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In Memoriam

Washington pays tribute to gay civil rights icon Dr. Frank Kameny

Friday, November 4, 2011
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WASHINGTON — In a moving, and at times humorous tribute, official Washington and the city’s LGBTQ community on Thursday paid its last respects to gay civil rights icon Dr. Frank Kameny.

Kameny’s flag draped coffin — a nod to his service in the U. S. Army during the Second World War — was flanked by by an honor guard comprised of Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, who served as pallbearers at the conclusion of the ceremony, and veterans and gay rights activists Lt. Dan Choi and Captain James Pietrangelo II, both former U.S. Army officers.

The ceremony was held in Washington’s old Carnegie Library in the heart of the city Kameny called home for over 50 years. Kameny died on Oct. 11 at the age of 86.

DC Mayor Vincent Gray pays tribute to Dr. Frank Kameny.
(LGBTQ Nation photo by Brody Levesque)

Frank’s close friends Charles Francis and Bob Witeck had placed at one end of the coffin a picket sign that Kameny made for a 1962 gay rights protest he organized outside the White House. The sign, still attached to its original wood stick handle, read, “Homosexuals Ask for the Right to the Pursuit of Happiness.” At the other end of coffin stood a portrait of Kameny painted by local gay artist Don Patron.

The ceremony opened with the national anthem sung by a Chorale from Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington which was then followed by opening remarks from D. C.’s congressional representative, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who told the assembled crowd of hundreds of activists, community allies, public officials, and D.C. residents.

“Frank Kameny no more set out to sacrifice his livelihood when he refused to deny his sexual orientation to federal authorities than Rosa Parks intended to give up her work as a seamstress when she refused to move to the back of the bus,” Norton said.

“Rosa Parks got tired of suppressing her full identity and her full dignity. So did Frank Kameny,” said Norton, adding, “There is a special place in our country for people like Frank Kameny. The phrase he coined, ‘Gay is Good,’ is every bit as significant as Black is Beautiful.”

Kameny was dismissed from his position as an astronomer in the Army Map Service in Washington, D.C. because of his sexual orientation, which he contested in a federal lawsuit against the then U.S. Civil Service Commission.

Kameny argued his case all the way to the United States Supreme Court in 1961. The high court later denied his petition, however the case was noted as the first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation.

John Berry, the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, successor agency to the old U. S. Civil Service Commission and the highest ranking openly gay appointee in the Obama administration, officially apologized to Kameny about his firing in June of 2009, presenting Kameny with the Theodore Roosevelt Award, the department’s most prestigious award. The director was among the dignitaries present at the ceremonies Thursday.

D. C. city council member Jim Graham, gave a moving remembrance of Kameny, reflecting on his first acquaintance with the activist when Graham was director the Whitman-Walker Clinic during the HIV-Aids pandemic that struck the city in the 1980′s.

Councilman Graham called Kameny an “extraordinary” figure in the city and the nation.

“It is not possible to overstate the contribution that has been made by Frank Kameny for human rights, for gay and lesbian people and for everybody because, in point of fact, he was concerned about everybody.”

Graham’s sentiments were echoed by District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray.

“Frank Kameny is one of the most significant figures in the history of the American gay rights movement,” said Gray.

“It was a poignant coincident that Dr. Kameny passed away on National Coming Out Day because he came out as a proud gay man in an era in which there were virtually no social and legal supports for sexual minorities who chose to live their lives openly in this country.”

The Mayor also made reference to the movie “Milk,” the story of the slain San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, another gay icon who followed in Kameny’s footsteps as a gay activist.

“Everyone in this room has heard about the movie Milk,” the mayor said,” well maybe it is now time for a movie called “Kameny.”

Rick Rosendall, vice president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance — which Kameny co-founded — and who had worked alongside him for over two decades, read from a chapter Kameny wrote for a book about the early “homophile movement” as the nascent LGBTQ equality rights movement was often referred to as, published during Kameny’s tenure of activism:

“It’s time to open the closet door and let in the fresh air and the sunshine. It is time to doth and discard the secrecy, the disguise and the camouflage.

It is time to hold up your heads and to look the world squarely in the eye as the homosexuals that you are, confident of your equality, confident in the knowledge that as objects of prejudice and victims of discrimination, you are right and they are wrong, and confident of the rightness of what you are and the goodness of what you do.

It is time to live your homosexuality fully, joyously, openly and proudly, assured that morally, socially, physically, psychologically, emotionally, and in every other way — gay is good.”

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