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Kameny in context

How will the trailblazer be remembered? And what is his rightful place in the pantheon of gay rights legends?

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Frank Kameny among his colleagues in Los Angeles in 1998 to honor Jim Kepner and the 50th anniversary of the gay rights movement. First row from left are Lisa Ben, the late Harry Hay, the late John Burnside, Jose Sarria, the late Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon; (second row) Fred Frisbie, the late Bob Basker, Kameny, Florence Fleischman, the late Hal Call, Robin Tyler; (third row) the late Philip Johnson, Eddie Sandifer, the late Vern Bullough, Malcolm Boyd; (fourth row) the late Barbara Gittings, Kay Tobin Lahusen, the late Jack Nichols, Mark Segal, unidentified; (fifth row) the late Cliff Anchor, Leo Laurence, Eldon Murray, John O’Brien and Jerome Stevens. (Photo by Fred Camerer; reprinted with permission)

News outlets over the past week — both LGBT and mainstream — have reported the death of Frank Kameny, the legendary Washington-based activist universally regarded as one of the most influential pre-Stonewall homophile movement leaders.

Kameny died Oct. 11 at age 86 at his home in Northwest Washington and the news accounts have relayed oft-noted biographical facts that have taken on increasingly mythic proportions over the years: his firing from the Army Map Service in 1957 for being gay, the 1961 founding of the D.C. Mattachine Society, the “gay is good” slogan he coined, his role in convincing the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder, the Clinton-signed presidential executive order that permitted gay people to be given security clearances, the repeal of D.C.’s anti-sodomy law, his decades of work with the local Gay Activists Alliance (GAA; later GLAA) and more.

But once the dust settles — memorial services are planned for Washington and San Francisco on Nov. 15, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the D.C. Mattachine chapter — what will Kameny’s legacy be? Never one to shy away from taking credit, might his bluster and longevity have created a sense of myth about him? Or could his D.C. home base over so many years (he arrived here in 1956 and never left) have skewed perceptions of his efforts among local activists who may not be aware of the contributions of Kameny’s peers in other cities, especially on the West Coast? And where does Kameny fit in among other pioneering activists of his era? The Blade spoke to several gay historians, Kameny peers — both here and around the country — and friends to find out.

Kameny among peers

Kameny’s World War II-era generation is, of course, reaching its later years and many of the pre-Stonewall homophile activists — legendary figures such as Barbara Gittings, Harry Hay, Del Martin, Jim Foster, Jim Kepner, Jack Nichols and Hal Call — have died.

San Francisco’s Phyllis Lyon, who married her late partner Del Martin in 2008 after more than 50 years of joint activism, says she’s doing well (she’ll be 87 next month), still drives and has “no intention” of leaving her home, though life, obviously, has been a lot different since Martin’s 2008 death, just two months after they got married. She speaks highly of Kameny but admits to being fuzzy on specifics.

“Well, I think he did a lot of very good things, definitely,” she says. “I do remember Frank and I was very sorry to hear that he had died but it was different in those early days. I guess you could say the lesbians and gay men weren’t always buddy buddy buddy buddy back then. We worked together some, but in essence we also worked mostly with our own sexes.”

Things were somewhat different in Washington. Though she eventually moved on and did other things with her life, Lilli Vincenz, 73, was an early Washington-based activist who was in the Mattachine Society here and joined Kameny in his legendary White House protest in April 1965. She also knew — as did Lyon — the late Harry Hay, who started the first Mattachine Society in Los Angeles in 1950, which Kameny regarded as the start of the modern gay rights movement in the U.S. (a 1920s Chicago-based group was quickly shut down by police though a gay “emancipation group” started in 1897 in Berlin and lasted decades before being shut down by Hitler’s Nazi regime).

Two gay rights icons, now both gone. Harry Hay, left, and Frank Kameny. (Blade file photo)

“Well, they had a slightly different approach,” Vincenz says of Hay and Kameny. “Frank was here taking advantage of Washington and being close to all the big government agencies, so that was his focus.”

Paul Kuntzler, who was just 20 when he met Kameny at the Chicken Hut in early 1962, was always “the kid” of the group. He says, as was Kameny’s contention, that the D.C. Mattachine Society was accomplishing things gays in other U.S. cities — chapters also existed in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles at the time — weren’t doing.

“A lot of them were just content to do more research and education,” Kuntzler says. “Originally I thought Harry Hay was very brave and I think originally they were very active, but they kind of got disinvolved.”

Kuntzler says it started with Hay’s group in 1950, the second wave was in Washington in the early ‘60s, then Stonewall, the 1969 New York riots that catapulted gay rights issues into the mainstream consciousness.

In Kuntzler’s estimation, Kameny is “the most influential and most important person in the history of the gay rights movement. The only other person I’d put in that league would be Barbara Gittings who died in February 2007. She was an intellectual heavyweight, but not quite up there with Frank. But she was very powerful and influential.”

San Francisco-based activist Michael Petrelis, who in 2009 launched an effort to have Kameny awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor, agrees. He lived from 1990-1995 in Washington and, though they sometimes clashed on issues of AIDS activism, saw Kameny as a grandfather of sorts.

“Some of my pushy personality, my pushy activism, comes from Frank,” Petrelis says.

Historical assessments

But how does Kameny’s legacy sit with gay historians? Depends whom one asks.

Gay scholar John Lauritsen, who wrote two essays for the 2002 anthology “Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in a Historical Context,” says Kameny should certainly be admired for his contributions but that he was only one type of activist whose efforts should be put in context. Lauritsen, during a phone chat from his Boston home, says he was active in the homophile movement since 1960 and knew Kameny and Gittings in the ‘70s when they would meet at various conferences.

“Our politics were much different,” Lauritsen says. “I was much more radical. But Frank was always friendly to me … I would say I admired Kameny. He was a very good public speaker … but I think one has to give credit to the scholars and Kameny was not a scholar … I think he was more a good publicist perhaps. I’m not sure he really did invent the saying ‘gay is good,’ that’s been debated, but at least it was a catchy slogan and it played a role in the movement at the time.”

Kameny could be a polarizing figure. Though even his detractors in the gay world eventually came to mostly acknowledge his accomplishments, in the early years there was much debate about the appropriate plan to gain traction with the movement.

“In those days, people felt he was rather reckless and far too militant,” says writer David Carter who interviewed Kameny about 45 times over the last several years for a biography he hopes to publish. “It’s funny though, after Stonewall, he was held up as a symbol of not being militant enough but that was more of a caricature of Frank.”

Frank Kameny (Blade file photo by Doug Hinkle)

Michael Bronski, whose book “A Queer History of the United States” came out in May, teaches women, gender and LGBT studies at Dartmouth. He praises Kameny’s work but agrees, Kameny wasn’t working alone and it’s important to remember others.

“It’s vitally important to remember Frank and to give him credit for all this, but the ‘50s were really an incredible time … It’s unfair, I agree, to try to rank people mostly, unless the ranking happens by simply looking at the facts, but does the average gay person reading the Advocate really know who Harry Hay was or who Harvey Milk was? They think of Sean Penn or they might say, ‘Harvey Milk, wasn’t he married to Madonna in the ‘80s?’ Not knowing about Frank is a huge loss and it’s a loss that needs to be corrected. But I don’t think this is just an LGBT problem, it’s an American problem in general.”

Bronski is quick to point out, though, that Kameny is part of a small list of pre-Stonewall iconoclasts.

“Harry Hay, Del and Phyllis, Barbara Gittings — there aren’t many whose names come to the forefront because a lot of the work (others) did was very quiet, so somebody like, say, Randy Wicker, who founded the Oscar Wilde bookstore and the Mattachine Society in New York before Stonewall, that was a different kind of a thing.”

Paul Boneberg, executive director of the San Francisco-based GLBT Historical Society, is more unequivocal.

“There is no greater gay activist than Frank Kameny,” Boneberg says. “He is one of the heroic founders of the modern era.”

Boneberg agrees with Bronski — the pre-Stonewall movers and shakers list is quite small.

“He’s part of a very small group,” Boneberg says. “He and a few of the early activists really founded the GLBT movement and the community is what it is because of people like Frank and what’s extraordinary is that his work in the ’50s and ‘60s continued right up until this year. It was really a lifetime of service to the queer community. … What we’re seeing is the passing of the queer community’s greatest generation. That World War II generation that he was part of. He was just an extraordinary individual and it’s a great loss to the community.”

Malcolm Lazin, executive director of the Equality Form and executive producer of the PBS documentary “Gay Pioneers, unequivocally this week called Kameny “the father of the LGBT civil rights movement” in a press release. The term hasn’t been widely used but may become more common as Kameny’s contributions are assessed.

And where might LGBT rights be today if Kameny hadn’t done what he did?

“I think on one level, what Frank did moved us ahead incredibly far,” Bronski says. “But if Frank didn’t exist, would somebody else have done it? Possibly. You know Frank wasn’t the only person to get arrested and lose his job. It’s conceivable and actually likely that somebody else would have had the courage to do that, but in no way do I say that to diminish what he did, but did the movement depend on Frank? I don’t think so. Did Frank move the movement forward? Sure.”

Kameny on Kameny

And what did Kameny himself think of his place in the history books? Outtakes from an Aug. 16 interview pertaining to the push for a presidential Medal of Freedom for him, found him waxing nostalgic for several of his peers.

“Just about all these people are gone,” Kameny said. “One of the first I would name would be Barbara Gittings, whom I miss very, very much. Another would be Jack Nichols. One by one they have all gone.”

Kameny also mentioned several activists whose work has been more D.C.-centric.

“On much less a level, but still someone who goes all the way back would be Craig Howell and coming much later onto the scene and I first got to know him in college in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but I would also say Rick Rosendall. That’s just off the top of my head. Many of them have just all died off one after another and I’m very, very sorry to see some of them go, but that happens.”

Kameny phoned the next morning to say he was “embarrassed I overlooked Paul Kuntzler. He goes back to the very beginning of my involvement in 1961 right after we formed the Mattachine Society … he was perhaps the last one going back to the ‘60s who’s still around.”

Comparing Kameny’s life and work to Harvey Milk’s — the first openly gay man to be elected to public office when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — is apples and oranges, many say. If Milk’s story is more widely known, it’s undoubtedly because it’s been told several times, most memorably, perhaps, in a 2008 Academy Award-winning film. That he died young (he was murdered at age 48) perhaps gave him a JFK-like stature among gays that captured their consciousness.

“They were just from very different times,” Boneberg says. “Harvey is separated almost a whole generation and he would have acknowledged that. … It’s hard for people today to imagine how difficult it was to stand up and be out back then. Time is such a huge factor. That first generation stood alone and said, ‘I will not take this.’ Frank did that. [Drag legend] Jose [Sarria] did that. It’s just something later people have not had to do because there were already other people standing. It’s very hard for people to grasp. There were profound legal consequences and people who were gay were literally destroyed.”

Even Cleve Jones, a friend and contemporary of Milk and an activist in his own right, says their lives are too different to warrant much comparison.

“Harvey and all of us who came after the Stonewall rebellion, all of us were marching down a road that had already been paved by people like Frank, Barbara [Gittings], Phyllis and Del … the Stonewall generation was still in the closet when Frank was doing his work, so you can’t really compare them.”

Choices made

Milk, of course, suffered. But those close to him say Kameny suffered in other ways — less dramatic, but also difficult.

“He lived in poverty,” Kuntzler says. “He got some inheritance money from his mother and he eventually bought [his] house, but it was a struggle. I gave him money for his fax machine. People helped him out, but he lived basically in poverty, there’s no question about it.”

Marvin Carter, a local gay volunteer with Helping Our Brothers and Sisters who’d known Kameny for years, started helping him the winter before last during several extreme blizzards the region suffered.

“There’d been a few calls here and there before, but that’s when we really started to see the extent of the situation,” Carter says. “He was snowed in and had no groceries. … It was really a bad situation.”

But was some of that by choice? Obviously in recent years Kameny was elderly, but why didn’t he work much — at least for income — in the ‘70s and ‘80s? Couldn’t he have secured a position doing the work he loved for an organization like Human Rights Campaign or National Gay & Lesbian Task Force?

Kuntzler says Kameny was “very stubborn” and single minded in his activist philosophies.

“He was very independent, very much his own person. It would have been very hard for him to acquiesce to someone else’s vision,” Kuntzler says. “He absolutely sacrificed.”

Bronski agrees, but with a caveat.

“Yes, he made that sacrifice, but it’s important to remember that he made it on his own. There wasn’t a vote on it. We should all be thankful and we can’t expect other people to do the same. It’s a matter of self sacrifice, but yes, from what I’ve heard he did actually live in fairly impoverished conditions.”

(Blade file photo)

Time, of course, has a way of putting individuals’ contributions into perspective. In the meantime, Kameny’s colleagues are remembering him fondly.

“In my opinion, his legacy is already established,” Vincenz says. “He was a tutor to me and I was very thrilled to work with him. … I saw him as a zealot, very effective. He also had such a kind heart. I was reading not long ago his lovely eulogy to Barbara and it was just beautiful.”

Kuntzler remembers a rabble-rouser who “delighted in antagonizing.”

“He was never violent, it was all intellectual,” he says. “And he was very self assured. He didn’t question it at all. He truly felt that he was right and they were all wrong.”

 

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Miscellaneous

LGBTQ people: Canaries in a violent coal mine

We continue to be targets We continue to be targets of politically inspired attacks

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Did you read about the group of staid U.S. historians who just met privately with President Biden to warn him that U.S. democracy is teetering? They told him we’re closer to civil war and authoritarian rule than at any point in history since the 1860s.

Guess who knew that already? Queer people. Black people. Immigrants. Women. Politicians on the right are using us as punching bags, and violence is breaking out everywhere.

It’s not in our imaginations, and I’ll show you the data in just a minute to back that up. Then I’ll explain what that has to do with the breakdown of democracy.

But first, let’s meet some canaries.

Chuck Johnson and J.P. Singh recently told the Washington Blade a group of young men spotted them holding hands steps away from their D.C. home. As the couple was returning from an evening out, the group shouted that they were “faggots” and punched them both. The couple ran, but the men chased them down. They knocked Chuck to the ground, punching and kicking him.

Responding to J.P.’s 911 call, EMS rushed Chuck to the hospital where he was treated for a broken thumb and underwent surgery for a jaw broken in two places.

According to the Blade, another gay couple was attacked in D.C. under similar unprovoked circumstances on Aug. 7, chased down by random strangers who objected to them holding hands, then called them “monkeypox faggots,” knocking them to the ground, brutally punching and kicking them.

Jacob and Christian are also canaries.

They’re a gay couple who were attacked while standing at the end of Christian’s driveway in a suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah in July. A group of young men in a car spotted them hugging. They jumped out, yelling, “We don’t like gay people in our street.”

Christian tried to defend Jacob from violence by stepping in front of him. He ended up on the ground, beaten so badly he landed in the hospital diagnosed with brain swelling.

I interviewed Christian and his family earlier this month and learned that he often puts up with anti-gay slurs shouted at him in the street by random strangers.

Over the past week, nurses and doctors in Boston have received a barrage of hateful phone calls and text messages, including at least one bomb threat, inspired by anti-LGBTQ extremist Chaya Raichik of Brooklyn who tweets as Libs of Tiktok. Raichik objects to parents choosing gender-affirming care for transgender teens, and she objects to medical providers delivering that care. She used Twitter to unleash an army of Proud Boys and other haters.

Slate reporter and Harvard Law instructor Alejandra Caraballo tweeted this: “In the last 5 days, Libs of Tiktok has tweeted and retweeted 14 posts about Boston Children’s Hospital. As a result, BCH providers are being inundated in death threats and harassing calls and emails. It’s now affecting their services. This is stochastic terrorism, full stop.”

When I saw the tweet, I called a friend of mine who practices internal medicine at a different Boston hospital. As I asked him for a comment, he reminded me that we watched the 2016 election returns together at a bar in Detroit.

“I won’t say I told you so,” he said. “But I told you so.”

I remembered how fearful he became the night Donald Trump was elected. “I’m from Lebanon,” he reminded me, “and my last name broadcasts ‘Arab’ loud and clear. Trump is going to make my life hell, and since you’re a gay man, you’d better be as worried as I am.”

Libs of Tiktok is the tip of the iceberg on Twitter, where attacks against LGBTQ people are constant background noise, and where community standards meant to prohibit slurs and attacks are rarely enforced. Caraballo asks in her tweet thread, “When will Twitter do something about [Libs of TikTok] and their ability to rile up massive harassment campaigns against their targets? Last time it was Nazis at pride and drag events. This time it’s threatening pediatricians.”

According to a new study released on Aug. 10 by the Human Rights Campaign and the Center for Countering Digital Hate, “discriminatory and inflammatory “grooming” content surge by over 400% across social media platforms” in response to Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law.

According to Christopher Kane writing in the Los Angeles Blade, major social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter are doing almost nothing to counter growing waves of anti-LGBTQ hate speech on their platforms. Both platforms claim their rules prohibit users from calling LGBTQ people pedophiles or groomers, but neither platform routinely removes such slurs, not even when users report the slurs.

According to Alexandra Martinez writing in Prism, anti-LGBTQ arson and frequent street attacks in New York City have left queer people this summer living with a gnawing feeling of unease.

It’s not just New York City. She notes that 2021 was the deadliest year on record for LGBTQ people in the U.S., and that violence rates are surging higher in 2022.

Remember Ricky Shiffer who was shot and killed after he tried to shoot up an Ohio FBI office? He was outraged that the FBI searched Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. He urged people to arm themselves and join him.

Did you know hatred of LGBTQ people is one of the reasons he supported Trump? Read this tweet, in an account deleted after his attack:

“We need to be ready for war against the communists who chemically nueter [sic] prebuscent [sic] children and call it gender transitioning, not bellyache about the arguments of 30 years ago. Save ammunition.”

Large majorities of Americans say they support LGBTQ equality. Large majorities of Americans say they believe our nation should stand for freedom and liberty for all, including for marginalized people. Large majorities of Americans support women’s reproductive freedom, support taking steps to lift up Black people, and support immigrant rights.

Large majorities of Americans want to live in a diverse, pluralistic society where everyone is free to pursue happiness and live in peace.

I wrote this column from the perspective of a queer person, but my Lebanese-American doctor friend could have written something similar from his immigrant perspective. My writer friend Allison Gaines could have written from the perspective of a Black woman.

We share a common fear: that politically and religiously conservative white men are working as hard as they can to sow fear of the Other for personal power and privilege. Men like Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, and many more are plying the demagogue’s trade.

Leaders are spouting hate, seeking to establish or maintain minority rule, and historians are warning President Biden that they may very well succeed.

Chuck Johnson, J.P. Singh, Chad Sanford, Jacob Metcalf, Christian Peacock, and a score of nurses and doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital already know. They’ve been the targets of extreme violence in the past few weeks, directed by people using hatred of the Other to prop up their own privilege and power.

I opened this article by writing about the historians who told President Biden that we’re at a place we haven’t been since the 1860s. In the same meeting, they made a more frightening comparison.

They warned the president we’re at a very similar place to where Germany found itself in the 1930s when a demagogue took power by demonizing the Jews. They say a war like the one that destroyed Europe could repeat itself soon, only with the U.S. in the driver’s seat.

We worry the rest of you don’t see and hear the hatred directed against us. We worry that you’re too complacent. We don’t think you appreciate the gravity of the crisis facing our nation. We fear apathy will let the the Republican Party seize Congress and state governments this November, unleashing a process that could cement minority rule for generations.

Extremists in the Republican Party are already quietly taking over state election offices, something the Washington Post warned about last November.

Will Democratic voter turnout this November be overwhelming? Will it be enough to stop the assault on our teetering Democracy?

Only you can help make that happen. Will you?

(The preceding article was previously published by Prism & Pen– Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling and is republished by permission.)

James Finn is a columnist for the Los Angeles Blade, a former Air Force intelligence analyst, and alumnus of Queer Nation and ACT UP. Reach him at [email protected].

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Anne Heche dies after removal from life support

Actress dated Ellen DeGeneres in late 1990s

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(Screenshot/YouTube Inside Edition)

Actress Anne Heche died after she was removed from life support on Sunday, nearly two weeks after her Mini-Cooper crashed through a two-story house in Los Angeles’ Mar Vista neighborhood. Investigators with the Los Angeles Police Department believe she was intoxicated at the time.

She sustained a severe anoxic brain injury along with severe burns and was being treated at the Grossman Burn Center at West Hills Hospital, near Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley.

The 53-year-old actress who was a star of films like “Donnie Brasco,” the political satire “Wag the Dog” and the 1998 remake of “Psycho,” had been declared legally dead under California law on Friday, however, her family kept her alive long enough to be an organ donor.

In a statement Friday, the LAPD announced that: “As of today, there will be no further investigative efforts made in this case. Any information or records that have been requested prior to this turn of events will still be collected as they arrive as a matter of formalities and included in the overall case. When a person suspected of a crime expires, we do not present for filing consideration.” LAPD detectives had previously made public that investigators into the crash found narcotics in a blood sample taken from Heche.

The actress’s family released a statement on Friday:

“Today we lost a bright light, a kind and most joyful soul, a loving mother, and a loyal friend. Anne will be deeply missed but she lives on through her beautiful sons, her iconic body of work, and her passionate advocacy. Her bravery for always standing in her truth, spreading her message of love and acceptance, will continue to have a lasting impact,” the statement added.

Heche was married to camera operator Coleman Laffoon from 2001 to 2009. The two had a son, Homer, together. She had another son, named Atlas, during a relationship with actor James Tupper, her co-star on the TV series “Men In Trees.”

Laffoon left a moving tribute on an Instagram reel in which he also gave an update on how their 20-year-old son Homer Laffoon is coping with the loss of his mother.

“I loved her and I miss her, and I’m always going to,” he said adding: “Homer is okay. He’s grieving, of course, and it’s rough. It’s really rough, as probably anybody can imagine. But he’s surrounded by family and he’s strong, and he’s gonna be okay.”

“Rest In Peace, Mom, I love you, Homer,” the actor’s 20-year-old son, Homer, said in a statement after Heche was declared legally dead on Friday.“ My brother Atlas and I lost our Mom,” read the statement. “After six days of almost unbelievable emotional swings, I am left with a deep, wordless sadness. Hopefully, my mom is free from pain and beginning to explore what I like to imagine as her eternal freedom. Over those six days, thousands of friends, family, and fans made their hearts known to me. I am grateful for their love, as I am for the support of my Dad, Coley, and my stepmom Alexi who continue to be my rock during this time. Rest In Peace Mom, I love you, Homer.”

Tupper, a Canadian actor who starred alongside Heche in “Men in Trees,” had a 13-year-old son, Atlas, with her. “Love you forever,” Tupper, 57, wrote on his Instagram post’s caption with a broken heart emoji, which shared an image of the actress from Men in Trees.

Between 1997 and 2000, Heche was also in a relationship with talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.

“This is a sad day,” DeGeneres posted on Twitter. “I’m sending Anne’s children, family and friends all of my love.” The year after her break-up with the comedian, in September 2001, Heche recounted in her memoir “Call Me Crazy,” about her lifelong struggles with mental health and a childhood of abuse.

KTLA’s entertainment reporter Sam Rubin noted that over the past two decades, Heche’s career pivoted several times. In 2017, she hosted a weekly radio show on SiriusXM with Jason Ellis called “Love and Heche.”

In 2020, Heche made her way into the podcast world. She launched “Better Together” which she cohosted alongside Heather Duffy Boylston. The show was described as a way to celebrate friendship. 

She also worked in smaller films, on Broadway, and on TV shows. She recently had recurring roles on the network series “Chicago P.D.,” and “All Rise” and was a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars.”

People magazine reported that several of Heche’s acting projects are expected to be released posthumously.

These include “Girl in Room 13,” expected to be released on Lifetime in September, “What Remains,” scheduled to be released in 2023, and HBO Max TV series “The Idol,” created by Abel Tesfaye (The Weeknd) and Euphoria creator Sam Levinson.

In her Instagram post from earlier this year Heche stands between her sons Atlas, 13 and Homer, 20.

From KTLA:

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‘Star Trek’ actress Nichelle Nichols dies at 89

George Takei tweets ‘we lived long and prospered together’

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(Screenshot/YouTube The Smithsonian Channel)

She was a groundbreaking cultural icon who broke barriers in a time of societal upheaval and battling for the civil rights of Black Americans. An actress, a mother and thoroughly devoted to the legions of fans of “Star Trek,” Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek’s Lt. Nyota Uhura, has died at 89.

The announcement on her Facebook page by her son read:

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Friends, Fans, Colleagues, World

I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years.

Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. Her light however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and draw inspiration.

Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.

I, and the rest of our family, would appreciate your patience and forbearance as we grieve her loss until we can recover sufficiently to speak further. Her services will be for family members and the closest of her friends and we request that her and our privacy be respected.

Live Long and Prosper,

Kyle Johnson

Nichols was born in Robbins, Ill., in 1932, according to her IMDb page. Legendary composer Duke Ellington “discovered” Nichols and helped her become a singer and dancer. She later turned to acting, and joined Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek,” where she played Uhura from 1966 to 1969.

Out actor George Takei who played ‘Sulu’ on Star Trek the original series with Nichelle Nichols who played Lt. Nyota Uhura, at a Star Trek convention in this undated photo. (George Takei/Twitter)

It was in that role of Uhura that Nichols not only broke barriers between races, most famously her onscreen kiss, the first between a Black person and a white person, with castmate William Shatner, who played Capt. James T. Kirk, but she also became a role model for young Black women and men inspiring them to seek out their own places in science, technology, and other human endeavors.

In numerous interviews over the years Nichols often recalled how the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a fan of the show and praised her role and personally encouraged her to stay with the series.

When the first series ended Nichols went on to become a spokesperson for NASA, where she “helped recruit and inspire a new generation of fearless astronauts.” She later reprised her role in several successful “Star Trek” films and continued to advocate for the advancement of Black Americans especially in the areas of science and technology.

Formerly a NASA deputy administrator, Frederick Gregory, now 81, told the Associated Press he once saw an advertisement in which Nichols said “I want you to apply for the NASA program.”

“She was talking to me,” he recounted. The U.S. Air Force pilot would apply and later become the first African American shuttle pilot.

President Joe Biden weighed in Sunday afternoon on her passing in a statement issued by the White House:

In Nichelle Nichols, our nation has lost a trailblazer of stage and screen who redefined what is possible for Black Americans and women.
 
A daughter of a working-class family from Illinois, she first honed her craft as an actor and singer in Chicago before touring the country and the world performing with the likes of Duke Ellington and giving life to the words of James Baldwin.
 
During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, she shattered stereotypes to become the first Black woman to act in a major role on a primetime television show with her groundbreaking portrayal of Lt. Uhura in the original Star Trek. With a defining dignity and authority, she helped tell a central story that reimagined scientific pursuits and discoveries. And she continued this legacy by going on to work with NASA to empower generations of Americans from every background to reach for the stars and beyond.
 
Our nation is forever indebted to inspiring artists like Nichelle Nichols, who show us a future where unity, dignity, and respect are cornerstones of every society.

Nichols son said that services will be private for family members and her closest friends.

In 2008 the actress at a news conference, coordinated by the filmmakers of the motion picture “TRU LOVED,” in honor of the more than 900 students at Los Angeles’ Miguel Contreras Learning Complex’s School of Social Justice who participated in the GLSEN Day of Silence.

Nichelle Nichols speaks on LGBTQ rights:

Her fellow castmate and life long friend, openly Out actor George Takei shared his sadness on hearing of Nichols’ passing on Twitter:

From the September 2016 edition of the Smithsonian Channel: “Star Trek’s decision to cast Nichelle Nichols, an African American woman, as major character on the show was an almost unheard-of move in 1966. But for black women all over the country, it redefined the notions of what was possible.”

Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols on Uhura’s Radical Impact:

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