One of the founders of the modern American gay rights movement, Frank Kameny brought a radical, take-charge attitude to the movement in place of the more assimilationist policies that plagued many early gay leaders.
A child prodigy and World War II veteran, Kameny earned a Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University in 1956 and began work for the Army Map Service in 1957. However, mere months into the job, rumors began circulating regarding Kameny’s homosexuality, culminating in him being fired from the Map Service and barred from all civil service jobs, a relfection of a McCarthy-era mandate for all homosexuals at the time.
Kameny fought to regain his job for five years, a fight that included a personal appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and a suit against the government, both of which were denied. Finally, in 1961, he decided to join with Jack Nichols to establish a D.C. version of the homophile group, Mattachine Society.
Reflecting both Kameny’s personal priorities and local complaints, the Mattachine Society of Washington focused on ending sexual orientation discrimination in civil service positions and the military. It organized the first gay protests in front of the White House in April 1965, in which Kameny, Barbara Gittings and other prominent activists participated.
Kameny’s work with the Mattachine Society eventually led to the Civil Service Commission amending its anti-gay policies in 1975. He also advised countless armed services members in coping with anti-gay military policies.
In addition to his civil and military service radicalism, he also battled the American Psychiatric Association in an effort to remove homosexuality as a mental disorder, disrupting the APA annual meeting in 1971 and fostering the eventual removal of homosexuality from its list of illnesses.
To top off an already growing list of achievements, Kameny became the first openly gay person to run for Congress, using the campaign to publicize the issue of unequal government treatment of the community. He is one of the oldest surviving activists, celebrating his 80th birthday last May.
Tammy Baldwin is the only out lesbian in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The congressional representative for Wisconsin’s 2nd District since her election in 1998, Baldwin has been a champion of gay rights during her tenure, as well as champion of a host of other issues including health care, the environment, and women’s rights. Her political career has spanned more than two decades, from her beginnings on the Dane County (Wisconsin) Board of Supervisors to her fourth consecutive term in Congress.
Born and raised in her current congressional district by her Caucasian mother and African-American stepfather, Baldwin knew from experience at an early age about the privilege given to her because of her race, but she also knew the hardships she faced as a result of both her gender and her sexuality.
She attended Smith College in Massachusetts, majoring in government and mathematics, and immediately after graduation returned home to Wisconsin to begin her political career and attend the University of Wisconsin Law School.
In addition to serving as a Dane County supervisor, she was a Wisconsin state representative for five years until her election to national office. Many considered her grassroots campaign in 1998 far too liberal, but Baldwin did not compromise, standing strong in her support of universal health care, advanced care for the elderly, public funding for day care programs and stricter environmental standards all issues that are tied to her own experiences.
Her grandmother had extensive medical expenses which Baldwin helped pay for, shaping her views on health care, specifically for the elderly. Growing up within her mother’s and stepfather’s families helped enlighten her on the importance of family support, an idea she has broached through day care reform.
But perhaps the largest inspiration for Baldwin’s political career has been her mother, who turned around an addiction to prescription drugs and became a counselor, working with patients suffering from similar addictions.
Baldwin, like her mother, has overcome tremendous challenges and become a positive role model for both her Wisconsin constituents and the entire LGBT community.
Eleven months after his inauguration on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, Harvey Milk was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone in City Hall, the victim of a former supervisor’s outrage over the liberal shift in city politics.
Milk instantly became a martyr of the gay community.
Sensing the danger of his position within city government, he had created several recorded wills to be played in the event of his assassination. One memorable line is inscribed today in a plaza named for him: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”
The gunman, Dan White, was eventually charged with and convicted of manslaughter, serving only five years in prison then committing suicide shortly after he was released. White’s trial strategy in which his lawyer argued White’s depression was caused by the large amounts of junk food he had ingested is infamously known as the “Twinkie Defense.”
The verdict inflamed members of San Francisco’s gay community, and the evening following the verdict, a mob converged upon City Hall in what was to be known as the White Night Riots. Outraged citizens clashed with police, who then played out their own anti-gay agenda, mercilessly beating individuals and destroying property in the largely gay Castro neighborhood.
The following day was Harvey Milk’s birthday, and, fearing a second night of rioting, the city permitted Castro Street to be closed in celebration of Milk and his legacy. The celebration went smoothly as individuals spoke on a makeshift stage and disco music filled the air, a fitting tribute to a man named as one of the 100 most influential politicians by Time magazine.
Milk’s political journey ended abruptly, but not without giving birth to a still-growing legacy. Along with an annual commemorative candlelight march in San Francisco honoring Milk and Moscone, there is the Harvey Milk High School in New York that serves at-risk LGBT youth, and several notable landmarks in San Francisco’s Castro district have been named for him, all of which are a testament to his impact on the community in San Francisco and across the country.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, October 13, 2006.