October is LGBT History Month. While the Equality Forum, the Philly-based worldwide LGBT rights organization, is honoring a different historic figure each day of the month—you can watch their video tributes daily on PW’s home page—we’ll also be blogging throughout the month about some individuals who’ve inspired us through the years.
There are so many figures in LGBT history who, in boldly standing up for who they were, dealt with a whole world of shit that 20- and 30-somethings today would have a hard time imagining. Fifty years ago, plainclothes police officers groped you at rest stops and busted you for cruising in parks—as they did Frank Kameny, a brilliant, Harvard-educated physicist and astronomer employed by the U.S. Army’s Army Map Service. Kameny was interrogated in 1957 for getting sexy with an undercover officer in D.C.’s Lafayette Park, a freaky cruising park right across from the White House. Grilled about his sexual preferences, he soon found himself barred from working for the federal government ever again.
Kameny was basically forced to become a queer activist at that point, his life having been upended with such a brutal dismissal. He appealed the decision all the way up to the Supreme Court, but they wouldn’t hear his case. So he and Jack Nichols formed the Mattachine Society, where Kameny helped bring a newfound radicalism to the gay rights movement. He picketed, wrote essays, organized legislation, ran for office and campaigned for sodomy laws to be overturned; he’s also said to be responsible for the conversion of Stokely Carmichael’s “Black is Beautiful” slogan into the corresponding “Gay is Good.”
One of his biggest accomplishments, however, just might be the striking down of the American Psychiatric Association’s inclusion of homosexuality in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. On December 15th, 1973, the APA removed homosexuality from their list of mental disorders and it was a triumphant moment for Kameny. He says it’s the day that “we were cured en masse by the psychiatrists.” Just like Barbara Gittings, Kameny was there in Philadelphia in those key pre-Stonewall summers when gay rights activists marched on Independence Hall. His story is both a wakeup call and an inspiration; his life was one huge struggle to maintain dignity and professionalism despite a society that was trying, in earnest, to make examples out of gay folks by punishing them, lawfully refusing them work and piling their names onto a black list of gays to never employ.