Gay is Good, Dr. Frank Kameny – On Scene with Bill Wilson

Frank Kameny was the first openly gay person to run for Congress
when he ran for non-voting delegate from the District of Columbia in 1971.
Photo by Kay Tobin Lahusen, NYPL Digital Library

By Bill Wilson
Sentinel Photojournalist
Bill Wilson © 2011

“If society and I differ on something, I’m willing to give the matter a second look. If we still differ, then I am right and society is wrong; and society can go its way so long as it doesn’t get in my way. But if it does, there is going to be a fight. And I’m not going to be the one who backs down. That has been the underlying premise of the conduct of my life.” Frank Kameny as quoted in the book, The Gay Crusaders by Kay Tobin and Randy Wicker 1972.

Frank Kameny (second in line) picketing in front of the White House in 1965
Photo by Kay Tobin Lahusen, NYPL Digital Library

Frank remained true to that premise right up to his death on National Coming Out Day, October 11, 2011. He never backed down. Whether he was writing an appeal to the Supreme Court in 1961, coining the slogan “Gay is Good” in 1968, zapping the American Psychiatric Association meetings in the early 70’s or speaking before a gay group the message was the same – I deserve to be treated equally, it is wrong to treat me any other way, and if you do then shame on you.

Frank Kameny was asked during an interview that was published in the MetroWeekly on October 5, 2006, why he wasn’t intimidated when he was fired from his government job in 1957. He answered, “ Over the years and the issues I’ve taken on, I have not sought to adjust myself to society. I have adjusted society to me and society is much better off for the adjustments I’ve administered.”

Frank Kameny on the picket line in 1965 at Independence Hall,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Photo by Kay Tobin Lahusen, NYPL Digital Library

I’ve always admired Frank for that absolute, unwavering conviction that has inspired so much and is the foundation for the gay rights movement. Homosexuality is no longer listed as a mental disorder. Why? Because Frank fought to get it removed and he won. In a July 8, 2006 letter to the Rainbow History project Dr. Kameny recalled the campaign to get the definition removed from the Diagnostic manual of the APA. “After the Mattachine Society of Washington (MSW) was organized in November, 1961, and we began to assess the issues facing us, we realized at once that we had to deal with the “sickness theory” of homosexuality, as formalized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM — then DSM II) of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), Our push then, as ever since, was for equality, and it was clear that equality would never be granted to a bunch of “loonies”, which is what the sickness theory made of us.

I had no idea of the scientific basis for the sickness theory, but, as a scientist by training and background, who knows good science and bad science when he sees them, I commenced to explore not knowing where I would come out..

I was appalled by what I found: Shabby, shoddy, sloppy, sleazy pseudo-science. Moral, cultural, and theological value judgments, cloaked and camouflaged in the language of science without any of the substance of science. Abominable sampling techniques: As psychiatrists, they only saw patients who, of course, were troubled people or they would not have been coming to a psychiatrist, so the psychiatrists never saw happy, well-adjusted homosexuals and assumed that we were all emotionally disturbed.

Barbara Gittings(left) and Frank Kameny (right) staff a booth
at the 1972 APA Convention
Photo by Kay Tobin Lahusen, NYPL Digital Library

Assumptions, plugged in at one end, only to be drawn out at the other end, unexamined. Dr. Irving Bieber, in his 1962 book, states, on page 18: “All psychoanalytic theory assumes that homosexuality is psychopathological” —- a perfectly legitimate starting point, provided that that assumption is examined and validated; Bieber never did or even attempted to…

Therefore I drafted the MSW statement, “ The Mattachine Society of Washington takes the position that in the absence of valid evidence to the contrary homosexuality is not a sickness, disturbance, or other pathology in any sense but is merely a preference, orientation, or propensity on a par with and not different in kind from heterosexuality. The key clause in that is the opening subtantive one “In the absence of valid evidence to the contrary — “. What that did was to shift — to reverse — the burden of proof. from us to the sickness theorists, to provide that valid evidence.

In the entire ensuing decade they never did; they never even attempted to shoulder their burden. At the very meeting of the APA Board of Trustees, on December 15, 1973, at which they were in process of voting on the motion to delete Homosexuality from the DSM, three of the major sickness-theory bigwigs presented papers to the Board attempting to dissuade them. Those papers did not even touch on validating the theory; for them it remained a “given” not requiring evidence or proof. And so the Board went ahead to “cure” all gay people, en masse.

Barbara Gittings, Dr. Frank Kameny and Dr. Anonymous part
of a 1972 panel at the APA meeting in Dallas
Photo by Kay Tobin Lahusen, NYPL Digital Library

In the first half decade or so after the issuance of the MSW statement, we saw no way to get at the issue within the APA, and we were deeply occupied with other issues. Following Stonewall, the effort was picked up in New York, with the welcome cooperation of Dr. Robert Spitzer who edited the DSM. A not-too-well thought out zap of the San Francisco APA meeting in May, 1970, by the Gay Liberation Front, and some other similar disruptions, got things moving within APA officialdom, leading to the invitation to me to organize the panel at the May, 1971 Washington, DC meeting; to our zap; to the famous panel discussion with the masked Dr. Fryer at the 1972 meeting in Dallas with our “Gay, Proud, and Healthy” booth created by Barbara Gittings and my leaflet of the same title, and my dancing with another gay man at the APA banquet; to the huge seminar on the “sickness theory” at the 1973 meeting in Honolulu, during which Bob Spitzer, Ron Gold, and I, sitting in a nearby gay bar, surrounded by frightened, closeted gay psychiatrists drafted two resolutions, one, the “curative” one and the other designed to eliminate homosexuality as a disqualifying factor in security clearance cases, both of which were adopted by the Board of Trustees that December. ..

The APA now has a formally-recognized Gay and Lesbian Caucus, consisting of very “out” gay psychiatrists…. Progress indeed, and well worth the effort!! Much of that enormous progress and the advances which the gay community has enjoyed over the past three decades just simply would not have occurred had we remained a bunch of “loonies”.”

Frank Kameny and his supporters rally during his campaign for Congress in 1971
Photo by Kay Tobin Lahusen, NYPL Digital Library

In 1968 inspired by the “Black is Beautiful” slogan that sought to make black women feel positive about themselves, Frank coined the phrase, “Gay is Good” to make gay people feel good about themselves. He considered that the accomplishment his greatest. While I agree with his assessment he did leave us with many other accomplishments to consider.

In a 1970 photo Frank Kameny holds a sign
bearing the slogan he created
Photo by Kay Tobin Lahusen, NYPL Digital Library

Although not a lawyer, he filed an appeal of his 1957 dismissal from his government job with the Supreme Court in 1961. He felt it was necessary even when his lawyer didn’t. He became an expert on Civil Service law and process. He advised many people, both federal employees and military personnel, on the way to deal with coming out. It was Frank that Leonard Matlovich turned to when making his decisions about how to come out and remain in the military.

Frank is stopped by a guard at the White House Gate
during a protest at the White House in 1965
Photo by Kay Tobin Lahusen, NYPL Digital Library

Perhaps there is o better illustration of the progress that has been made in the years since Frank founded the Mattachine Society in DC sixty one years ago than the series of photos of Frank at the White House. There are many photos of Frank and others picketing the White House in the 60’s. One taken in 1965 shows Frank handing a letter for the President (then LBJ) to the guard at the Gate.

Frank Kameny addresses a rally in 1993 protesting the DADT policy
Photo By Bill Wilson © 2011

Almost thirty years later with increased visibility the GLBT community had access to the Clinton White House, but Frank was still taking part in demonstrations in front of the White House as shown in a photo I took during a protest over the enactment of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. Frank was never the one to advocate or accept compromise when it came to equality.

Frank receives a handshake from President Obama
in the Oval Office on June 17, 2009
White House Photo Pete Souza

President Obama has recognized Frank with invitations to receptions and bill signings. In the early days of strategizing about the gay rights movement Frank outlined three things he wanted to accomplish. The removal of the bar to gay and lesbian federal employment, the labeling of gays as security risks and the end of excluding gay and lesbians from military service. The certification of the repeal of DADT that went into effect on September 20 of this year completed the achievement of all those goals.

Frank Kameny and John McNeil take part in wreath laying
ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
in Arlington Cemetery, Arlington, Va. in 2002
Photo by Henry Huot

Frank Kameny was a combat veteran of World War II. There was an attempt to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown solider n 1979 that failed because the person hadn’t gone through proper channels. Frank took charge and every year since 1980 there has been a gay group sponsored wreath laid at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Army did have to be threaten with legal action before they understood Frank’s seriousness, but Frank’s military service gave credence to the effort.

Frank Kameny reacting to President Obama recognizing Frank
during remarks at a LGBT Pride reception at the White House
on June 29, 2009.
White House photo

It was ironic that Frank passed away on National coming Out Day. Frank built the foundation which makes coming out possible. Like other civil rights leaders Frank called on America to live up to its promise of freedom and liberty for all its citizens. The world has lost his wise counsel, but we will always have his example. Out, proud, and it is society that needs changing.

See Related On Scene with Bill Wilson Archive

Sentinel Photojournalist
Bill Wilson is a San Francisco-based veteran photojournalist. Bill embraced photojournalism at the age of eight. In recent years, his photos capture historic record of the San Francisco LGBT community in the Bay Area Reporter (BAR), The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, SFist, SFAppeal. Bill has contributed to the Sentinel for the past seven years. Email Bill Wilson at

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