Franklin Kameny, early gay rights advocate, dies at 86
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Franklin Kameny, early gay rights advocate, dies at 86

Franklin Kameny, whose dismissal from a post as a US Army astronomer for being homosexual led to a career of activism for gay rights, died at hishome in  Washington, D.C., on Oct. 11, the date set as National Coming Out Day. He was 86.

Kameny, whose activism was well known in the capital, was described in the Washington Post as having “lived to see his years of determined advocacy rewarded through the success of many of his campaigns and through his ultimate welcome by a political establishment that had rejected him.”

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Blogs and websites noted how Kameny’s Jewish heritage played a role in his efforts.

"To understand our LGBT American history, please get to know a bit more about his story. Our history and our civil rights seemed to be paired perfectly with Frank Kameny’s once radical notion that we have a right in this country to stand up for, “First Class Citizenship for Homosexuals.” Right on, brother," wrote one gay Jewish blogger, who noted that some of Kameny’s protest signs now preserved in the Smithsonian Institution tied his Jewishness to his quest for political rights for gays.

"Discrimination Against Homosexuals Is As Immoral As Discrimination Against Negroes and Jews," reads one sign.

The Forward said that Kameny’s self-written egal complaint to the U.S. Supreme Court over his firing from the Army — a case he lost — said that the U.S. government’s anti-gay policies were “no less illegal and no less odious than discrimination based upon religious or racial grounds.” After Kameny lost his Supreme Court case, described as "the first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation," he co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, an early gay rights organization, which organized the first gay demonstration at the White House.

Franklin Edward Kameny was born in New York. He started Queens College at 15 to study physics and interrupted his studies to serve in the armed forces during World War II. He told the Washington Post that during his time in the Army he had been asked once about his homosexuality, but “didn’t tell,” in a precursor of the Clinton era’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy, which he also was credited with having sparked.

“I have resented for 67 years that I had to lie in order to serve in a war effort that I strongly supported,” he said. “I did serve and I saw combat in Europe.”

He earned a doctorate in astronomy from Harvard University in 1956 and then worked for the Army Map Service. He was fired from that job in 1957. After the Supreme Court rejected his appeal, however, a U.S. Court of Appeals issued a decision that said rejection of an application for federal employment on the grounds of “homosexual conduct” was “too vague.”

Kameny also has been credited for an executive order signed by President Clinton permitting gays to be given security clearances, as well as D.C.’s repeal of an anti-sodomy law. The federal government issued a formal apology in 2009 for letting him go and a trove of his documents has been placed in the Library of Congress. He said last year he was aware that gay rights struggles were not over, but said “it’s like a storybook ending.”

Out for Good,” a 1999 history of the U.S. gay rights movement, featured Kameny throughout the book. One of its authors, Dudley Clendinen, said he was an “authentic hero of American culture."

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org.