Before the 1969 New York City riots at Stonewall Inn launched the gay civil rights movement, there was Dr. Frank Kameny. Last Thursday, the civil rights leader who died on National Coming Out Day was honored by the LGBT community in Washington D.C. As they remembered a man known as “one of the most significant figures in the history of the American gay rights movement,” I reflected on the audacious activism that has defined his work—an activism that improved the lives of each generation that followed.
Forty-six years ago, Dr. Kameny was one of the first in our country’s history to lead a gay rights protest on the White House. During a time when equality was virtually non-existent for LGBT people, the Harvard educated astronomer fought back when he was fired in 1957 from his post at the U.S. Army Map Service for being gay. He challenged the discrimination all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
When he was unsuccessful, he didn’t fall but was fueled to begin a new fight by organizing in the gay community. He co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington D.C., in 1961; and what is now known as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, in 1973. That same year, Dr. Kameny played a key role in moving the American Psychiatric Association to stop calling homosexuality a mental disorder—a shift, which helped disarm misleading rhetoric used by opponents to marginalize the LGBT community. But perhaps most importantly to his own experience, he was there in 1998 when President Clinton signed an Executive Order that banned discrimination in federal employment because of an individual’s orientation. His genuine drive for change made a big difference. And his fighting spirit lives on as the LGBT community continues to move forward in battles for equality across the country.
Today’s America is very different from the 1950s. While progress has been slow, it is happening in various parts of society. Federal and state governments continue to dismantle systemic discriminatory laws including the recent repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the expansion and defense of marriage equality across the country. LGBT teen bullying is being elevated to a national platform and given the critical eye it deserves. While there is still much work to be done, we celebrate his life by continuing and putting forth the same commitment in our work. Even in the faith community, which historically has been the primary source for anti-gay sentiment, American Christians are also remembering and honoring Dr. Kameny.
Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) remembers meeting Dr. Kameny in 1969. “[He] was a hero in what we then called the “homophile” movement. I was impressed with his clear conviction that civil rights should be afforded to everyone. Through all the changes in history in the years since the 1950s, when he was outed and then became an activist, he continued the fight, and he was always a supporter of the ministry of MCC.” Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson also remembers Kameny not being a “religious person” but someone who was “respectful” of the role of LGBT-inclusive Christians.
In the last year, Believe Out Loud has grown to more than 35,000 direct constituents, including clergy, laypeople, agnostics, even atheists who recognize the justice behind LGBT-inclusive Christianity. The community represents veteran advocates whose years of activism have lead to the dismantling of systemic discrimination within America’s core Christian institutions. These include expanding LGBT ordination rights in the Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran and United Church of Christ. There are also newcomers to the battle – folks who sport inclusion, talk about the issue on their Facebook pages or feel inspired to challenge the religious right’s hostile anti-LGBT rhetoric by preaching love in their sermons or blogs.
These institutional and culture battles are being fought with compassion and grace. And every day we see more Christians and congregations who are breaking the silence and declaring their support of the LGBT community. What we continue to learn watching these institutional changes and the growing grassroots support, is that the culture in the church is shifting to keep up with the historic majorities of Americans and American Christians who believe in the fundamental right to welcome the LGBT community.
While Dr. Kameny is remembered for his compassionate brand of activism and in many ways helping to create the foundation of the gay civil rights movement in America, there are many ways we can celebrate his life and the legacies of LGBT advocates before him. This can be done by standing up to state legislatures, organizations or individuals who refuse to let our community have access to basic civil rights. Or by standing up to the religious rights anti-gay rhetoric, which does nothing but create division in our country. But most importantly, when we find ourselves talking to those who are conflicted towards LGBT-inclusion issues, we can use the same pride and compassion shown by Dr. Kameny to help turn them into allies. “Gay is Good,” as he famously put it, and the LGBT community will continue to show that to the world.
Joseph Ward is the Director of Believe Out Loud, an online network that empowers Christians to work for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality, and a writer on religion and LGBT equality issues. Follow him on Twitter @JosephWardIII.
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