Frank Kameny came to Washington in 1956 to study the heavens and even considered becoming an astronaut. Instead, he became a stellar activist in the modern LGBT civil-rights movement.
”When I came to Washington in 1956, having just obtained my Ph.D. in astronomy, I never would have dreamed that I would be in a place such as this, on an occasion such as this, for reasons such as these,” Kameny told an audience of about 200 people Friday, Dec. 10. The occasion was the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area’s (UNA-NCA) Human Rights Luncheon, in the Cannon House Office Building, co-sponsored by D.C.’s Office of Human Rights (OHR) and Commission on Human Rights (DCCHR). Kameny was one of the afternoon’s stars, being honored with the third annual Cornelius R. Alexander Jr. Humanitarian Award, presented by OHR and DCCHR.
After the federal government fired him in 1957 for being gay, Kameny went on to lead the LGBT civil rights movement. He co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington and became the first openly gay person appointed to serve on the DCCHR. And in 2009, the federal government accepted its due blame for its treatment of Kameny.
”Last year I was presented with a beautiful letter apologizing for their ‘shameful action’ – their words – 52-years-ago in firing me. I humorously answered that they might then give me 52 years back pay,” Kameny said, playfully. ”They haven’t yet.”
Past recipients of the award, which ”celebrates the efforts and accomplishments of the individuals who have made significant contributions in the filed of human or civil rights,” are Johnny Barnes, former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Alexander, the award’s namesake, was the chief hearing examiner of the DCCHR, as well as a fixture of Washington’s gay leather community. He was the president of the Highwaymen TNT and served on the board of The Center. Alexander died Nov. 18, 2007, at the age of 55, from natural causes several weeks after being diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Attendees at the luncheon included local activists Richard Rosendall and Peter Rosenstein; Christopher Dyer, the mayor’s liaison to the LGBT community; and Jeffrey Richardson, president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club.
Speaking to Metro Weekly, Rosenstein reminisced about meeting Kameny about 25 years ago.
”Frank deserves every honor that he gets,” he said. ”He has done a lot for our community over many, many years and it’s always a pleasure to be at an event honoring [him].”
Gustavo F. Velasquez, director of OHR, spoke to Metro Weekly before presenting Kameny with the award.
”This year it’s really an honor for me, for the office and for the Commission on Human Rights, and for everybody here, to present the award to Frank Kameny,” he said. ”Knowing the history of this man, and the fight, not just for [LGBT] rights, but really beyond that for human rights in general, it’s quite an honor to present this to him.
”He’s a great human being. It’s not just about his contribution and everything he accomplished as an activist and as an advocate, it’s also really about him, being a great person and treating everybody with respect.”