Gay Is Good: The Life and Letters of Gay Rights Pioneer Franklin Kameny

Image of Gay Is Good: The Life and Letters of Gay Rights Pioneer Franklin Kameny
Release Date: 
November 26, 2014
Syracuse University Press
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“a truly remarkable story of a born activist.”

A year before his death at 86, Frank Kameny was an honored guest at the White House. He was there for the signing by President Obama of a document that stopped the U.S. military ban on gay soldiers. The ceremony had special significance for Kameny, a WWII veteran who fought at the Battle of the Bulge in WWII. After Kameny’s military service, he was a doctoral science student at Harvard and worked as an astronomer for the U.S. Army Map Service, with his sights on the burgeoning space programs—until he was fired for being homosexual.

A misdemeanor arrest while he was at a conference in San Francisco derailed his plans. Kameny was victim of a clear case of police entrapment that targeted homosexuals. A year after he paid the fine (and refuted any admission of guilt) the incident resulted in the army firing him. Even though he was blacklisted from employment in his field, his treatment by the U.S. government turned Kameny into a lifelong activist for GLBTQ rights.  

His main weapon was letter writing, typing out thousands of them to everyone from top military brass, the American Psychiatric Association, as well as politicians and presidents, including Richard Nixon. Kameny waged a relentless pro-gay rights campaign no matter how homophobic or lofty the addressee. 

Hundreds of those letters have now been published in Gay Is Good: The Life and Letters of Gay Rights Pioneer Frank Kameny. Editor Michael G. Long, author of several books on civil-rights, not only threads the letters together as a chronicle of the gay rights movement, he contextualizes between the letters and when needed fills in information about to those receiving the letters. The result is a truly remarkable story of a born activist.

After the army fired Kameny, he couldn’t get a job anywhere, since as a publicly outed homosexual, he was automatically put on an employment blacklist. Kameny almost starved to death on the streets of New York, sometimes living on pennies a day for food.

Unwilling to disappear from the U.S. legal map, Kameny not only sued the army for re-instatement, he started writing letters, by the hundreds, to address how homosexuals were being treated as not only second-class citizens, unworthy of any recognition, they were in fact being categorically treated as criminals with no rights. Homosexuals could be fired from jobs, denied housing, denied legal representation, arrested for sexual behavior, or even when privately socializing.  

Kameny became an architect of the modern gay civil rights movement, co-founder of the Mattachine Society and coining the gay liberation era phrase “Gay Is Good.” Among his many firsts in the name of GLBTQ rights, Kameny was the first to pursue a gay civil rights claim through the US Supreme Court in 1961. 

Through his activism, organizational leadership, knowledge of constitutional law, Kameny used tactical skill to address every injustice and slight aimed at the freedoms of GLBTQ Americans.

Richard Spitzer, a leading psychiatrist writing in Psychiatric News described homosexuality as a condition representing “less than optimal functioning. “  Kameny sent a letter to the editor challenging Spritzer to produce “scientifically meaningful or scientifically valid support for your statement. I defy you to do so.“ Kameny took every chance to present himself as a scientist who knew the difference between tested scientific methodology and subjective opinion.    

After national popular columnist Ann Landers wrote about gay people being lonely, frightened, and unhappy, Kameny wrote, “You are making the same error that innumerable psychiatrists, clergy . . . With a few exceptions ONLY the unhappy, frightened and lonely homosexuals write to you for advice. Why would the others do so? Why would the very happy, confident, socially active and gregarious homosexuals have occasion to write to you? Most homosexuals are not as you describe them and have NO desire to change to heterosexuality.” Landers not only changed her view, she circulated Kameny’s letter.

Even with his lifelong alliances with other gay activists, notably Barbara Gittings, Kameny’s tactics were sometimes at odds with the fractious world of the burgeoning gay civil-rights movement. Long doesn’t hesitate to cite when Kameny’s single-mindedness backfired or where his egotism got in the way of seeing the different points of view.  

Kameny was so prolific a letter writer that Long doesn’t include much of his correspondence, and even with these deletions, many of the chosen letters have redundant passages of some of Kameny’s most potent pro-gay arguments.

Mostly, Long sifts through the most salient correspondence in ways that resonate. The book should be on every GLBTQ history shelf, and it is a solid reference for students, civil-rights scholars, and for general readers interested in the early years of the GLBTQ movement.