Frank Kameny: Star Gazer to Gay Activist

Frank Kameny fought with a sense of confidence honed by his education and training. I don't think his opponents and detractors ever fully appreciated they were dealing with an astronomer -- an astronomer who would spark the LGBT movement for civil equality.
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Remarks before the American Astronomical Society Tuesday, Jan. 10 in Austin, Tex.:

President Elmegreen, Members of the Society:

On behalf of Dr. Franklin E. Kameny, I am honored to accept this Certificate of Appreciation from the American Astronomical Society.

If only Frank could be with us today!

I know how much he would have loved the opportunity to close this one final circle in his life. With recent increased awareness, the federal government has issued him a formal apology. Right now, near the Star-Spangled Banner, the Smithsonian Institution displays the pickets he organized for protests outside the White House years before Stonewall. The Library of Congress holds his papers. However, receiving recognition like this from his peers in astronomy closes the one final loop. You see, 55 years ago Frank Kameny was one of you.

He was an astronomer for the U.S. Army Map Service. He had obtained his B.S. degree with honors in physics; with a minor in mathematics. Within the field of physics, he specialized in optics. He had earned his Masters and Ph.D. in Astronomy at Harvard. He had worked at the Yale University Observatory and at the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland.

He was a member of the American Astronomical Society.

He had the education. He had the training. He had the experience. And just before him lay our golden age of space exploration.

Then, in 1957, at age 32, Frank Kameny had his "accident": the fatal accident of being "found out gay" in the 1950s. By definition, to be gay was to be an insane deviate -- subject to blackmail and a threat to national security.

Gay British mathematician Alan Turing -- the man who saved Britain by breaking the German Enigma Code -- had committed suicide in the face of government persecution only three years prior. Kameny received his letter from the Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army Map Service. It said, "It is necessary that you return at once to the Army Map Service in connection with certain administrative requirements." Frank was fired. His career in astronomy lay in ruins.

But unlike Alan Turing and so many others, he could see a way forward out of his personal crisis. He decided to fight. And he fought with a sense of confidence honed like a knife by his education and training. The one thing they could not take away from him was his belief in the integrity of his own mind, the logic, the data sets, and the integrity of facts. I don't think his opponents and detractors ever fully appreciated they were dealing with an astronomer -- an astronomer who would spark the LGBT movement for civil equality.

After Frank's passing, I discovered in his study his old astronomy books, with titles like The Pulsation Theory of Variable Stars and The Calculation of the Orbits of Asteroids and Comets. One volume stood out from the rest. It was a small book, able to be carried in a kid's pack. Its title was Field Book of the Skies, published in 1936. It was very neatly signed, in the hand I instantly recognized. "Franklin Kameny, 1938." In 1938, Franklin would have been age 13.

In an autobiographical summary written after he was fired, Frank wrote, "My desire to become an Astronomer began when I was about 7 years old ... I did observing in an amateur sense, during my pre-teen and teenage years. I organized an Astronomy club in high school; I led astronomical activities at the summer camp which I attended between the ages of about 11 and 16."

The Director of Nakomis Camps in Mahopac, N.Y. wrote Frank a letter of recommendation in 1943: "To whom it may concern," she wrote, "[Frank] is vitally interested in Astronomy and he knew the subject very well, in fact, so much so that through his efforts at camp we were able to get the younger boys interested in the subject."

Years later, Frank's only sibling, Edna, told a friend that the family was worried about Frank as a child -- because he was so quiet, even non-communicative and shut-off. But all this changed when he discovered the stars. Once he locked into observing the night sky at summer camp, Edna said, "he would never stop talking after that!"

This book was Frank's field star-guide.

When I look at this old field guide, I cannot help but think of the sled "Rosebud" in Orson Welles' classic film Citizen Kane. I think Field Book of the Skies may be Frank Kameny's Rosebud -- that innocent but fundamental key to understanding a person's life. Frank Kameny from Queens, a boy studying the stars and organizing astronomy clubs, set out on a path we honor here today.

On behalf of Frank Kameny -- Frank Kameny, astronomer -- thank you.

Frank Kameny as a young astronomy student (photo: Kameny Papers Project)

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