Kameny in Combat

Armed with logic, wit and courage, Frank Kameny carried the day

My first direct experience of Frank Kameny’s combative style came during a gay rights debate that I arranged at Villanova University in March 1978 for the Villanova Political Union. Frank was then a member of the D.C. Human Rights Commission and I used his status as a public official to outmaneuver the dean of student activities, Father John Byrne, who had encouraged debates on current issues, but balked when the subject was abortion or gay rights.

”I will not allow the devil a forum in my own home,” Byrne angrily told me. I brazenly replied that we weren’t planning to invite Dr. Kameny to the dean’s private rooms. We were allowed to hold the debate after agreeing to invite, as a second guest, a priest who taught moral theology.

At the debate, the priest concluded, ”In the end, you don’t need the Bible, you only need 20/20 vision, and you’ll know that man was made to screw a woman and not to screw another man.” He was a perfect foil for Frank, who disputed his religious views but returned the focus to America’s founding principles including the right to the pursuit of happiness.

In response to the charge that gay people flaunted their sexuality, Frank pointed out that when you see a visibly pregnant woman in public, ”you know exactly what she’s been doing in bed.” This was my introduction to Frank’s penchant for provocation and for turning the tables on our opponents. He assailed their biased assumptions and disarmed them with reason and wit.

”I fought in front-line combat for my country,” Frank thundered. As a citizen and patriot he demanded equality under the law — ”no more, but not one whit less.” He easily won the vote on our resolution opposing discrimination based on sexual orientation.

For his appearance at Villanova, Frank requested only travel and lodging costs, which were covered by our modest honorarium. The Political Union’s officers took him to dinner beforehand at the Conestoga Mill. Frank wore a “Gay Is Good” button, and as we left the restaurant the manager wished Frank good luck. It dawned on me that Frank carried into battle the dreams of untold quieter gay people like that restaurant manager.

Over the next 33 years, I often observed Frank’s fearless and iconoclastic way of challenging dogma. He said that anything that has lasted long enough to become a tradition deserves to be questioned. He declared, ”The world needs more and better blasphemy.” He called celibacy unnatural. He told homophobes who cited Scripture, ”Your God may disapprove of homosexuality, but my God considers it a blessing.”

After Congress vetoed D.C.’s first attempt to repeal its sodomy law as part of the Sexual Assault Reform Act of 1981, Frank shouted at a community meeting that repeal should be attached to every bill the District passed until we rid ourselves of ”this damnable law!” Frustratingly, Ward 8 Councilmember Wilhelmina Rolark, Judiciary Committee chair, blocked action until Marion Barry defeated her in 1992. Frank drafted the language that legalized consensual, noncommercial sex between adults in private, 10 years before the Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas.

Frank’s last message to the internal email list of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA) came Oct. 5 in a discussion of D.C.’s election law: ”We should rid ourselves of Initiative and Referendum themselves, were that feasible. Adopting them was a mistake which has plagued us ever since.”

Frank’s mind and tongue remained sharp even as his fires banked in his last years. His papers at the Library of Congress, and the interviews he gave to historians, will preserve his distinctive voice not just in the memories of those of us privileged to have known him, but for all time.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at rrosendall@starpower.net.