Help a Hero

First published at on February 4, 2011

You may not know Frank Kameny’s name. You should.

Frank Kameny has sometimes been called the “Rosa Parks” of the LGBT movement. Like most analogies, this one is imperfect. Parks’ civil disobedience was backed by an organized movement; Kameny had to forge a movement. Parks is in the history books; Kameny—like LGBT history more generally—is still largely overlooked. And while Parks retreated to a quieter life not long after her iconic bus ride, Kameny’s vocal leadership has spanned a half-century.

When Dr. Franklin Kameny was fired from his government job in 1957 for being gay, there was no national gay civil rights movement. It took pioneers like him to make it happen. Before pride parades, before Harvey Milk, before Stonewall, there was Frank.

I’ve known Frank for many years, mostly via e-mail. He’s been to my home for dinner (incidentally, he likes peach schnapps). Regrettably, I’ve never been to his, though it was designated a D.C. historic landmark in 2009 in recognition of its—and Frank’s—tremendous role in civil rights history.

The house and its indomitable owner need help. More on that in a moment.

First, a few highlights of his amazing life.

A Harvard-trained Ph.D. and World War II veteran, Frank was fired in 1957 from his job as an Army Map Service astronomer for being a homosexual. Unsure of his future employability and outraged by the injustice, he fought back, petitioning his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961. (They declined to hear it.)

That year he co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington D.C.—a “homophile organization.” Soon thereafter, in 1963, he began a decades-long campaign to revoke D.C.’s sodomy law. He personally drafted the repeal bill that was passed thirty years later. Frank would likely correct me here: it was “30 years, one month, four days, and 11 hours.”

He has that sort of relentless eye for detail.

In 1965, he picketed in front of the White House for gay rights. Signs from that demonstration, stored in his attic for decades, are now in the Smithsonian’s collection.

In 1968, he coined the slogan “Gay is Good,” an achievement of which he is particularly proud—probably because it captures his moral vision so simply and powerfully.

In 1971, he became the first openly gay person to run for Congress (he lost). He was instrumental in the battle that led to the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973. He has continued to fight over the years against employment discrimination, sodomy laws, the military ban—injustice in all forms. And he has served as a moral elder for generations of movement leaders.

The astronomer-turned-activist is now 85 and as spirited as ever. Thankfully, he has lived to see some of the fruits of his labor. In 2009, when President Obama signed a memorandum extending certain benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, he handed his pen to Kameny. That same year, the Federal Office of Personnel Management issued an apology to Kameny on behalf of the U.S. government. Without missing a beat, Kameny promptly sent a letter stating that he was expecting five decades of back pay. (He received no reply.)

Frank continues to send off pointed letters in pursuit of justice. He is fond of reminding me and other “young” activists, whenever he hears us complaining amongst ourselves, “Don’t tell us. Tell them. Contact the people who can do something about it.”

And that’s what I’m doing right now.

To put it simply, Frank needs financial help. His modest Social Security check—his only income—is inadequate to cover his needs. An organization called Helping Our Brothers and Sisters (HOBS) has intervened on his behalf.
From their website:

“HOBS has worked with Dr. Kameny for more than a year, insuring that his basic life needs are met. To honor our greatest living gay rights activist, HOBS provides Frank with taxi vouchers. We work to ensure that his utilities are paid (phone, electric, water). We have worked with many other fine organizations in coordinating his needs. We are in constant communication with DC Government Officials, attempting to make sure city services are available to Dr. Kameny. We also gathered the donations in 2010 to pay Frank’s real estate taxes, of $2,000+.”

All donations to HOBS this month go to Frank. Meanwhile, a Facebook page has launched in conjunction with this effort, entitled “Buy Frank a Drink.” [!/pages/Buy-Frank-A-Drink/154981487882949?v=wall] The idea is not literally to buy him drinks, but to spare $10 (or whatever you can afford) for him.

Frank has worked tirelessly for decades to make our lives better. It is simply not right that he should spend his twilight years in financial need.

I’m asking you to visit the HOBS website now and buy Frank a (figurative) drink—or ten, or whatever you can—to thank him for his monumental efforts. And I’m asking our national organizations to get behind this campaign, for a man who made their work possible. He surely deserves that, and much more.