arizona and Northern Island, where he conducted research in astronomy at internationally acclaimed observatories. After receiving his PhD. at Harvard in 1956, he began teaching astronomy at Georgetown University.

In 1957, he left Georgetown after being recruited by the government to take a job as an astronomer with the Army Map Service in Washington. The nation’s race against the Russians for superiority in space had just begun in full force. Kameny had set his sights, among other things, on a possible role in the U.S. space program. A short time later, Congress created the National Aeronautics & Space Administration. Kameny has said he would have seriously considered applying to become an astronaut. But that was not to come about.

Just five months into his job at the Army Map Service, U.S. government security officials discovered Kameny was gay and opened an investigation into Kameny’s alleged “threat” to national security. Within a few weeks, he was dismissed from his job, with his name placed on a list of people labeled as government security risks.

Kameny fought his dismissal in court, taking it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he became the first to challenge a firing by the federal government on grounds of sexual orientation. The high court let stand a lower court ruling against Kameny, effectively ending his career as a civil servant and an astronomer.

What Kameny did next, as the saying goes, is part of history — at least the history of the U.S. gay civil rights movement. His longtime friend and fellow activist, Craig Howell, has said that had it not been for the government’s discovery of his sexual orientation, Kameny would likely have become one of the world’s eminent astronomers.

“The government’s loss became our gain,” said Howell.

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District of Columbia

Bowser: No credible threats to D.C. Pride events

Mayor spoke with the Blade after flag-raising ceremony at the Wilson Building

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D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser at the flag-raising of the Progress Pride flag at the Wilson Building in D.C. on June 1, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Thursday said authorities have not received any credible threats to upcoming Pride events.

“We don’t have any to report,” she told the Washington Blade.

“MPD is constantly working with all of our agencies to make sure we have safe special events and we’re going to keep going with our planning, like we do every year,” added Bowser. “There’s always a scan for any threats to the District.”

Bowser spoke with the Blade after she joined D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson, Council members Anita Bonds, Charles Allen, Kenyon McDuffie and Zachary Parker, D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb, D.C. Mayor’s LGBTQ Affairs Office Director Japer Bowles and other officials and activists in raising the Progress Pride flag in front of the Wilson Building.

The Blade last month reported D.C. police are investigating a bomb threat a Twitter user made against the annual District Pride concert that will take place at the Lincoln Theater on June 29. Bowles in a May 19 statement said his office reported the tweet, but further stressed that “no credible threat at this time has been made.”

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Maryland

Moore issues Pride month proclamation

Governor on May 3 signed Trans Health Equity Act

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Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (Public domain photo/Twitter)

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore on Thursday proclaimed June as Pride month in recognition of  “the contributions, resilience, courage and joy of LGBTQIA+ Marylanders,” according to a press release.

“In Maryland, we lead with love and inclusion. I want everyone in our LGBTQIA+ community to know that they deserve to be seen for who they are, and our administration will stand with them in the fight for equality and equity,” Moore said. “We need to elevate the stories, embrace the courage, and celebrate the humanity of our LGBTQIA+ community — and as long as I am governor, we will take the steps forward to protect and celebrate all Marylanders.”

Moore on March 31 became the first governor in Maryland history to recognize the Transgender Day of Visibility and last month he signed into law the Trans Health Equity Act into law, which requires Maryland Medicaid to provide coverage for gender-affirming care beginning next year.

“This month is a celebration of the beauty and uniqueness of the queer community, but it’s also a time to reaffirm our commitment to uplifting LGBTQIA+ Marylanders and continuing to fight against hatred, discrimination, and bigotry,” Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller said in the same press release that Moore’s office released. “LGBTQIA+ Marylanders deserve to be who they are, to live their pride — without fear or having to hide. This administration will always stand alongside and protect the rights of all Marylanders.”

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District of Columbia

Point Foundation offers growing range of scholarships, support

‘Resources to succeed and thrive rather than just make it through’

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Celina Gerbic, a member of the Point Foundation’s board of directors, speaks at last year’s event. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Many in D.C. know the Point Foundation for its longstanding scholarship program and its popular Taste of Point fundraiser each spring. But the nonprofit is offering a growing range of services to its young scholars, including mental health resources and social media support.

This year’s Taste of Point brought mixologists, restaurateurs, and donors together on May 3 at Room and Board for the annual celebration. With a number of local businesses and organizations donating to the silent auction, the event both raised money for Point Foundation’s scholarships while recognizing scholarship recipients and program alumni.

Among the lineup of featured speakers was one of the foundation’s flagship scholarship recipients, Rio Dennis, a dual master’s and law candidate at Georgetown University.

“I applied for the Point Foundation Flagship Scholarship because I believed in its mission of helping LGBTQ+ students achieve their academic goals while also providing training and resources so we can become better leaders within the LGBTQ community during school and long term,” Dennis said in her speech. 

The Taste of Point celebration began in 2013, born from another event called the Cornerstone Reception. Originally planned as a normal fundraiser with hor d’oeuvres, the foundation transformed it into the current Taste of Point celebration that facilitates partnerships with new, local restaurants.

Some restaurants, like Compass Rose and Hank’s Oyster Bar, partnered with Point Foundation for their first celebration. They have been catering at the fundraiser ever since.

“It really gives you the sense of the amount of love and the amount of community that we have around the Point Foundation and mission,” said Celina Gerbic, a member on the foundation’s board of directors. “They really see, with hearing from the scholars, what the effects can be if we’re raising money for those scholarships and mentoring opportunities.”

The event also allows the foundation to showcase new offerings, such as the Community College Scholarship that was rolled out just before the pandemic in collaboration with Wells Fargo. The community college program gives scholars a financial scholarship each year of their community college experience as well as coaching and admissions counseling for students planning to transfer to a university. 

Meanwhile, the foundation is also expanding its new BIPOC scholarship, which announced its next round of recipients on May 22. The scholarship is currently supporting between 500 and 555 scholars across the country.

Omari Foote, one of the current BIPOC scholarship recipients, appreciates how the scholarship recognizes her as a Black queer student. She is even encouraging other queer students and friends to apply to receive similar assistance.

However, Point is even more than that, Dennis notes. 

Before the school year started, the Point Foundation sent Dennis and all of the new flagship scholars to Los Angeles for a leadership development conference. Scholars discussed how to become active leaders on campus, how to ask for certain resources, what is offered by their campuses, and what tutoring programs are available.

This year, Point also did a joint partnership with an online therapy program to offer discounted prices for all scholars. 

“I have anxiety and depression and I struggled a lot in undergrad with trying to balance that with my having to support myself financially,” Dennis said. “So I was definitely grateful that Georgetown did have a program that is specifically for people of color to get free therapy and Point definitely helped with… asking those questions because it is one of those programs that isn’t as well publicized.”

Point even provided Dennis with a mentor who was also a Point Scholar in law school. Meeting monthly on Zoom and texting all throughout the month, Dennis’s mentor provides academic support that helps her use the right resources and make decisions about her career.

Foote finds the scholarship unique in other ways as well. As a recipient of a handful of other scholarships outside of Point, Foote’s interactions with her scholarship programs mostly stop after they send instructions for writing donor thank you notes. But Point keeps reaching out to maintain a relationship with scholars long after that.

“They’ve reached out to me to spotlight me on Instagram,” Foote said. “They reached out to me even for this dinner, paying for my transportation to and from the dinner … It’s like they’re not just there to give you the money. They’re there to really help you navigate the college world and to be that caring supportive system that a lot of us just don’t have anymore now that we are living by ourselves.”

Last November, the foundation also held an Out in Higher Ed Week, wherein they teach scholars how to be LGBTQ+ advocates on campus. These resources help students navigate the ins and outs of discussing LGBTQ+ issues in university settings.

After graduation, Dennis has even thought about returning to the Point Foundation as a mentor to help future Black queer students, especially first generation law students, balance their mental health and financial situations.

“Point has connected me with fellow scholars who have become my friends. Point has provided me with resources and support to succeed and thrive rather than just make it through,” Dennis said. “I definitely plan on continuing to be involved with Point.”

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