Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Frank Takes Activism Into Space

It all begins and ends in space.

In the history of the gay rights movement one name puts activism among the stars – Frank Kameny (1925-2011). In one of the few quirks of fate it is homophobia that put it there. If it wasn’t for Frank’s homophobic bosses he may never have taken a lead in the gay rights movement of 1960s America. And if it wasn’t for his prominent role in that gay rights movement he may never have had asteroid 40463 named after him. In the official citation announcing the naming of the asteroid it was Frank’s activism that took up the most space behind the career from which he was fired in 1958, astronomy.

Frank Kameny studied physics at Queen’s College, Harvard, after which he became a teaching fellow there. In 1956 he graduated with a PhD in astronomy. It was his thesis which led to the asteroid being named after him. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After receiving his PhD Frank moved to Washington DC where he taught at the Astronomy Department of Georgetown University. By the following summer he was employed as a civilian by the US Army Map Service. But he wasn’t there long. Several months later he was arrested for homosexuality and fired.

Not one to sit back and be walked all over, Frank fought back by taking the government to the Supreme Court. He didn’t win his case for reinstatement but it did begin his involvement in lgbt rights which would carry on for the rest of his life.

His achievements in the gay rights movement in America are many, and none can be said to be insignificant. From the formation of the Mattachine Society (one of the first gay rights groups) to the removal of homosexuality from classification as a mental illness, and from protesting outside the White House to the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy in the military, Frank’s voice was always one of the loudest. His achievements were recognised by the Obama administration with both an official apology for his dismissal for homosexuality in 1958, and with the awarding of the Theodore Roosevelt Award (the most prestigious honour the government can award one of it’s employees, even though Frank was no longer one of them).

But, as Dr. Jane Rigby says in the video below, Frank was the most famous astronomer that most astronomers had never heard of. Following his dismissal Frank had little involvement with astronomy. He did, however, join the American Association of Variable Star Observers. It was through this group that Frank Kameny came to have his asteroid named after him. The story behind it is related by gay astronomical technologist Richard Kinne here.

The YouTube video by Jan Rigby mentioned above gives a good overall picture of Frank’s life. At about 25 minutes in length it may seem a little slow and like a presentation at a conference, but it is worth listening to all the way through, and gives Frank’s life from a gay astronomer’s point of view.

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