Here's why we all need to thank Frank Kameny

  • by Carl Fillichio
  • Wednesday June 17, 2015
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Frank Kameny stands near an exhibit featuring some of his<br>early protest signs and other memorabilia that are part of the Smithsonian's<br>National Museum of American History's collection during a 2007 opening<br>reception. Photo: Bob Roehr
Frank Kameny stands near an exhibit featuring some of his
early protest signs and other memorabilia that are part of the Smithsonian's
National Museum of American History's collection during a 2007 opening
reception. Photo: Bob Roehr

Where would I be without the work I love?

There is nothing more rewarding to me than working on behalf of American workers. Serving U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez is both an honor and a joy, and I'm proud of what I've accomplished as a public servant during my "tour of duties" as a political 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 have 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 Ph.D. 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 Kameny'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, Kameny is going to be inducted into the Department of Labor's prestigious Hall of Honor.

Like Cooperstown for our national pastime, 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: Senator 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, 1963's March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (and the Hall's first openly gay inductee); Dolores Huerta, whose bones were broken in the struggle for farm worker justice (and the only individual living inductee); Mother Jones, who prayed for dead mine workers, but fought like hell for the living ones; and the father of the American labor movement, Samuel Gompers.

And now, Kameny. All his life he was told he didn't belong, and he suffered for it mightily.

He belongs now.

Kameny took incremental steps to change " for the better " the nation's largest employer: the United States 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, in 1965. He was a member of the first delegation to brief the administration on LGBT issues inside that same White House, under President 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 Kameny? How much good did we squander in those long decades of intolerance?

Because of Kameny, we no longer have to ask.

To help commemorate Kameny's indomitable spirit and contributions this Pride Month, in addition to inducting him into the Labor Hall of Honor, we're mounting a social media campaign called #ThankFrank. We're asking other LGBT federal employees across the country and around the world, and all federal employees as well as our allies, friends, supporters, and federal government customers and owners (that means the American people) to post the reasons Kameny matters.

Check out our video to learn more and add your voice and story to thousands of others. Kameny's courageous efforts did more than help LGBT federal employees. He had a significant effect on American work, all American workplaces, and the lives of countless American workers. It's time to #ThankFrank.

 

Carl Fillichio is senior adviser to the secretary of labor at the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington, D.C.