Monday, June 12, 2017

From the Archives: Gay-rights pioneer Franklin Kameny remembers his civil disobedience – Part I

Gay-rights pioneer Franklin Kameny remembers his civil disobedience – Part I
December 31, 2010 1:48 AM MST

Dr. Franklin Kameny is one of the pioneers of the modern gay-rights movement.

In the mid-1960s, he and other pre-Stonewall activists organized the first pickets of the White House to demand equal treatment under the law for gay men and lesbians (then known as “sex perverts” or, more kindly, “homosexuals”). He also arranged protests at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, at the Pentagon, and at other public places at a time in which openly gay individuals were exceedingly rare and even more rarely political active.

Fired for being gay

Frank Kameny gay rights
Earlier this year, Kameny sat down with the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner to recall several incidents of civil disobedience in his lifetime. A veteran of World War II, now 85 years old and still involved in gay-rights issues, Kameny recounted how being fired by the federal government for being gay led directly to his career as an activist.

A Harvard-trained astronomer, Kameny was sacked by the Army mapping agency in 1957. “The next two years or so were very difficult,” he remembered. “There was a period of eight months in ’59 when I was living on 20 cents of food a day, which even at ’59 prices was not much.”

Much of Kameny's story from those years, along with those of others in similar straits, is told by historian David K. Johnson in his book, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government.

Physicist by day, activist by night
Franklin Kameny May 2010 gay rights pioneer
“My bachelor’s degree is in physics. My master’s and Ph.D., as you probably know, [are] in astronomy. I got a series of jobs over the next decade, three or four of them, in that” field, he said, but “because of Eisenhower’s 1953 executive order 10450,” which was finally reversed by Bill Clinton more than 40 years later, “I was unable to get a security clearance which meant that I had a number of edgy jobs, [with] companies that went out from under me.”

While all this was happening – sporadic employment, lack of stability – “I began to get increasingly involved, starting in ’61, with the gay movement of the time.”

Through most of the 1960s, Kameny explained, “speaking figuratively, I was a physicist from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon on weekdays, and I was a gay activist in the evenings and on weekends. But the activism gradually took over things.”

That is how the astronomer-turned-activist found himself, on several occasions, in the back of a paddy wagon – which will be recounted in Part II of this interview.

Publisher's note: This article is drawn from my archives. It was originally published on on December 31, 2010. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016.  I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

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