Franklin E. Kameny, who transformed his 1957 arrest as a “sexual
pervert” and his subsequent firing from the Army Map Service into a powerful
animating spark of the gay civil rights movement, died on Tuesday at his home in
Washington. He was 86.
His death was confirmed by the United States Office of Personnel Management,
which formally apologized two years ago for his dismissal.
A half-century ago, Mr. Kameny was either first or foremost — often both — in
publicly advocating the propositions that there were homosexuals throughout the
population, that they were not mentally ill, and that there was neither reason
nor justification for the many forms of discrimination prevalent against them.
Rather than accept his firing quietly, Mr. Kameny challenged his dismissal
before the Civil Service Commission and then sued the government in federal
court. That he lost was almost beside the point. The battle against
discrimination now had a face, a name and a Ph.D. from Harvard.
Though he helped found the Mattachine Society of Washington, an early advocacy
group, Mr. Kameny was not content to organize solely within the gay community.
He welcomed and exploited the publicity that came from broader — if foredoomed —
political efforts, like running in 1971 for the delegate seat representing the
District of Columbia in the House of Representatives.
He also claimed authorship of the phrase “Gay is good” a year before the 1969
Stonewall uprising in New York, widely regarded as the first milestone in the
gay rights movement. Many of the tributes that began to appear on the Web on
Wednesday noted that Mr. Kameny’s death coincided with National Coming Out Day.
Mr. Kameny has been likened both to Rosa Parks and to Gen. George Patton, two
historical figures not frequently found in the same sentence. “Frank Kameny was
our Rosa Parks, and more,” Richard Socarides, the president of the advocacy
group Equality Matters, said on Wednesday. During the Clinton administration,
Mr. Socarides was the special assistant for gay rights in the White House,
outside which Mr. Kameny and others had picketed in 1965 to protest their
treatment by the government.
The Patton analogy was made by Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney in their 1999
book “Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America.”
(Mr. Nagourney is a reporter for The New York Times, and Mr. Clendinen is a
former Times reporter.)
“Franklin Kameny had the confidence of an intellectual autocrat, the manner of a
snapping turtle, a voice like a foghorn, and the habit of expressing himself in
thunderous bursts of precise and formal language,” the authors wrote. “He talked
in italics and exclamation points and he cultivated the self-righteous arrogance
of a visionary who knew his cause was just when no one else did.”
Franklin Edward Kameny was born May 21, 1925, in New York City. He entered
Queens College, served in the Army in the Netherlands and Germany during World
War II and was awarded his doctorate from Harvard in 1956. He was hired as an
astronomer the next year by the Army Map Service, but lasted only five months
when the government learned he had been arrested by the morals squad in
Lafayette Park, across from the White House, which was known as a gay cruising
At the time, under an executive order signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower
in 1953,“sexual perversion” was considered grounds for dismissal from government
employment. Mr. Kameny contested his firing through level after level of legal
appeal, until the Supreme Court declined to hear his case in 1961.
Unable to get another job in his field, he became radicalized, he told Eric
Marcus, who interviewed him for the 1992 book “Making History: The Struggle for
Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, 1945-1990.” Mr. Kameny said his personal manifesto
emerged from the petition he prepared for the Supreme Court.
“The government put its disqualification of gays under the rubric of immoral
conduct, which I objected to,” Mr. Kameny said. “Because under our system,
morality is a matter of personal opinion and individual belief on which any
American citizen may hold any view he wishes and upon which the government has
no power or authority to have any view at all. Besides which, in my view,
homosexuality is not only not immoral, but is affirmatively moral.
“Up until that time, nobody else ever said this — as far as I know — in any kind
of formal court pleading.”
After this loss, Mr. Kameny recognized that the American Psychiatric
Association’s classification of homosexuality as a sickness posed a high hurdle
to the movement.
“An attribution of mental illness in our culture is devastating, and it’s
something which is virtually impossible to get beyond,” he said to Charles
Kaiser, who interviewed him in 1995 for his book “The Gay Metropolis:
1940-1996.” He was among those who lobbied for its reversal.
In December 1973, the psychiatric association’s board of trustees approved a
resolution declaring that homosexuality, “by itself, does not necessarily
constitute a psychiatric disorder.”
Leading psychiatrists who believed otherwise, like Dr. Charles W. Socarides (the
father of Richard Socarides), pushed for a membership-wide referendum in the
hope of overturning the resolution. In April 1974, 5,854 of the association’s
roughly 20,000 members voted to support the trustees’ position, 3,810 to oppose
it. The result left Mr. Kameny “ecstatic,” he said.
As for his firing, Mr. Kameny lived long enough to receive and accept an apology
from John Berry, the director of the United States Office of Personnel
Management, successor to the Civil Service Commission. Speaking of Mr. Kameny on
Wednesday, Mr. Berry said:
“He helped make it possible for countless of patriotic Americans to hold
security clearances and high government positions, including me.”
At noon on Sunday, thousands of marchers filled Fifth Avenue for New York City’s
annual gay pride parade. Nearly six miles away, on the sixth floor of a nursing
home in Brooklyn, the frail, white-haired woman in beige pajamas and brown
slippers in Room 609 sat motionless at the edge of her bed, staring out her
She touched the medallion on her necklace — an image of St. Jude, the patron
saint of lost causes — and fiddled with one of her rings.
“This one,” she said of the ring on a pinky finger, “I hit a guy so hard I
knocked the stone out, and I hadn’t gotten around to put it back yet.”
She had forgotten that the gay pride march was Sunday. Her mind and her memory
are not as sharp as her wit and her tongue. She said she had been living there,
at the Oxford Nursing Home, for years (she arrived in April). She was not sure
how old she was (she will be 90 in December).
The woman in Room 609, Storme DeLarverie, has dementia. She is but one anonymous
elderly New Yorker in a city with thousands upon thousands of them. And many of
those who marched down Fifth Avenue on Sunday would be hard pressed to realize
that this little old lady — once the cross-dressing M.C. of a group of
drag-queen performers, once a fiercely protective (and pistol-packing) bouncer
in the city’s lesbian bars — was one of the reasons they were marching.
Ms. DeLarverie fought the police in 1969 at the historic riot at the Stonewall
Inn in Greenwich Village that kicked off the gay rights movement. The first gay
pride parade in 1970 was not a parade at all but a protest marking the one-year
anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.
Some writers believe Ms. DeLarverie may have been the cross-dressing lesbian
whose clubbing by the police was the catalyst for the riots (the woman has never
been identified). While others are adamant that Ms. DeLarverie was not that
woman, no one disputes that she was there, and no one doubts that the woman who
had been fighting back all her life fought back in the summer of 1969.
At one point on Sunday, she said she was not struck by the police. At another
moment, she said a police officer had hit her from behind. “He wound up flat on
his back on the ground,” said Ms. DeLarverie, a member of the Stonewall
Veterans’ Association. “I don’t know what he hit me with. He hit me from behind,
Ms. DeLarverie has struggled in recent years with a confluence of housing,
mental health and legal issues. In 2009, a social services group, the Jewish
Association for Services for the Aged, was appointed her legal guardian by a
judge. In March, she was hospitalized after she was found disoriented and
dehydrated at the Chelsea Hotel, her home for decades. No one occupies her room
on the seventh floor of the hotel, but it remains unclear if she will ever
A small group of friends, including some of her neighbors at the Chelsea Hotel,
visit her regularly. A social worker with the nonprofit group SAGE, which
provides services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender older people, has
been assisting Ms. DeLarverie since 1999, when she was at risk of eviction from
Some of her friends said they had been frustrated by the way she was treated by
the authorities and others, and they expressed disappointment that Ms.
DeLarverie’s troubles have not been a widespread concern for many gay and
“I feel like the gay community could have really rallied, but they didn’t,” said
Lisa Cannistraci, a longtime friend of Ms. DeLarverie’s who is the owner of the
lesbian bar Henrietta Hudson, where Ms. DeLarverie worked as a bouncer.
“The young gays and lesbians today have never heard of her,” Ms. Cannistraci
said, “and most of our activists are young. They’re in their 20s and early 30s.
The community that’s familiar with her is dwindling.”
Ms. DeLarverie’s friends said they were disturbed because she spent most of her
days inside the nursing home and they had not been allowed to take her outside,
even for walks.
Leah Ferster, chief services officer for the Jewish Association for Services for
the Aged, said she was not aware that that was a concern among her friends. “We
have to make sure she’s medically capable and able, and if that was true, then
we would be glad to speak with her friends and see if we can come up with a safe
plan and have her go out for a few hours,” she said.
Ms. DeLarverie’s first name is pronounced STORM-ee, like the weather, but in
Room 609 on Sunday, she was calm, chatty, graceful. Her life has been
flamboyant, boundary-breaking, the stuff of pulp fiction.
Friends say she worked for the mob in Chicago. The drag-queen group she
performed with decades ago, known as the Jewel Box Revue, regularly played the
Apollo in Harlem (she dressed as a man and the men dressed as women). She was
photographed by Diane Arbus. She carried a straight-edge razor in her sock, and
while some merely walked to and from the gay and lesbian bars in the Village,
friends said, she patrolled.
Sitting at the edge of her bed, her mind turned again to the parade, where, in
the past, she had been a fixture. She said she had a message for those who took
part in the celebration. “Just be themselves, like they’ve always been,” she
said. “They don’t have to pretend anything. They’re who they are.”
Ms. DeLarverie asked what time it was, and what time the march started. At one
point, she took off her slippers and seemed to look for her shoes. “I think they
started already,” she said. “They’re probably wondering where I am.”