A U.S. Gay Rights Pioneer in His Own Voice

Gay is Good: The Life and Letters of Gay Rights Pioneer Franklin Kameny, ed. by Michael G. Long, (Syracuse University Press), 400 pages, released 28 November, 2014

I hadn’t heard of Franklin Kameny before I started reading this book. He’s a fascinating man: fierce, furious, articulate, and brave. Kameny’s activism began after he was fired from his position as an astronomer with the U.S. Army’s Map Service in 1957 because he was gay. Rather than retreating in silence and shame Kameny became a remarkable activist for gay civil rights. At the start, he thought of this crusade as his own, asking to be treated as an individual, rather than being lumped into a class of people. Before long, however, he came to see himself as activist working on behalf of all gay people, trying not just to win his own job back, but to ensure equal employment for all gay men and lesbians.

Kameny’s activism originally took the form of an ongoing, detailed letter writing campaign addressed at key political figures of his time, including President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He filed suit to be reinstated in his job, lost twice in lower courts, then was denied certiorari (a writ ordering a review of a lower court decision) by the U.S. Supreme Court. This was the first civil rights case based on sexual orientation put before the Court and marks a turning point in gay and U.S. history, despite his request for review being denied. He fought to end sodomy laws and to remove the listing of homosexuality as a mental illness from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

Reading through Kameny’s letters is a delight. He constructs thoughtful, detailed arguments. He holds politicians to the claims they make about individual and group rights. This isn’t a book one can skim over or rush through. Kameny’s letters demand that today’s readers (like those he first addressed through this correspondence) give his subject the attention it deserves. While he may have engaged in political sloganeering in other gay rights work, in these letters he builds detailed claims with ample evidence.

If you’re interested in the history of the gay rights movement or in the history of social change in the U.S. over the last sixty years, you’ll want to spend time with this essential book.