Kameny Is First Out Candidate for U.S. Congress

After years of activism in the gay and lesbian rights movement, Franklin Kameny became the first out gay person—male or female—to run for U.S. Congress.

Summary of Event

After returning from combat in World War II, Franklin Kameny studied astronomy at Harvard University, earning his Ph.D. in 1956. Kameny anticipated a career in science and moved to Washington, D.C., becoming part of the faculty at Georgetown University. After a year of teaching, Kameny accepted a civil service position as an astronomer with the U.S. Army Map Service in July of 1957. [kw]Kameny Is First Out Candidate for U.S. Congress (1971)
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[kw]Candidate for U.S. Congress, Kameny Is First Out (1971)
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Kameny, Franklin

That fall, after just a few months on the job, Kameny was fired from his position with the Map Service because of his homosexual conduct. Kameny also was barred from any other employment in the civil service or the federal government because of his homosexuality. This injustice drove Kameny away from a career in science and into a life of activism on behalf of gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans. “My dismissal amounted to a declaration of war against me by the government,” Kameny said.

Kameny’s activism started with a long series of legal battles—or his “war”—to get his government job back. This four-year legal struggle included many appeals and culminated with his filing a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, a petition that was rejected by the Court in 1961. Kameny then moved from this personal, individual advocacy to organizing and advocating on behalf of a larger gay and lesbian rights movement. “The time had come to fight collectively,” Kameny said.

Kameny took a page from the Civil Rights movement and decided to adopt a direct, assertive, grassroots strategy on behalf of gays and lesbians. He began by cofounding a Washington, D.C., branch of the Mattachine Society with his friend Jack Nichols, later in 1961. This was the first gay organization in the nation’s capitol, and Kameny became its first president.

Under his leadership, the group took on the ban of gays and lesbians from civil service employment, and, in 1965, they organized the first gay and lesbian demonstration at the White House. For this demonstration, the group dressed conservatively—men in suits and women in dresses—and held signs with slogans such as Civil Service Commission is Un-American. (Kameny’s knack for creating slogans continued when he coined the phrase “Gay is Good” “Gay is Good”[Gay is Good] in 1966. This slogan was adopted by the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations, or NACHO, in 1968.) Just a few months after this demonstration, the U.S. Court of Appeals held that rejecting an application for federal employment because of homosexual conduct was “too vague” and did not adequately explain how homosexual conduct was related to competence in employment.

In 1971, Kameny became the first openly gay person to run for Congress. He had entered the race for the District of Columbia’s nonvoting delegate seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He finished in fourth place, out of six, collecting just 1.6 percent of the vote. In 1975, Kameny became the first openly gay person in Washington, D.C., to receive a mayoral appointment when he became the commissioner of the D.C. Commission on Human Rights.


While Franklin Kameny’s Washington, D.C., branch of the Mattachine Society has been overshadowed by other gay and lesbian rights groups following the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, it was mainly his strategy that set the stage for the GLBT rights movement of the twenty-first century. Kameny’s grassroots strategy of dealing directly with politicians and those in power, rather than hiding behind the scenes, was a direct precursor to the more militant activism of GLBT rights groups in the late twentieth century. Although Kameny made the conscious decision to not take on HIV-AIDS activism, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and other HIV-AIDS advocates in the 1980’s and 1990’s borrowed from—and built upon—Kameny’s unapologetic, “Gay is Good” style.

Kameny had indeed embraced the post-Stonewall, radicalized gay and lesbian rights movement, but he continued to urge gay and lesbian activists to struggle in the mainstream of politics, nevertheless. This “assertive yet respectable” approach has proven successful over time. Although Kameny did not succeed in his 1971 bid for Congress, his campaign helped to mobilize the gay and lesbian voting bloc in D.C. Furthermore, the Gay Activists Alliance was also mobilized by aiding Kameny’s 1971 campaign for Congress. Kameny later cofounded the National Gay Rights Lobby, which paved the way for the largely mainstream Human Rights Campaign (formerly the Human Rights Campaign Fund). He also was involved in the 1972 formation of the National Gay Task Force (now the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force). In the early twenty-first century, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force are the two prime, national GLBT lobbying groups.

Kameny’s own activism did have direct results. A decade after the Kameny-led protest at the White House—and eighteen years after he was fired for his homosexual conduct—the U.S. Civil Service Commission amended its antihomosexual policy in 1975, saying that it would no longer bar lesbians and gays from federal employment. In 1995, President Bill Clinton announced that sexual orientation could no longer be the basis for denying a security clearance to federal employees. Only the controversial Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell[Dont Ask Dont Tell] policy and the ban on out gays and out lesbians in the U.S. Armed Services remain.

Finally, Kameny’s run for Congress did foreshadow successful campaigns. In 1974, Elaine Noble, an out lesbian, was elected to the Massachusetts General Assembly, the first lesbian to win a statewide election. In 1977, Harvey Milk, an out gay man, was elected to the San Francisco board of supervisors. In 1983, U.S. Representative Gerry Studds of Massachusetts came out as gay after his censure for sexual improprieties with a male page; in so doing, Studds became the first out gay member of Congress. In 1984, Studds was re-elected, becoming the first out gay man to run for and win a seat in Congress. In 1998, U.S. Representative Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin became the first out lesbian to be elected to Congress. The Reverend Walter Fauntroy, who defeated Kameny in the 1971 bid for Congress, sits on the board of advisers for the Alliance for Marriage, an organization seeking to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban same-gender marriage. Politicians;gay

Further Reading

  • Clendinen, Dudley, and Adam Nagourney. Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
  • D’Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • D’Emilio, John, William B. Turner, and Urvashi Vaid, eds. Creating Change: Sexuality, Public Policy, and Civil Rights. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002.
  • Gross, Larry, and James D. Woods, eds. The Columbia Reader on Lesbians and Gay Men in Media, Society, and Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
  • Johnson, David K. The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  • Marcus, Eric. Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, 1945-1990. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
  • Tobin, Kay, and Randy Wicker. The Gay Crusaders. New York: Arno Press, 1975.
  • Vargas, Jose Antonio. “Signs of Progress: Franklin Kameny Keeps Mementos of His Activism in the Attic, Not the Closet.” The Washington Post, July 23, 2005. Available at http://www.washing tonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/07/22/ AR2005072202010.html.

August 11-18, 1968: NACHO Formally Becomes the First Gay Political Coalition

October 31, 1969: TIME Magazine Issues “The Homosexual in America”

1973: National Gay Task Force Is Formed

December 15, 1973: Homosexuality Is Delisted by the APA

November 5, 1974: Noble Is First Out Lesbian or Gay Person to Win State-Level Election

July 3, 1975: U.S. Civil Service Commission Prohibits Discrimination Against Federal Employees

November 27, 1978: White Murders Politicians Moscone and Milk

October 12-15, 1979: First March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights

April 22, 1980: Human Rights Campaign Fund Is Founded

July 14, 1983: Studds Is First Out Gay Man in the U.S. Congress

November 30, 1993: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy Is Implemented