Hail a hero: Thanks Frank Kameny

Carl Fillichio

Where would I be without the work I love? There is nothing more rewarding to me than working on behalf of American workers. Serving Labor Secretary Thomas Perez is an honor and a joy and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished as a public servant during my “tour of duties” as an appointee in the Clinton and Obama administrations. The work is exhilarating, interesting every day and has become a central part of who I am.

But there was a time when it could’ve been taken from me in a heartbeat. Just because of another, equally central, part of who I am.

What is now unthinkable for me was a bitter reality for Frank Kameny. An astronomer with a PhD from Harvard and World War II veteran, Kameny was fired from his U.S. Map Service job in 1957 simply because he was gay. He never worked for a paycheck again.

Many know Frank’s story here in Washington, where I live and work, and where he made his home and ran as the first out congressional candidate for the District’s seat in 1971. But he is less celebrated in other parts of the country. 

That’s going to change. On June 23, Frank Kameny was inducted in the U.S. Department of Labor’s prestigious Hall of Honor.

Our Hall of Honor immortalizes the giants renowned for the highest achievements in the counterweight to our pastimes — that is, our work. The names of these inductees inspire the same awe in those of us who are passionate about working families as Babe Ruth and Ernie Banks do for baseball fans: U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, who did more to improve workers’ lives than any legislator in our history. Bayard Rustin, the mastermind behind our city’s most transcendent protest march for workers’ rights. Dolores Huerta, whose bones were broken in the struggle for farm worker justice. Mother Jones, who prayed for dead mine workers, but fought like hell for the living. The father of the labor movement, Samuel Gompers.

And now, Frank Kameny. All his life he was told he didn’t belong, and he suffered for it mightily. He belongs now. Frank Kameny took steps to change the nation’s largest employer: the U.S. government. He played a pivotal role in the removal of homosexuality as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. He organized the first protest for gay rights ever held in front of the White House. He was a member of the first delegation to brief the administration on LGBT issues inside that same White House, under Jimmy Carter.

He will be forever thanked by LGBT government workers like me for helping usher in an age when we could serve openly, love who we love and bring our full selves to our work. But more than that: The American people owe him a debt of gratitude as well. Were it not for his decades of advocacy, our country would be bereft of some of the sharpest minds and hardiest spirits overseeing the people’s business. Even a mind as great as Walt Whitman’s was wasted when he lost his government job soon after coming to Washington, it’s said because of the notoriety of his already-published “Leaves of Grass.” How many like him did we lose before Frank Kameny? How much good did we squander in those long decades of intolerance?

Because of Frank Kameny, we no longer have to ask.

Carl Fillichio is a senior adviser to the secretary of labor.