Veteran, astronomer, and activist Dr. Franklin (Frank) Kameny spent his life working to dismantle homophobia and break down the unjust systems it created. His work continues to this day. Inspired by his example, LGBTQ+ people continue to strive for justice around the world and at science institutions like the Adler Planetarium, where our partnerships with the LGBTQ+ community help make space science more inclusive for everyone.
A Soldier’s Secret
In the Spring of 1943, three days before his 18th birthday, a young man named Frank Kameny enlisted in the army. World War II was raging on both sides of Europe, though the tide was beginning to turn for the Allies. Kameny, born into a Jewish family in New York City, strongly supported the war effort and was eager to enlist. But, unfortunately, if young Frank Kameny was going to serve his country, he would need to lie, for gay men were not permitted in the army. “They asked,” Kameny recalled in 2011. “I lied and didn’t tell—although as a healthy teenager, I can assure you, there were things to tell.”
An Unjust Firing
After the war, Kameny returned to New York City, to complete his degree in physics. He then earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in astronomy at Harvard, researching the colors of variable stars and refining techniques for coating telescope mirrors with aluminum. In 1957, he was hired by the U.S. Army Map Service, which needed an astronomer’s skill to compile precise elevation maps for a U.S. military steeped in the emerging Cold War. A few short months later, however, he was fired, after two investigators uncovered evidence of his sexuality.
Protest and Appeal
Through a series of appeals and petitions, Kameny protested this homophobic firing all the way to the steps of the United States Supreme Court. Discriminating against homosexuals, he wrote, “was no less odious than discrimination based upon religious or racial grounds.” It was the first civil rights claim in American history to center on a question of sexual orientation. The Court refused to hear his case. Fortunately for millions of LGBTQ+ Americans who came after him, instead of giving up, Kamney would become one of the country’s foremost gay rights activists.
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American Homophobia in the 1950s and 60s
After World War II, as the chill of the Cold War settled over American culture, the United States was gripped by a deep distrust of anything deemed “un-American,” particularly anything that could be identified as communist. During this “Red Scare,” people came to associate homosexuality with communism, and homophobic threats reached new heights. Throughout the 1950s, fueled in part by the politics of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his allies, and compounded by unfounded fears of child molestation, states passed laws that escalated the legal abuse faced by LGBTQ+ citizens. According to these laws, gay Americans could be locked in mental institutions, subjected to shock therapy, or even lobotomized. By 1961, according to historian David Carter, an adult convicted of homosexual behaviors could face anything “from a light fine to five, ten, or twenty years – even life – in prison.”
Growing Gay Liberation & the Homophile Movement
Set against this backdrop, brave members of the LGBTQ+ community organized groups to support one another and counteract the hostility they encountered in their daily lives. At the time, many groups adopted the term “homophile,” to highlight the sense of community that underpinned their activities and to downplay the focus on sexuality that dominated gay stereotypes of the era. One such organization was the Los Angeles-based Mattachine Society. Founded in 1950 by labor activist Harry Hay, the group soon became central to America’s gay rights movement. Its goals, as detailed in the organization’s 1951 Statement of Purpose, were threefold: To Unify, To Educate, and To Lead.
The movement was not without its share of internal disagreement. By 1953, Hay had stepped down from leadership. Offshoot organizations, each with their own particular leanings, were popping up across the country. Four years after his firing, Frank Kameny co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington DC. Kameny framed his activism in terms that appealed to America’s founding values: freedom, self-determination, and the pursuit of happiness. In the same year, he wrote to President John F. Kennedy: “In World War II, I willingly fought the Germans, with bullets, in order to preserve and secure my rights, freedoms, and liberties, and those of my fellow citizens. In 1961, it has, ironically, become necessary for me to fight my own government, with words, in order to achieve some of the very same rights, freedoms, and liberties for which I placed my life in jeopardy in 1945.”
Picketing & Protesting
In the early 1960s, under Kameny’s leadership, the Washington Mattachine Society began pressuring the U.S. government to change its policies on LGBTQ+ employees. In the summer of ‘65, they picketed six times in front of prominent government buildings and the White House. Though crucial to the protests’ success, the media attention these demonstrations received was sure to escalate the personal risk each picketer faced. With this in mind, leaders like Kameny issued strict rules, encouraging activists to stick to “arbitrary” symbols of “acceptability, conventionality, and respectability.” Men were to wear suits; women to wear dresses. Smoking was prohibited, and conversations with passersby were discouraged.
The Stonewall Uprising
In late-1960s New York, gay bars offered one of the few spaces where LGBTQ+ people could gather in relative safety. Illegally-owned and operated by the Mafia, the Stonewall Inn was the most popular gay bar in Greenwich Village. Poor adherence to safety and sanitation codes (and criminally-diluted drinks) made it a flawed locale for a growing civil rights movement, but the freedom Stonewall represented to its patrons gave some the inspiration they needed to fight back when police raided the bar on the night of June 28, 1969. Across the several nights of unrest that followed, non-binary youth and transgender women of color like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera fought police, proudly claiming the streets of the Village as their own. As gender-nonconforming sex workers, these giants of queer history did not have access to the politics of respectibility that were a staple of Kameny’s picket lines. Instead, their heroic actions speak to the variety of lived experience that has enriched the far-from-homogenous history of queer liberation. Encouraged by the energy poured out at Stonewall, Kameny continued his mission to reform U.S. government employment policies.
The Tabler Case
Kameny's work soon led him to Otis Francis Tabler, an openly gay man who had recently been fired after he was denied U.S. security clearance. In the late 1960s, Tabler was employed as a computer scientist at Logicon, a major information-technology contractor for the U.S. military. At the time, he was studying missile defense systems, for which he was granted a secret security clearance. In 1971, while seeking a renewal of his clearance, Tabler disclosed his sexuality to investigators, saying, “I am an overt, practicing homosexual who prefers to obtain a clearance without concealing his personal life from the investigative process.” His coworkers and supervisors gladly supported his petition and praised his skills and his reliability, and a recent psychological evaluation upheld his trustworthiness. Nevertheless, he was denied clearance and fired from his position at Logicon.
Fortunately for Tabler, Kameny had gained significant experience in similar cases since his own firing. For over a decade, he had been chipping away at the government’s entrenched prejudice against LGBTQ+ employees. Although he was not a lawyer, Kameny successfully represented Tabler, arguing forcefully against the unfair policies and finding ways to draw media attention. In December, 1974, the government sided in Tabler’s favor. A year later, the Department of Defense dropped its last-ditch appeal against this decision and officially changed its policy. Tabler became the first openly-gay individual to receive a security clearance with the U.S. government, forever changing the landscape of opportunity for LGBTQ+ people in this country.
A “Cure” for Homosexuality
One factor that contributed to Tabler’s success was a shift in the consensus on homosexuality among American psychiatrists. This too was in large part thanks to Kameny’s advocacy. In 1972, he and fellow activist Barbara Gittings lobbied the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to remove homosexuality from the nation’s diagnostic manual (the DSM) which, until that point, considered gay people mentally ill. When the APA finally changed its diagnostic criteria a year later, Kameny wrote to his supporters: “At approximately 8:30 AM, on Saturday, December 15, 1973, by unanimous vote … the APA Board of Trustees passed the Nomenclature resolution … ‘curing’ us all, instantaneously, en masse, in one fell swoop, by semantics and by vote, instead of by therapy.”
Righting Past Wrongs
In 2009, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management issued a formal apology to Frank Kameny, expressing remorse for the government's actions half a century ago. Presenting Kameny with the prestigious Theodore Roosevelt Award, Director John Berry (himself a member of the LGBTQ+ community), said: “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.” "So in a sense, it took 50 years, but I won my case … All I can say is from the long view, 50 years, we have moved ahead in a way that would have been absolutely unimaginable back then." — Frank Kameny
LGBTQ Personnel in Science Today
In 2011, after 86 years of remarkable courage and activism, Frank Kameny passed away at his home in Washington D.C. The international community of astronomers named an asteroid (40463 Frankkameny) in his honor and the American Astronomical Association presented a posthumous certificate of appreciation commemorating Dr. Frank Kameny’s lifetime efforts to secure equal employment rights for all. Organizations like Chicago’s Legacy Project erected monuments to celebrate his contributions to LGBTQ+ history, alongside his contemporaries, including Gittings, Johnson, and Rivera. Their work paved the way for generations of LGBTQ+ people across America. Today, in spite of historic successes, much work remains to be done. STEM fields in particular still present barriers to inclusion and representation, making it difficult for young people to find a home in the scientific community. The Adler Planetarium is proud to feature LGBTQ+ professionals, like Theresa Fisher and JJ Eldridge in this exhibition, while continuing to build partnerships offline with individuals like Nergis Mavalvala, all of whom make extraordinary contributions to science and help build a more diverse, inclusive future for STEM.
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“As queer scientists, it’s not just that we’re different because we’re queer and we’re nerds; we’re different in many other ways, too. We should celebrate those differences and surround ourselves with people who embrace our differences. And for those who can, I encourage you to take calculated risks. If those risks don’t work out scientifically or socially, have a community of people who will support you. And if your risks do succeed, your career, your love, and your life will be in harmony.” - Nergis Mavalvala
Dr. JJ Eldridge: “Lifting the Weight of Secrecy"
Dr. JJ Eldridge is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Auckland. Their general research concerns the lives and deaths of stars, from those in our own galaxy to those in galaxies at the edge of the observable universe — particularly the effects of binary interactions on the lives of binary stars and how these change the appearance of galaxies, alter the rates of different types of supernovae, and gravitational wave events. “It took me a long time to be confident enough to be myself at work. But since I've lifted the weight of secrecy, working is so much easier and I'm vastly more productive. So if you can and it's safe to do so, be yourself and don't hide who you are.”
Theresa Fisher: "Don't be Afraid to Speak Up"
Theresa Fisher, known as Tessa to her friends and colleagues, has described herself as being (so far) "the world's only openly trans lesbian astrobiologist." Her cutting-edge research is focused on using mathematical theory to hopefully develop better ways of detecting the presence of life on planets in other star systems, based on their atmospheric composition. Outside of science, she is also a published science fiction and fantasy author, and has a deep passion for singing, music, and dance. Theresa Fisher’s advice to young LGBTQ+ scientists is to look for each other, and don't be afraid to speak up—it may seem like you're all alone and isolated in your field, but there are so many more of us out there than you might realize.
Dr. Nergis Mavalvala
Dr. Nergis Mavalvala is the Dean of the MIT School of Science and the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics. Her research focuses on the detection of gravitational waves from violent events in the cosmos that warp and ripple the fabric of space-time. She is part of the team that in early 2016 announced the first direct detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors, ushering in a new era in astrophysics. Dr. Mavalvala has also conducted experiments in the optical trapping and cooling of mirrors to enable observation of quantum phenomena in macroscopic objects. She is the recipient of a 2010 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Dr. Mavalvala earned a BA in physics and astronomy from Wellesley College and a PhD in physics from MIT.
The Adler is committed to uplifting the voices of people like Theresa Fisher, JJ Eldridge, Nergis Mavalvala, Frank Kameny, and many more. As a community of LGBTQ+ folks and allies, we celebrate pride every day and work together to make justice and inclusion a reality in science and space exploration. We want to hear from you! Help us amplify our partnerships with the LGBTQ+ community by telling us a little about yourself in our questionnaire: Exploring Infinite Identities. All are welcome to participate. There’s more than enough room for hundreds of billions of stars—and all of us—in our vast and colorful universe. Link: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSctcfhHaHHgbMNjX2qUQrsZ9cL1w1-F_e7Gd179TBbg87S5Ng/viewform
Thank you to the staff of the Adler Planetarium for their assistance in creating this exhibition, and to The Kameny Papers (http://www.kamenypapers.org/) and the Library of Congress for the use of their images.
The Adler also thanks Theresa Fisher, Dr. JJ Eldridge, Dr. Nergis Mavalvala, and MIT for their permission and assistance in creating this exhibition.