On this day December 20: Frank Kameny fired and fired up

Frank Kameny
Images: US Library of Congress, The White House.

On December 20 1957, the United States Army Map Service dismissed WWII veteran and astronomer Frank Kameny because he was homosexual. Kameny became a pioneering gay rights activist, advocating that homosexuals demand equality, a then-radical concept.

Frank Kameny’s termination letter cited a failure ‘to furnish a completely truthful answer’ on his job application form. The form asked, “Have you ever been arrested, charged or held by Federal, State or other law enforcement authorities?”

He had.

In August the previous year, Frank Kameny attended a conference in San Francisco. Following the closing banquet, the 31-year-old astronomer visited a nearby public toilet. He was there for nearly 30 minutes before another man came in. Robert Pier was 27-years-old and over 6′ tall. Standing at the urinal, the two men were unaware that police watched their every move through a ventilation grill.

The cops later testified they observed Frank Kameny “stand alongside Pier at the urinal. Pier then reached over and touched the private parts of Kameny.”

However, after a few seconds, Frank Kameny brushed Robert Pier’s hand away. He never explained why, although we can assume it had nothing to do with shyness or inexperience. After visiting gay bars without acting on his sexual impulses for years, he’d finally taken the plunge in 1954.

Like a duck to water

“I took to gay life like a duck to water, as if it had been made for me, or I for it.”

The watching police charged the two men with loitering and lewd conduct despite the trivial nature of the interaction. After a night in the cells, Frank fronted court. The judge dismissed the loitering charge. Frank learned that if he pled guilty to the second charge, he would escape with a $50 fine and six-months probation. If he stayed out of trouble, California would then set aside the conviction.

He pled guilty, paid the fine and reported to the probation office.

The astronomer previously taught at Harvard and then Georgetown universities. But in 1957, he applied to join the United States Army Map Service. (The service needed astronomers to calibrate missile trajectories and plot anticipated satellite launches.) Frank provided a blunt answer to the question about historical arrests.

“August 1956; Disorderly Conduct; San Francisco; Not Guilty; Charge Dismissed.”

Employed only three days after lodging the application, Frank Kameny thought no more about it. But a few months later, he received a summons to attend an interview. Civil Service investigators told him the service had received information he was homosexual. He responded that “as a matter of principle, one’s private life is his own.”


The investigators asked about the incident in San Francisco.

“I do not recall the exact charge. I let a man whose name was not known to me, touch me on the penis for a few seconds. He just reached over and touched me.”

On December 20, 1947, the defence department dismissed Frank Kameny because of the incorrect information on his application form. He did not face a charge of disorderly conduct in San Francisco. The actual charge was lewd conduct.

Over the following decades, Frank Kameny worked tirelessly for gay rights. With the financial support of family and friends, he never held a paid job again nor entered another serious relationship, focussed entirely on equal rights for gays.

In 2010, Frank Kameny was a guest of honour at the White House when President Barack Obama repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Frank died on October 11 2011. At the request of Gilbert Baker, the giant rainbow flag in San Francisco’s Castro district was lowered to half-mast.

Read more: December 19 <— On this day —> December 21

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