Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Perry Brass: Lost Gay New York: Death of Frank Kameny

Frank Kameny in front of signs Mattachine used for protests in the early 1960s, 
image courtesy Wikipedia.
Franklin Kameny: 1925 -2011

Frank Kameny died yesterday, on National Coming Out Day, which is purely appropriate. A Harvard PhD, he served in World War II, and he was fired from a federal job he held as an astronomer for being gay, in 1957; he openly fought his firing, and came out in the process. With Jack Nichols, he founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, DC, in 1961.

Frank was a great and wonderful guy. I remember, distinctly, hearing him at Columbia University in 1967, when the Columbia Homophile League organized a forum on homosexuality and he spoke. What he said was so incredibly clear and logical—and he was actually booed by closet-case queens in the audience who didn't want to hear it; they'd gone out of some sense of morbid curiosity, but couldn't accept what he said, which was basically that human complexity, like animal complexity, gave sex other dimensions than procreative. He said, "Sheep do not grow wool in order to be sheared by humans; it's the same way with sex." I was 19 years old and just stunned by him. He was already at that time an "old man," in his 40s, and for me to hear a distinguished adult say something positive about myself was wonderful. 

What I loved about Frank was his forthrightness and complete lack of fear about speaking the uncomfortable truth. That is something that we took to another level in the Gay Liberation Front, the first gay (and most radical) group to be organized after Stonewall, which I was a member of: speaking the uncomfortable truth. Now in this age, when the business Newspeak has made "comfortability" not only acceptable but required, to be able to say what others need to hear but don't welcome is important. But I am glad that Frank was there early for us. 

What people always remember about Frank was how extremely gentlemanly he was, conservatively dressed, and genuinely reticent. But he was a tremendous speaker when the time called for it. He also ran as the first openly gay candidate for Congress, in 1971, from Washington, again, and although he didn't win, he paved the way for other gay politicos to follow. 

I saw him at other moments but rarely. One of the last was a large gathering at the LGBT Center in NY several years ago, when Barbara Gittings was there also, one of her last public appearances. I got to speak to Frank for a short while, and just told him how glad I was that he was still around, and that I'd been close to Jack Nichols. He said to me, about the world and culture that we had all grown up in: "We were right and they were wrong, that's what you have to remember." 

Perry Brass's latest book is The Manly Art of Seduction. You can learn more about him at his website, . His newest book will be King of Angels, A Novel About the Genesis of Identity and Belief, to be published in March of 2012. 


  1. Perry, I'm so glad you are still doing these articles. Although I never met Frank, I too am thankful for his important contribution to the GLBT movement.

  2. The posted photograph was taken during an exhibition held by the Velvet Foundation. The exhibit displayed original protest signs and other items belonging to Dr. Kameny, which are now part of the Velvet Foundation's permanent collection. He was full of life two years ago when this photo was taken, and still full of life when I saw him last, just a few weeks ago. He was a brilliant man, and stubborn too! He insisted that when the time came, he would die in his own home, and he got his wish. May he now rest in peace. And may his spirit, energy, and commitment to the movement live on forever.

  3. Perry, Thanks for sharing this sad news and a little about Frank in the process. I love the quotation. So simple and true. I didn't know anything of him before reading your piece today so now I'm curious and want to find out more about him.