By Emily Levesque, University of Washington
Studying the universe is an immense undertaking, and most advocates in astronomy agree that careers in astronomy should be open to all. Astronomers from every background have much to offer, and removing barriers that prevent anyone from participating on the grounds of gender, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status is a crucial part of scientific work.
Who Was Frank Kameny?
Frank Kameny was born in Queens in 1925. He was a passionate young astronomer, serving as president of his high school’s astronomy club and heading to Queens College at age 16 to study physics, when his education was interrupted by World War II.
He served in the army during the war, on the front lines as a mortarman in Germany and the Netherlands, and then worked as a translator before receiving an honorable discharge and returning to Queens College to finish his physics degree. He continued to Harvard, where he earned a PhD in astronomy under the supervision of eminent astronomer and stellar physics genius Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. After his doctorate, he taught at Georgetown and then returned to work for the army in 1957, hired as an astronomer and civil servant in the United States Army Map Service.
By all measures, Kameny was the very model of a brilliant young scientist and a dedicated public servant, trained at some of the finest institutions in the country and poised to become a leader in the coming era of astrophysics innovation. Instead, he was fired mere months after joining the Army Map Service, when the government found out that he was gay.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Great Heroes and Discoveries of Astronomy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
After being questioned about his sexual orientation and refusing to answer, Kameny was summarily dismissed, told that the government “did not hire homosexuals” and considered him a de facto security risk and disruptive presence.
Having been dismissed from a government position, Kameny was barred from any employment by the federal government for three years, and he was required to disclose his firing in all future applications. His correspondence and personal papers, now held at the Library of Congress, include numerous letters applying for jobs; he was declined by every single one due to his history. Even the newly formed NASA rejected this exceptionally trained astrophysicist due to the stain left on his record by his firing.
Kamney Fought Back
Frank Kameny wasn’t the first person fired on the basis on sexual orientation, and he wouldn’t be the last, but he was the first to fight back through the country’s legal system. He appealed the decision to fire him, a decision that stood in the way of his future as an astronomer. When his appeals failed, he penned his own detailed legal petition to the Supreme Court, arguing that the federal government’s treatment of him violated his civil rights. This was the first legal civil rights claim based on sexual orientation in the United States.
Barred from pursuing astronomy, Kameny had no choice but to forgo his passion for astronomy and his scientific career. Instead, he went on to dedicate his life to breaking down the barriers that had stood in his way, so others would not have to suffer the way he did. Today, Kameny is considered one of the founding fathers of the gay rights movement.
Public Protests by the LGBT Community
In the early 1960s, Kameny spearheaded some of the earliest public protests by the LGBT community—his protest signs now sit in the National Museum of American History.
He drafted a bill that, after 30 years, was finally passed to overturn laws that made homosexuality illegal in Washington, DC, and played a major role in having homosexuality removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders. He also became the first openly gay candidate to run for Congress.
Numerous legal decisions supporting the LGBT community over the past several decades were sparked by Kameny’s activism and tireless legal efforts. His home in Washington, DC, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2009 the United States government issued an official apology for his firing.
Legacies of Kamney
Kameny lived to be 86 and saw a vast change in LGBT policy in the United States during his lifetime. He passed away on October 11th, 2011—a date known today as National Coming Out Day—less than two weeks after his last public appearance speaking on behalf of LGBT rights.
Just a few months later, the American Astronomical Society granted a certificate of appreciation to Kameny, honoring his lifelong efforts to champion gay rights and equal employment legislation. At the same time, the society established a committee for LGBT equality in astronomy.
On June 15th, 2020, the United States Supreme Court officially ruled on another equal employment case, declaring that the protections of the federal Civil Rights Act apply to LGBT workers—the same argument Frank had made in his letter to the Supreme Court 60 years prior, as part of his impassioned and ground-breaking plea to continue working for his country as an astronomer.
Common Questions about Frank Kameny
Frank Kameny was the very model of a brilliant young scientist and a dedicated public servant, trained at some of the finest institutions in the country and poised to become a leader in the coming era of astrophysics innovation. However, he was fired mere months after joining the Army Map Service, when the government found out that he was gay.
Frank Kameny penned his own detailed legal petition to the Supreme Court, arguing that the federal government’s treatment of him violated his civil rights. This was the first legal civil rights claim based on sexual orientation in the United States.
Frank Kameny, considered one of the founding fathers of the gay rights movement, passed away on October 11th, 2011. The date is now known as National Coming Out Day.