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Longtime gay activist Frank Kameny dies

Community, public officials mourn loss of LGBT movement hero, pioneer

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Frank Kameny

Frank Kameny’s gay rights activism predated the Stonewall riots by more than a decade. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Expressions of condolences from LGBT activists and their straight supporters poured in from across the country this week following the death in Washington on Tuesday of Franklin E. Kameny, one of the nation’s most prominent gay rights leaders.

Friends said Kameny, 86, appears to have died in his sleep while in bed at his house in Northwest Washington. A representative of the D.C. Medical Examiner’s office, who spoke to friends and well-wishers who stood outside the house Tuesday night, said the cause of death couldn’t be immediately determined.

Kameny’s passing came a little more than a month before the planned celebration on Nov. 15 of the 50th anniversary of his founding of the Mattachine Society of Washington, the first gay rights organization in the nation’s capital.

LGBT rights advocates Charles Francis and Bob Witeck, who were longtime friends of Kameny’s and established the project to preserve Kameny’s papers over a 50-year period, said they would be announcing soon plans for a memorial service to honor the gay rights leader’s life.

Witeck said Nov. 15 is being considered as a possible date for a Kameny memorial gathering.

Timothy Clark, Kameny’s tenant and friend, said he found Kameny unconscious and unresponsive in his bed shortly after 5 p.m. on Tuesday. Clark said he became concerned when he arrived home a few minutes earlier and noticed Kameny hadn’t retrieved his newspapers, which are delivered outside the house in the morning.

He said he called 911 and rescue workers determined that Kameny had passed away earlier, most likely in his sleep. Clark said he had spoken with Kameny shortly before midnight on the previous day and Kameny didn’t appear to be ill or in distress.

Kameny is credited with being one of the leading strategists for the early gay rights movement – beginning nearly a decade before the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York’s Greenwich Village and continuing forward.

The Stonewall riots, triggered by a police raid of the Stonewall gay bar, are considered by most activist leaders as the starting point of the modern LGBT rights movement. But movement leaders credit Kameny and his collaborators in the Mattachine Society of Washington with laying the groundwork that enabled the post-Stonewall LGBT organizing to flourish.

“Frank was a revolutionary who lived to see the world change, and I’m comforted by that,” said Francis. “He was the first gay American to root the argument for gay civil equality in the words of Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.”

Gay historian David K. Johnson, who wrote about Kameny in two books on the gay rights movement, said Kameny broke from the early American “homophile” movement’s tactics of accommodation with the prevailing views that homosexuality was a disorder.

“Kameny’s style and tactics differed markedly from those of earlier homosexual leaders,” Johnson wrote in a 2002 article posted on the website of D.C.’s Rainbow History Project. “By unabashedly proclaiming that homosexuality was neither sick nor immoral, Kameny helped move gays and lesbians out of the shadows of 1950s apologetic, self-help groups and into the sunlight of the civil rights movement, setting the tone for a movement that continues today.”

It was during his years as head of the Mattachine Society of Washington that Kameny in July 1968 coined the phrase, “Gay is Good,” which activists say became a forerunner to the gay pride celebrations that followed the 1969 Stonewall riots.

Born and raised in New York City, Kameny served in combat as an Army soldier in World War II in Europe. After the war, Kameny received his doctorate degree in astronomy from Harvard University.

He came to Washington in 1956 to take a position teaching astronomy at Georgetown University. The following year, government recruiters persuaded him to take a job as a civilian astronomer with the U.S. Army Map Service in Washington.

NASA career derailed

Kameny told the Blade in a 2002 interview that the nation’s race against the Soviet Union for superiority in space had just begun in full force and he 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 and Space Administration and Kameny 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 investigators uncovered information leading them to believe Kameny was gay. They opened an investigation into his 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 challenged the dismissal before the U.S. Civil Service Commission, which set personnel policies for federal employees. The commission upheld the firing, prompting Kameny to take the matter to court. After losing in the lower courts, he appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, becoming the first known gay person to file a gay-related case before the high court.

The Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling against Kameny and declined to hear the case. But Kameny’s decision to appeal the case through the court system motivated him to become a lifelong advocate on behalf of LGBT equality.

Gay historian Johnson wrote in his 2002 article that Kameny’s lawyer withdrew from the case after the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled against Kameny, forcing Kameny to write his own appeal to the Supreme Court.

Johnson called Kameny’s 60-page legal brief filed before the high court a groundbreaking challenge to the federal government’s policy barring homosexuals from working for the government in any capacity. Johnson said it served as Kameny’s and the gay movement’s strategy document for advancing legal rights for gays in the years going forward.

Kameny’s Supreme Court brief, or petition, also offered the world its first glimpse of what became his trademark use of blunt, sometimes inflammatory language combined with reasoned arguments to challenge anti-gay policies.

“The government’s regulations, policies, practices and procedures, as applied in the instant case to petitioner specifically, and as applied to homosexuals generally, are a stench in the nostrils of decent people, an offense against morality, an abandonment of reason, an affront to human dignity, an improper restraint upon proper freedom and liberty, a disgrace to any civilized society, and a violation of all that this nation stands for,” he wrote in his Supreme Court petition.

“These policies, practices, procedures, and regulations have gone too long unquestioned and too long unexamined by the courts,” he wrote.

Gov’t apologizes to Kameny

Although Kameny lost his own case, he spent the next decade working with attorneys and other gay and lesbian federal workers to chip away at the then U.S. Civil Service Commission’s ban on gay federal employees through new court challenges. By 1975, after losing several cases to gay employees who won reinstatement to their jobs over a period of years, the Civil Service Commission dropped its ban on gay employees.

The change, which came under the administration of President Gerald Ford, was based on court rulings saying the government could not discriminate against homosexual federal employees if no evidence exists to show a harmful “nexus” between someone’s sexual orientation and their ability to perform their job.

Kameny, who called the development a major victory for gay rights, turned next to ongoing efforts to end two other anti-gay policies of the government – the ban on gays from receiving government security clearances and the ban on gays in the military.

In 2009, the Obama administration through the U.S. Office of Personnel Management – the successor agency to the Civil Service Commission – issued Kameny a formal apology for his 1957 firing. The apology was extended by OPM Director John Berry, an openly gay man.

In an area of work for which Kameny is less known, he established a paralegal practice in the 1970s that continued through the 1980s and early 90s to represent gays encountering problems obtaining or retaining security clearances as well as gays facing discharge from the military because of their sexual orientation.

Activists following his paralegal work, including those who he helped keep their security clearances, called Kameny a tenacious counsel who sometimes worked with lawyers and other times served as an administrative representative before adjudicatory hearings, including discharge hearings in all branches of the military.

“When the super-secret National Security Agency (NSA) was on the verge of firing me simply for discovering I was gay, I enlisted Frank Kameny’s help in resisting,” said Jamie Shoemaker, a linguist and NSA career employee.

“His gutsy, unapologetic efforts to save my career and that of many others with security clearances led to a ground-breaking change in the attitude of our country’s intelligence agencies toward gays,” Shoemaker said.

Kameny said he was pleased when his security clearance practice became mostly unnecessary in the 1990s when President Bill Clinton issued an executive order prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in the issuance of government security clearances.

Soliciting sodomy

In his work with military service members ensnared in what activists called witch hunts, where military investigators pressured vulnerable gays to identify other gays under false promises of lenient treatment, Kameny coined another phrase aimed at helping those under investigation – “Say nothing, sign nothing, get counsel.”

Charles Francis and others who knew Kameny said his paralegal work met an important need in the years before groups such as Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and Servicemembers Legal Defense Network emerged to take on this type of legal work.

LGBT movement colleagues also credit Kameny with playing a lead role in the effort to persuade the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 to remove homosexuality from its list of disorders. As a scientist by profession, Kameny wrote and spoke often beginning in the 1960s about what he called the faulty or “junk” science that the psychiatric profession used to support its claim that homosexuality was a mental disorder.

Kameny and others supporting him within the profession argued that nearly all of the “gays are sick” theories were based on studies of patients in therapy. There were little or no studies made of the overwhelming majority of gays who never sought therapy and functioned well in society despite widespread anti-gay prejudice, Kameny and others argued.

When broader studies were conducted of gays and lesbians in the population at large, findings showed there were no differences in the numbers found to have mental health problems between samples of gays and straights, Kameny often pointed out.

In yet another area of work, Kameny is credited with playing an early and effective role in pushing for repeal of state sodomy laws, which made it illegal for consenting adults to engage in oral or anal sex in the privacy of the home. In keeping with his characteristic defiant rhetoric, Kameny sought to dramatize what he called the “lunacy” of laws prohibiting private, consenting sex.

On a number of occasions he publicly solicited public officials, including D.C.’s police chief in the 1960s, to engage in sodomy with him. In 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Georgia’s sodomy law in the case Bowers vs. Hardwick, Kameny said he wrote letters soliciting sodomy to each of the Supreme Court justices that voted to uphold the law.

“I defied them to prosecute me,” he told the Blade. “They never did.”

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Kameny “led an extraordinary life marked by heroic activism that set a path for the modern LGBT civil rights movement.”

“From the early days fighting institutionalized discrimination in the federal workforce, Dr. Kameny taught us all that ‘Gay is Good,’” Solmonese said. “As we say goodbye to this trailblazer on National Coming Out Day, we remember the remarkable power we all have to change the world by living our lives like Frank – openly, honestly and authentically.”

Chuck Wolfe, CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, said Kameny’s death marked the “loss of a hero and a founding father of the fight to end discrimination against LGBT people.”

“Dr. Kameny stood up for this community when doing so was considered unthinkable and even shocking, and he continued to do so throughout his life,” Wolfe said. “He spoke with a clear voice and firm conviction about the humanity and dignity of people who were gay, long before it was safe for him to do so. All of us who today endeavor to complete the work he began a half century ago are indebted to Dr. Kameny and his remarkable bravery and commitment.”

Local activists who knew Kameny said they are deeply saddened over his passing but pleased to have shared time with him at several LGBT events in Washington during the past three weeks.

On Sept. 30, D.C.’s LGBT Community Center honored Kameny along with three other activists with its community service award at a ceremony at the downtown Hotel Sofitel. Kameny delivered what his activist friends called his standard and beloved fiery speech asserting his 50-year struggle to change society to bring about full and unabridged rights for LGBT people. It was to be his last speaking engagement.

His passing inside his house on Tuesday came several years after the city designated the house at 5020 Cathedral Ave., N.W., as a historic landmark because of the work Kameny and his activist colleagues performed there since the 1960s on behalf of LGBT rights. In 2010, the D.C. City Council voted unanimously to name a two-block section of 17th Street near Dupont Circle as Frank Kameny Way in honor of Kameny’s lifelong work on behalf of equality for the LGBT community and the community at large.”

Kameny’s death also came five years after Francis and Witeck helped arrange for the Library of Congress to acquire more than 50,000 documents from the Kameny Papers Project, which pulled together nearly 50 years of papers and documents that Kameny compiled through his work on behalf of LGBT people.

“Frank Kameny was the Rosa Parks and the Martin Luther King and the Thurgood Marshall of the gay rights movement,” Yale Law Professor William Eskridge told the Associated Press earlier this year.

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Delaware

Blade Foundation awards 7th Steve Elkins journalism fellowship

Joe Reberkenny will cover Delaware LGBTQ news all summer

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Joseph Reberkenny

The Blade Foundation this week announced the recipient of its 2024 Steve Elkins Memorial Fellowship in Journalism is Joseph Reberkenny, a recent graduate of American University.

He will cover issues of interest to Delaware’s LGBTQ community for 12 weeks this summer. The fellowship is named in honor of Steve Elkins, a journalist and co-founder of the CAMP Rehoboth LGBT community center. Elkins served as editor of Letters from CAMP Rehoboth for many years as well as executive director of the center before his death in March of 2018.

Kevin Naff, editor of the Blade, welcomed Reberkenny and introduced him to the Rehoboth Beach community at a recent event there. 

“We’re all excited to work with Joseph during this important election year in which Delaware is poised to make history by electing the nation’s first transgender congressperson and only the fourth Black woman U.S. Senator,” Naff said.

Reberkenny is the seventh recipient of the Elkins fellowship, which is funded by community donations at the Blade Foundation’s annual fundraiser in Rehoboth Beach. This year’s event was held May 17 at the Blue Moon and included a generous sponsorship from Realtor Justin Noble and a keynote address by Sarah McBride, a candidate for U.S. House.

“I am honored to work for the Blade and to contribute to its rich history in supporting the LGBTQ community,” Reberkenny said. “I am excited to cover Delaware’s politics, and can’t wait to amplify voices that deserve to be heard.” 

“The CAMP Rehoboth community is thrilled to know that the Washington Blade continues to support a student intern in memory of Steve Elkins,” said Kim Leisey, Ph.D., executive director of CAMP Rehoboth. 

For more information on the fellowship program or to donate, visit bladefoundation.org.

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Maryland

Turning around sex trafficking: One year after Safe Harbor in Maryland

TurnAround Inc. working to rescue youth, trans girls from exploitation

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The staff at TurnAround Inc. in Baltimore.

In 2023, the law in Maryland dictated the following: If a child was discovered to be sex trafficked during a sting operation, they were to be arrested, handcuffed, and then incarcerated as a “child prostitute.” One survivor testified to Maryland lawmakers that after being trafficked throughout College Park from ages 12 to 15, it was their ‘rescue’ by law enforcement that was the most traumatizing part of their experience.

In 40 states and in federal law, the sex trafficking of minors was already understood to be a crime committed against children, and not a crime committed by children. When Gov. Wes Moore signed the Safe Harbor law on May 16th of last year, prohibiting the criminal prosecution of sex-trafficked minors, he brought Maryland out of a legal dark age.

How do things look in Maryland a year later? The Washington Blade got in touch with TurnAround Inc., headquartered in Baltimore, to find out. TurnAround is Maryland’s first provider of comprehensive services to survivors of sexual trafficking, Baltimore’s rape crisis center, and a support center for victims of intimate partner violence and sexual violence.

Perhaps the most striking thing about TurnAround is how large of an operation it is — how large of an operation it needs to be. The organization fielded more than 10,000 calls on their hotline in 2022, conducted almost 4,000 counseling sessions, and placed 337 clients in safe shelter: nearly one for every day of the year. But the staff at TurnAround is relieved to see these numbers so high. During the pandemic, there was a steep decrease in reports of sex trafficking. 

“[COVID] had a very chilling effect on the number of trafficking survivors that were getting access to services,” said Amanda Rodriguez, executive director of TurnAround. Many of the avenues through which cases were referred to TurnAround simply shut down. The hospitals were inundated with COVID cases, and so weren’t referring anyone; the schools were closed down, and so weren’t referring anyone; and State Attorney Marilyn Mosby stopped prosecuting low-level crimes, which had the unintended consequence of limiting the opportunities law enforcement had to identify youth at risk of trafficking.

In 2020, TurnAround moved into a new office in downtown Baltimore, and it is cavernous — half the floor of a skyscraper. When you walk in, you could mistake the headquarters for a dentist’s office for how calmly the front desk attendant answers the phone. A few lines here and there give away the seriousness of their work: “Is it OK for us to leave a voicemail?” Not every caller’s phone is a safe place.

The office is flanked by a hallway of therapists on one side of the building, who focus on the inner lives of their clients, and a hallway of advocates on the other side, who focus on their outer lives: support in court, government benefits, direct outreach on the streets of Baltimore. At the center are a host of services one would think spread across the whole of the city: a computer center, a clothing donation center, storage for the goods and products needed to survive while in shelter, a kitchen for group meals, and a place to wash and dry your clothes. But the most sobering part of the office is the play center full of toys, for the children that TurnAround serves. “We have clients as young as three years old,” said Jean Henningsen, senior director of strategic initiatives. Some of these children come in as the dependents of adult survivors, but they are sometimes the victims of sexual violence themselves.

“When we were creating Safe Harbor, we looked to see how many kids had been arrested and charged by law enforcement in every county in the state,” Amanda said. “Baltimore City had the highest number at the time. This has changed since then, and is actually getting much better.” The majority of these trafficked kids were trans girls living in the Charles Village neighborhood of Baltimore — a situation that would surprise many Baltimore residents. Charles Village has a reputation for being one of the safest neighborhoods in the city. It is the neighborhood of Johns Hopkins University, which has, in an effort to assuage the concerned parents of its undergraduates, stationed security officers on many of the surrounding street corners. Despite criticism, the university recently partnered with the Baltimore Police Department to create its own police force, and has started recruiting and training officers as of this spring.

“It’s historically been a safer neighborhood for the LGBTQ community in general,” Amanda said. “I don’t know what spurred more nefarious individuals coming in and exploiting people, other than opportunity. Traffickers are just such master manipulators. They will figure out for anybody what their vulnerability is.” But these nefarious individuals are not part of some transnational crime organization. They are sometimes trans women themselves, trafficking these girls to serve their own needs in the home. Often rejected by their families and in search of community,  trans girls find this community among other trans women, and then get manipulated into sexual service.

The procedure for dealing with suspected child sex trafficking in Maryland begins with what are called “Regional Navigators,” a role established by the Child Sex Trafficking Screening and Services Act of 2019. Law enforcement agents and local departments of Social Services will notify the county’s Regional Navigator of a suspected trafficking case, and then this Regional Navigator will put together a Multi-Disciplinary Team, or MDT. The MDT consists of all agents and departments that are involved in or have some stake in the case, including Child Protective Services, Juvenile Services, law enforcement, therapists, and schools. These stakeholders will compare notes on what the youth has told them, since they will often have provided different agents and departments with competing descriptions of what’s going on. 

While the MDT procedure is highly effective for inter-departmental coordination on a given case, Stephanie Gonzalez, the Acting Regional Navigator for Howard County, explained that the system has some way to go when it comes to LGBTQ youth. “When we get referrals in general, a lot of times, it’s not mentioned how they identify,” she said. As a consequence, their data on how many LGBTQ youth are being trafficked isn’t always accurate, and these youth sometimes aren’t being handled in ways consonant with their sexual or gender identity. And even when these youth are appropriately identified, they aren’t always able to access the appropriate resources.

“We had a transgender female come to us from another state, and she had been trafficked,” Stephanie said. “We had her in a hotel while we looked for other housing options. We could not find trans-friendly housing options.” The women’s shelters they approached didn’t have the requisite training or resources. They would ask insensitive and irrelevant questions about any surgeries the girl had undergone as part of her transition, or require that she be isolated from other women for their safety. “Why are they trying to make it seem like I’m going to hurt someone,” she would ask.

But that situation is changing. TurnAround has partnered with the YWCA of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County to open up a safe house with the resources needed to support any child survivor of sex trafficking. “It’s built!” Jean said. “TurnAround will be staffing it and running it 24/7. Right now there are no children in the facility. We’re still waiting on the final licensing paperwork from the state.”

The project is expensive, with an estimated running cost of $1.5 million each year. TurnAround has partnered with Femi Ayanbadejo, a former Super Bowl winner with the Baltimore Ravens, to help coordinate fundraising. Ayanbadejo advocates for TurnAround with a deep enthusiasm—hearing him talk on the work they do, it could easily be a field-side interview in the final quarter of a game. “If we can reach five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty thousand people that we wouldn’t have with [the Blade’s] reach, maybe there’s one or two foundations that would give five, ten, a hundred, a thousand, maybe a million dollars. Who knows?”

To learn more about TurnAround’s work, visit their website at turnaroundinc.org. If you or someone you know is experiencing sexual violence, TurnAround has offices in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Howard County. All three offices can be reached via 410-377-8111.

CJ Higgins is a postdoctoral fellow with the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

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District of Columbia

12 percent of D.C. homeless adults identify as LGBTQ

Annual count shows increase over 2023

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The number of LGBTQ homeless in D.C. is growing by double digits.

In a development not widely reported, the 2024 annual Point-In-Time (PIT) Count of homeless people in the District of Columbia conducted in January shows that 527 or 12 percent of the homeless adults counted identified as “part of the of the LGBTQ+ community based on their responses to questions about their sexual orientation and gender identity,” according to a report released on May 13 by the D.C. Department of Human Services.

The 195-page report, which was prepared by the Metropolitan Washington Council  of Governments, or COG, includes separate counts of homeless people in the entire D.C. metropolitan area, including the surrounding Maryland and Virginia suburbs. A statement released by the D.C. DHS says the D.C. count was conducted for the city  by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, a local nonprofit group that provides services to homeless people.

The count of D.C. homeless people shows that a greater number of what the report calls Transition Age Youth between the ages of 18 and 24 — 28 percent — identified as LGBTQ, but it doesn’t provide the specific number that the 28 percent comprises.

“As in past counts, Transition Age Youth (ages 18-24) were more likely than older adults experiencing homelessness to identify as LGBTQ+,” the report says, “To wit, 34 percent of unaccompanied youth and eight percent of parenting youth (or 28 percent of all 18-to-year-olds) identified as LGBTQ+ compared to estimates of around nine percent of youth in the District at large,” according to the report.

The report says the total number of homeless people counted in D.C during the one-day count conducted on Jan. 24, was 5,616, with the total number of homeless adults coming to 4,391 based on the 12 percent figure said to comprise LGBTQ adults. It says the count was conducted by a team of trained counters who visited homeless shelters and places on the streets and other locations where homeless people are known to reside and congregate.

This year’s D.C. count showed an overall 14 percent increase in the number of homeless people compared to 2023. This year’s count of 527 LGBTQ homeless people marks an increase over the 349 LGBTQ homeless people counted in D.C. in 2023 and 347 LGBTQ counted in 2022.

This year’s report also says that for LGBTQ+ youth in the District, there are at least 53 transitional housing units and a rehousing program that serves 20 individuals at a time. Although the report doesn’t identify the LGBTQ youth housing facilities by name, they most likely are operated by the local LGBTQ youth services organization SMYAL and the Wanda Alston Foundation, which also provides housing services for LGBTQ homeless youth.

SMYAL spokesperson Hancie Stokes said SMYAL currently operates residential facilities that accommodate 55 homeless LGBTQ youth.  

“In Maryland and the District of Columbia, as well as nationwide, a key contributing factor to youth experiencing homelessness was conflict with a parent, guardian, or foster parent,” the report states.  

In addition, the report mentions that D.C. opened its first shelter for homeless LGBTQ+ adults in 2022 that serves up to 40 individuals. It says that the shelter, which D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser initiated, was filled to capacity on the day the count was conducted.

The report states that the count conducted in Arlington shows that 4 percent of the homeless identified as LGBTQ and 1.2 percent identified as transgender.

Like other jurisdictions, including D.C., the Arlington count showed that 63 percent of all homeless people counted identified as male and 36 percent identified as female.

The full 2024 Point-In-Time Count report of homeless people in the D.C. metro area can be accessed here.

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