Frank Kameny: Cold War Astronomy and the Lavender Scare

*With this blog series, we also hope to instigate meaningful conversations about our institution’s history. We therefore invite you to comment on our posts and share your thoughts with us.

Franklin E. Kameny. c. 1943

Franklin Edward Kameny decided at four-years-old that he was going to be a scientist. It was another year or two before he managed to narrow his interests down to astronomy, but once the decision was made, that was that. After graduating high school at sixteen, he enrolled at Queens College in September 1941 with the intent to pursue a degree in physics. Three months later, Japanese aircrafts dropped bombs over Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. Within a year, the U.S. Army switched the draft eligibility age from twenty-one to eighteen, which had clear implications for seventeen-year-old Kameny.

When the military announced a new Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) in December 1942, which would’ve allowed him to study military engineering from the safety of U.S. soil while still contributing to the war effort, Kameny voluntarily enlisted three days before his eighteenth birthday. Like all potential enlistees, Kameny was asked in his entrance interview whether he had any homosexual tendencies. “I did, and I was well aware of them,” he later recalled. “And I lied, as everyone did on this subject in those days.”

Six weeks after Kameny joined the ASTP in February 1943, General George Marshall determined that the impending invasion of France would require an additional 134,000 men who had already completed basic training. All 30,000 participants from the ASTP, Frank Kameny included, were immediately withdrawn from the program and transferred to General Marshall’s command. Kameny joined an eighty-one-mm mortar crew in the 58th Armored Infantry Battalion at Camp Polk. In October 1944, his battalion entered frontline combat in Europe, eventually participating in the Battle of the Bulge.

American historian John D’Emilio described the Second World War as a kind of “nationwide coming out experience” where man and women from all over the country moved outside the influence of their families and communities and into sex-segregated environments. This prolonged social shift had a significant cultural impact on the development of homosexual communal spaces in the United States, coinciding with the 1948 release of Alfred Kinsey’s 800-page scientific study, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Kinsey’s publisher had markedly low expectations for the book. At $6.50 a piece (close to $70.00 by current standards), it was very expensive, and most major publications, including The New York Times, refused to advertise it. To almost everyone’s surprise, the book sold more than half a million copies and quickly hit the number two spot on The New York Times bestseller list. This meant Kinsey’s argument that homosexual activity was culturally pervasive “in every age group, in every social level, in every conceivable occupation, in cities and on farms, and in the most remote areas of the country” sparked what Frank Kameny later described as “an intense, visceral counter-reaction.” In the post-war era, as Cold War tensions mounted, the name Alfred Redl came to define the federal response.

Colonel Alfred Redl. c. 1907.

From 1900 to 1913, Colonel Alfred Redl worked at the highest levels of Austria’s military counter-intelligence organization, the Evidenzbureau. At the beginning of the twentieth century, and in the lead up to the First World War, Redl had more access to classified information than almost anyone in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Redl was also a Russian spy, responsible for leaking information which included military mobilization plans and detailed fortification maps. He repeatedly betrayed the identities of Austrian field agents and protected their Russian counterparts. When his successor uncovered the treachery, Redl immediately committed suicide, carrying his secrets to his grave.

When the Austro-Hungarian Army suffered catastrophic defeat, leading to the death of 1.3 million men and the subsequent collapse of the Empire, Redl took the blame. In life, Redl’s rumored romantic relationships with other men were an open secret in Vienna, but warranted little more than a passing thought. In death, and with nothing else to account for his actions, Redl’s alleged homosexuality became the central narrative. The most popular explanation suggested that he’d been blackmailed by the Russians because of his sexual preferences, and it was that alone that led him to treason. Three years after the Paris Peace Conference, when Allen Dulles, the future Cold War Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (or CIA), arrived in Vienna for his appointment at the U.S. Embassy, the rumor mill was still fixated on the homosexual spy who had singlehandedly lost Austria the First World War.

After World War II and throughout the Cold War, police action against homosexual activity—including dancing, kissing, and holding hands—dramatically increased. Arrests occurred at an equivalent rate of one incident filed every ten minutes, every day, for fifteen years, impacting more than one million citizens. At the end of his second year in office, President Truman established the Federal Employee Loyalty Program, which advocated for organized investigation into government employees to determine if they were trustworthy. Congressional reports explicitly identified “admitted homosexuals” as known security risks, and advised against their employment in classified positions.

In 1950, Joe McCarthy’s infamous “list” of alleged Communists employed by the State Department, included two cases of accused homosexuality due to the supposed susceptibility of the individuals to Russian blackmail. That same year, John Peurifoy, the U.S Ambassador to Greece, told a congressional committee his department had fired ninety-one individuals based on allegations of homosexuality, which led to nationwide outrage that the firing of homosexual individuals from government employment inadvertently proved that there were homosexual individuals working for the government in the first place. Thousands more lost their jobs on similar grounds over the ensuing years, in a period now known as the “Lavender Scare.” On April 27, 1953, President Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450, which officially sanctioned certain behaviors as threatening to national security, including homosexuality. The included behaviors could then function as a basis to terminate employment or remove security clearances.

Frank Kameny was discharged from the U.S. Army on March 24, 1946. He immediately returned to New York to complete his undergraduate degree in physics, and two years later enrolled at Harvard to pursue a graduate education in astronomy. It was the culmination of a lifelong dream, only temporarily derailed by war. He finished his master’s degree in 1949, and then completed his Ph.D in 1956 with a doctoral thesis entitled A Photoelectric Study of Some RV Tauri and Yellow Semiregular Variables, written under the supervision of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. Kameny spent the summers of 1950 and 1951 working at the Harvard College Observatory’s impressive Oak Ridge Station where he became a national authority on the aluminum re-coating process required every few years to maintain the telescope mirrors. He conducted research in Arizona and spent time in Ireland as a visiting scholar, all the while living relatively openly as a gay man.

Frank Kameny as an astronomer.

On August 29, 1956, near the end of his time at Harvard, Kameny was arrested while attending a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in San Francisco for “lewd and indecent acts,” more specifically, homosexual contact with another adult male. To quickly bury the charges, as was so often the case for men in his position, Kameny pled guilty, paid his $50 fine, and received a six-month probation upon which the charges would be revised in his record to “not guilty: complaint dismissed.” Soon afterwards, he began his first teaching position at Georgetown, and that, he supposed, was that.

After a year at Georgetown, federal employees recruited Kameny to a job with the Army Map Service (AMS), which he accepted for its potential to transition into a position with the U.S. space program. In his wildest dreams, Kameny had designs on becoming an astronaut, or in the very least, transitioning his research interests in that direction. He was less than six months on the job when the U.S. Civil Service Commission (CSC) learned of Kameny’s arrest record, though it should’ve already been expunged. While conducting field research in Hawaii, he received a letter instructing him to return to Washington D.C. immediately due to administrative concerns.

Back in Washington, federal officials asked him to comment on evidence suggesting he was a homosexual. Kameny refused. He was fired from his position with the AMS on December 20, 1957 on the basis of homosexuality. On January 15, 1958, the CSC debarred him from all federal employment. Days after his initial firing, Kameny submitted his first appeal. He wrote to several former colleagues at Harvard asking for affidavits that might attest to his character. Harlow Shapley, the former Director of the Harvard College Observatory, wrote that Kameny was a “citizen loyal and upright;–a man of good character.” In his twelve-page appeal, Kameny refused to outright deny the accusation, and instead chose to critique the federal government’s policies.

For Kameny, the situation was dire both financially and professionally. He hadn’t been in the field long enough to achieve any kind of safety net. Without any hope of getting a security clearance, the astronomy job market in the Cold War era was sparse. Despite the intellectual capital which went along with his degree and commensurate experience, he never worked in the field again, and financial struggles plagued him for the rest of his life.

In the years after his firing, Kameny continued to fight the decision, appealing to the highest levels of the Civil Service Commission. When that didn’t work, he wrote directly to the House and Senate Civil Service Committees. Kameny contacted the ACLU, who assigned him an attorney, and they took the case to court. He pursued the appeal all the way up to the Supreme Court, filing his own petition in 1961. As Kameny later described it, the experience “forced me to sit and formulate my own philosophy, and ultimately I wrote what was really the first gay rights brief ever filed in any court anywhere. I rebutted the entire philosophy that said homosexuality was immoral. Forty years later it still reads well, but predictably it got turned down by the Supreme Court.”

On May 15, 1961, Kameny wrote a letter to President Kennedy. He began with a description of his military service. “In World War II, I willingly fought the Germans, with bullets, in order to preserve and secure my rights, freedoms, and liberties, and those of my fellow citizens. In 1961, it has, ironically, become necessary for me to fight my own government, with words, in order to achieve some of the very same rights, freedoms, and liberties for which I placed my life in jeopardy in 1945. This letter is part of that fight.” The letter does not mince words. Speaking on behalf of a larger community, Kameny wrote, “The homosexuals in this country are increasingly less willing to tolerate the abuse, repression, and discrimination directed at them, both officially and unofficially, and they are beginning to stand up for their rights and freedoms as citizens no less deserving than other citizens of those rights and freedoms. They are no longer willing to accept their present status as second-class citizens and as second-class human beings; they are neither.”

Letter from Frank Kameny to President John F. Kennedy. JFK Presidential Library. May 15, 1961.

With his chosen career path no longer an option, Kameny devoted the rest of his life to activism. In a 1972 letter to his mother, he outlined his position. “I told you that if society and I differ on anything, I will give society a second chance to convince me. If it fails, then I am right and society is wrong, and if society gets in my way, it will be society which will change, not I. That was so alien to your entire approach to life that you responded with disdain. It has been a guiding principle of my life. Society was wrong. I am making society change.” He remained in Washington D.C., where one of his first goals became to remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders. It presented an opportunity to fight science with science, a language in which he was particularly well-versed.

“I was a scientist by training and background. I know good science when I see it, and I know bad science, so I proceeded to see what there was, and I was absolutely appalled. It was shoddy, slipshod, slovenly, sleazy pseudo-science, assumptions pumped in at one end and pumped out at the other end as conclusions—garbage in, garbage out—poor sampling techniques. I could go on and on and on. It was quite clear that what you had was moral, cultural, and theological and sociological value judgments camouflaged in the language of science without any of the substance of science.”

Ten hard-fought years later, the association revised its list, removing homosexuality. In 1965, Kameny was among a small group of ten men and women who organized the first gay rights protest in front of the White House. In 1971, he became the first openly gay person to run for Congress. In 1975, he was the first to earn a mayoral appointment.

In 1978, Congress passed a law which dictated that off-duty conduct couldn’t be a basis for employment termination if it didn’t impact the job. Twenty years later, President Clinton issued Executive Order 13087, which further prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 2009, fifty-two years after he lost his job with the Army Map Service, Kameny received an official apology from the federal government. Today, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and the Library of Congress house large collections of his protest materials and written records, once stored precariously in his own attic, but Kameny’s legacy is far removed from the field he chose for himself. Yale Law professor William Eskridge Jr called Kameny “the Rosa Parks and the Martin Luther King and the Thurgood Marshall of the gay rights movement.” As one biographer suggested, he “may be the most famous astronomer that most astronomers have never heard of.”

In 2009, a staff member at the McAteer library in Cambridge, MA “rediscovered” Kameny’s dissertation and added his data to the AAVSO International Database. In a resulting interview with AAVSO staff, Kameny commented on his memories of working with “giants in the field,” like Harlow Shapley, Bart Bok,  and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. Another interviewer around the same time asked Kameny to speculate on what could’ve been had he been allowed to continue in his chosen profession. Kameny offered this point, “If I’d been born heterosexual, I would have gotten married and had a family and at this point been a retired, very successful astronomer and that would have been that.” When asked if he considered that version of reality a “better life,” Kameny responded, “It’s hard to say. It probably would have been a duller life. Leaving aside my never-ending financial problems, I’m really very well satisfied with where things have gone. I feel that the world and the lives of lots of individuals are better off for my having been around, and that’s very satisfying.”

Frank Kameny pictured in front of protest signs. June 11, 2009.
Bibliography:

“A Permanent Place in the Heavens.” 7 June 2012, www.aavso.org/permanent-place-heavens….

Cervini, Eric. The Deviant’s War: the Homosexual vs. the United States of America. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.

  • This blog only skims the surface on Frank Kameny’s four decades of activism. If you’re interested in a more in-depth look at his life, Cervini’s book provides a complete biography.

“Interview with Franklin Kameny (1/8/2003),” http://lcweb2.loc.gov /diglib/vhp/story/loc.natlib.afc2001001.05208/transcript?ID=mv0001. The interview was conducted by Lara Ballard, the coordinator of the Veterans History Project of the American Veterans for Equal Rights.

Kameny to Rae Kameny, June 3, 1972, Frank Kameny Papers (FKP), Library of Congress, Washington, DC, box 1.

Kinne, Richard Doc. “Frank Kameny: Astronomer Interuptus..” NOGLSTP Bulletin, Jul 01, 2009, 1-2, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/2371019056?accountid=11311.

Kisseloff, Jeff. “Frank Kameny.” In Generation on Fire, 183. University Press of Kentucky, 2006.

Long, Michael G. Gay is Good: The Life and Letters of Gay Rights Pioneer Franklin Kameny. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014. muse.jhu.edu/book/35719.

O’Bryan, Will. “Gay Is Good.” Metro Weekly, 4 Oct. 2006, www.metroweekly.com/2006/10/gay-is-good/.

Papers of John F. Kennedy. Presidential Papers. White House Central Name File. Kameny, Franklin E. JFKWHCNF-1418-002. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Zongker, Brett, and Jessica Gresko. “Frank Kameny, 86; Activist in D.C. Gay Rights Movement.” Boston.com, The Boston Globe, 13 Oct. 2011, archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/obituaries/articles/2011/10/13/frank_kameny_86_activist_in_dc_gay_rights_movement/.