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The Empty Grave of Frank Kameny

On today’s lunchtime bike ride I stopped by Historic Congressional Cemetery, located at 1801 E Street (MAP) in southeast D.C.’s Barney Circle neighborhood, where I visited the gravesite of Frank Kameny. Known as “one of the most significant figures” in the American gay rights movement,” Kameny’s lived an impactful public life. But as was suggested by the title of this blog post, his story doesn’t end there.

Franklin Edward Kameny was born on May 21, 1925 to Ashkenazi Jewish parents in New York City. He grew up in New York City and graduated from high school at the age of 16, and went on to college to study physics. Before he could complete his education he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in the European theater throughout World War II. After being honorably discharged from the service, he returned to college and earned a degree in physics in 1948. He then went on to enroll in Harvard, where he studied astronomy and earned a master’s degree in 1949, and doctorate in 1956.

After a year teaching at Georgetown University, he obtained a civil service job as an astronomer with the U.S. Army Map Service in July of 1957. It wasn’t long afterward that an investigator from the U.S. Civil Service Commission came to question him about reports that he was a homosexual. That fall, only a few months after being hired, he was fired for being gay.  And in January of 1958, he was barred forever from Federal government employment. Kameny formally appealed his firing, first through formal channels, then all the way to the House and Senate Civil Service Committees, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  After not prevailing through those channels, he filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court to get his job back. But he lost that too, as well as a subsequent appeal in the Federal Court of Appeals. Then after being abandoned by his lawyer who declared his cause hopeless, Kameny personally brought and represented himself in a landmark albeit unsuccessful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Although he lost the case, the proceeding was notable as the first known civil rights claim based on sexual orientation pursued in a U.S. court.

For the vast majority of people during that time, homosexuality was seen as abhorrent, sinful, and criminal. Even most homosexuals thought so too. So there were not any gay rights organizations in D.C. for Kameny to turn to. So in a move that would begin a lifelong role as an organizer and an advocate, Kameny decided to start one of his own. He was a cofounder of the Mattachine Society of Washington, and later the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, and the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the National Gay Task Force, and the National Gay Rights Lobby, which was the first national political lobbying organization for the gay and lesbian community. He also led the first gay rights protests at the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, the Civil Service Commission, and at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. He would also become the first openly gay person to run for Congress, help lobby the American Psychiatric Association to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness, create the first test case against the military ban on gay service by Air Force Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, and be appointed a Commissioner of the D.C. Commission on Human Rights, thereby becoming the first gay municipal appointee.

In 2007, Kameny’s death was mistakenly reported by The Advocate, an American LGBT-interest magazine, alongside a mistaken report that he had HIV. The report was retracted with an apology. A little over four years later Kameny died from natural causes due to arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease.  He died on October, 11, 2011, coinciding with National Coming Out Day, an annual awareness day pertaining to the voluntary self-disclosure of one’s sexual orientation.  His body was subsequently cremated, and Timothy Clark, his legal heir, took possession of the ashes. Because Clark and the Kameny estate lacked the financial means, a burial plot was purchased by a LGBT charitable group named Helping Our Brothers and Sisters. But Clark would not allow the interment of the ashes to take place until ownership of the cemetery plot was signed over to the estate. And after years of fighting between the Kameny family, friends, and Clark, his ashes have still not been interred in the plot. However, the headstone, along with a footstone bearing the slogan, “Gay is Good,” which Kameny coined in 1968, were placed at the plot last year. Clark subsequently interred the ashes at an undisclosed location, and has asked the public to respect “his wishes and his privacy.”

The area of the cemetery where the Kameny memorial headstone is located has in recent years become somewhat of a tourist attraction, particularly to those in the LGBT community.  Kameny’s plot is located right behind that of Leonard Matlovich, as well as the nearby gravesites of J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson.  A growing number of other out gays, including veterans and couples, have also chosen to be buried in the same once obscure graveyard such as gay rights pioneers Randy Wicker, Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen.  Also, members of American Veterans for Equal Rights have purchased eight nearby adjoining plots to create a LGBT veterans memorial.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

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