Frank Kameny was a saint of the LGBT rights movement

Andrew Warner

In a symbolic coincidence, pioneering LGBT civil rights leader Frank Kameny died on National Coming Out Day, Oct. 11.

Kameny began as a straight-laced academic who gave himself over to his work. But arrests and run-ins with the police in the 1950s radicalized him, especially after he was fired from his work at the U.S. Army Map Service.  

Well before the Stonewall Riots in New York City, Kameny helped to found Washington D.C.’s Mattachine Society and organized a 1965 picket of the White House. Kameny started working for LGBT rights so long ago that the Smithsonian displays his memorabilia. Items include his White House picket signs with their formal, antique sayings, such as, “First Class Citizenship for Homosexuals.” Hey, hey, ho, ho, Frank Kameny started long ago.    

Kameny worked long and hard on LGBT rights, living through some of the most remarkable transformations in our culture, from the police oppression of the 1950s to the amazing apology the federal government made to Kameny in 2009. The apology came from John Berry, the openly gay director of the Office of Personnel Management. In it, Berry wrote of Kameny, “With the fervent passion of a true patriot, you did not resign yourself to your fate or quietly endure this wrong. With courage and strength, you fought back.”    

Like Martin Luther King, Kameny tied his advocacy to the essence of America. The Declaration of Independence asserts every human’s inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. More than once, Kameny pointed to the Declaration to frame LGBT civil rights as part of the nation’s commitment to those unalienable human rights. Kameny, like King, dedicated his life to ensuring our nation fulfilled that promise.  

King once wrote, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Movements for justice do not succeed because of one march, one rally or one impassioned speech. Kameny didn’t stop with one picket of the White House. Through his decades of effort, he not only saw historical change but worked to ensure history was a little more bent.

Every fall my congregation celebrates All Saints Day (Nov. 1) by commemorating people in our congregation who passed away. We honor their lives and light a candle in remembrance of their unique beauty. This year when my congregation gathers for All Saints, I’ll light a candle for Kameny.  

Kameny, raised Jewish, might find it ironic to be honored among Christian saints. Yet his life gave witness to how I want to live as a Christian – daringly, courageously, and willing to struggle for what’s right even if it takes a very long time.

In these days when a disastrous election can feel overwhelming, Kameny speaks as a patron saint of the long view. He was the first to coin the phrase “gay is good,” and he was foremost in never giving up the fight to make others realize the truth of his words. That’s the kind of saint we need more of.  

Kameny came out in an America far different than ours today.  In fact, our America is different because of all the difference he made. And for that, I’ll rejoice on All Saints.