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DC pride festival honors gay rights pioneer Franklin Kameny

By GILLIAN GAYNAIR, Associated Press

5472964 WASHINGTON -- Fresh off his doctorate from Harvard, Franklin Kameny had been a government astronomer for just five months when he was asked to meet with federal investigators. They said they had information that he was a homosexual. He was promptly fired.

In that moment in 1957, more than a decade before the Stonewall riots in New York City sparked the modern gay rights movement, one of the cause's earliest and most effective activists was born.

Now 84, Kameny is being honored at events this month during Washington's annual Capital Pride celebration, and artifacts from his half-century of activism are going on display at a D.C. gallery.

Supporters call it a fitting tribute for the man who staged the first gay rights protest in front of the White House and successfully argued that homosexuality shouldn't be defined as a mental disorder, as it was in those days.

"He's indomitable. There's no one else like him in the movement," said Dudley Clendinen, co-author of a book about the gay rights effort in America. "He doesn't relent. He doesn't really negotiate ... The culture gradually came around to recognize what he early on insisted was fair and true."

5472971 Kameny's recognition comes as more states vote to legalize same-sex marriage. Last month, the nation's capital - the epicenter of Kameny's battles - decided to recognize gay unions performed elsewhere, and now plans to introduce legislation legalizing such marriages in the District itself.

And Kameny is still in the thick of it: He's advising D.C. Council member David Catania on the gay marriage issue and continues to lobby Congress to end the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, a fight he began in the 1960s. A World War II veteran, Kameny said he has always resented lying to his government to serve in a war effort that he supported.

To Kameny, a New York native, the gay rights movement has progressed at a speed that was unthinkable 50 years ago.

"It would have been the kind of thing you might dream about back then, but hardly did you really think would actually come to pass," he said on a recent afternoon at his modest, northwest Washington home, which in February was designated a D.C. historic landmark. "It's been more satisfyingly successful than we would ever have imagined."

Kameny contested his firing by the U.S. Civil Service Commission by writing letters to the agency, both houses of Congress and eventually the White House.

He sued and lost in lower courts, but pressed on with a lengthy brief in 1961 that is now regarded as the first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation to be brought to the Supreme Court.

5472970 The court denied Kameny's petition, prompting him later that year to co-found the Mattachine Society of Washington, which advocated for equal rights for gays and lesbians.

"We very quickly realized that if we were seeking equality and rights," Kameny said, "that the society, the culture, were not going to grant equality and rights to a bunch of loonies, which is what the psychological evaluation of the day made of us."

In 1963, Kameny and the society took on the American Psychiatric Association, which at the time defined homosexuality as a mental illness. Ten years later, the association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.

Kameny would for decades advise people who were denied security clearances, discharged from the military or fired from the civil service because they were gay. He and other activists also fought to nullify anti-sodomy laws.

In October 1965, he and about 10 other men and women picketed in the first gay rights protest in front of the White House. Other demonstrations followed at the Pentagon, the Civil Service Commission and Independence Hall in Philadelphia, with some protesters holding signs that read: "Homosexuals Ask For The Right To The Pursuit Of Happiness" and "First Class Citizenship for Homosexuals."

Many of Kameny's placards as well as buttons from that time are now housed in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. The Library of Congress also has catalogued more than 50,000 documents donated by the Kameny Papers Project, a volunteer group formed to preserve Kameny's archive of the early gay rights movement - most of which was stashed away in his attic.

And on Thursday, the Velvet Foundation, which aims to erect a museum in D.C. dedicated to gay history and culture, opens a brief exhibition of Kameny's artifacts.

Kameny said his contributions to the gay rights struggle have only recently begun to sink in. He said he wants to be remembered most for coming up with the slogan "Gay is Good" in 1968 to counter an onslaught of negativism aimed at gays and lesbians.

"To the government and lawyers we were criminals. To the religious people we were sinners. To the psychiatrists we were sick," he said. "There was nothing affirmative to offset that in any way whatsoever."

The phrase, he said, "encapsulates the whole underlying driving force and rationale for everything that I've been involved in."

In April, Kameny attended the swearing-in of John Berry, the openly gay director of the Office of Personnel Management - the successor to the Civil Service Commission that fired Kameny.

"It was very much like a storybook ending," he said, his green eyes lighting up - "complete, satisfying closure after 52 years. It was really something that I came away feeling vindicated as I rarely have in life."

AP photos by Jacquelyn Martin

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