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Frank Kameny: Astronomer and Gay Rights Pioneer

June 4, 2021

During the month of June, Capitol Tech is celebrating Pride by sharing numerous blogs that highlight influential LGBTQ+ figures in the STEM industry. The people featured in these blogs were particularly inspiring to us because of their innovation, dedication to their field, and strength in the face of adversity and hate. Please enjoy the first blog in this series below, and be sure to check back frequently for more. Happy Pride Month!

Frank Kameny, born in New York City in 1925, was a brilliant astronomer turned activist who is regarded as one of the most important figures of the gay rights movement. His headstrong attitude and refusal to back down in the face of adversity led him to spark the revolution that demanded rights for all people regardless of their sexuality, and that is still honored today as the most important step that the gay community has ever taken.

 A precocious child, Kameny’s curiosity for science developed early on as he studied astronomy independently through his teenhood. At age 17, Kameny put his scientific dreams on hold for a period of time after being drafted to the U.S. Army. When he returned, he enrolled in formal education and eventually earned a P.h.D. from Harvard University.

Kameny initially used his credentials to teach astronomy at Georgetown University, but after the U.S.S.R.’s space program launched artificial satellite Sputnik, he began work for the U.S. Army Map service as they tried to compete with Russia’s space programs.1

Unfortunately, Kameny’s employment with the Army was cut short due to discriminatory government policies which forbade gay people from being federally employed. These policies, which began to take serious effect in the 1940s and 1950s, stemmed from earlier legislation from 1930 that banned gay people from holding full citizenship and shunned them from society.1 The Army discovered Kameny’s gay orientation in 1957 after learning of his previous arrest and accuse of public displays of sexuality. Kameny subsequently lost his job, as did many others, after these types of investigations into sexual orientations became commonplace.2

As he looked for employment elsewhere, Kameny was discouraged to find that most jobs in his field required a security clearance, leading him to begin fighting back on the gay bans and discriminatory laws targeting the gay community.1 He took his case up every level of governmental bureaucracy, yet was still denied the chance for his situation to be reconsidered and to regain employment. Frustrated and running out of money, Kameny co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington in order to help those like himself who were victims of sexuality-based oppression.1 He encouraged his community to directly confront their oppressors and fight for their rights to live and work among the rest of society.

Kameny became prominent figure in the gay rights movement as he advised victims of discriminatory laws, participated in protests, and even tried to change the legislation from the inside by becoming the first openly gay U.S. congressional candidate.1 His scientific background also helped him to form more compelling arguments as he insisted that gayness was not a mental illness or sign or psychiatric instability.2 Kameny is well-known for his brave, never-back-down attitude towards the fight, and he often had hostile confrontations with police and security officials during demonstrations.

Eventually, after many protests and uprisings brought on by Kameny’s challenge, the movement began to make headway in the reversal of anti-gay legislation. His persistence and outreach helped grow the movement, making it stronger and more powerful as more and more members of the gay community felt confident enough to make their voices heard. The gay rights movement continues making strides today as they fight for more widespread acceptance and representation in society. Although they have not solved every problem facing their community and still have battles to win, they have come remarkably far thanks to Kameny.

Because of Kameny’s fight to end the unfair and hateful laws targeted at gay individuals, he is known as one of the earliest pioneers of the gay rights movement. His courage to reveal a vulnerable part of his identity in order to achieve a better life for himself and others like him is highly commended, and his legacy will live on.