Frank Kameny served in the U.S. Army during World War II and completed a doctorate in astronomy at Harvard before obtaining a government job in 1957. But shortly after being hired as an astronomer for the Army Map Service, Kameny was confronted over reports that he was a homosexual. Kameny was soon fired, and in January 1958, at the age of 32, he was barred from ever working for the federal government again.
However, unlike most of the thousands of gay and lesbian federal employees who were terminated during the so-called Lavender Scare, Kameny decided to fight back.
“His whole career was destroyed and all of his aspirations, and he was so furious that he took on the Civil Service Commission and dedicated the rest of his life to fighting for gay rights and to end the kind of discrimination he'd faced,” George Chauncey, an LGBTQ historian and Columbia University professor, told NBC News.
Kameny sued the government in a 1960 lawsuit that went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. He didn’t win the case — regarded as the first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation to be brought to the Supreme Court — but that was just the beginning for Kameny. In 1961, he co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, one of the earliest LGBTQ advocacy groups. Then in 1965, Kameny was among a small group that held what is thought to be the first gay demonstration outside the White House. Not long after, he decided to take on the American Psychiatric Association and its classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder.
After a half-century of activism, Kameny was recognized at the highest levels for his contributions to LGBTQ equality. He even received a formal apology from the U.S. government in 2009 for his 1958 dismissal.
“He helped make it possible for countless of patriotic Americans to hold security clearances and high government positions, including me,” John Berry, the openly gay former director of the Office of Personnel Management, who issued the government apology, told The New York Times following Kameny’s death.
Frank Kameny died at the age of 86 on October 11, 2011. His death coincided with National Coming Out day, which has been celebrated annually since 1987.