The Brilliant Astronomer Who Devised New Tactics to Fight Anti-Gay BiasHistorians in the News
tags: book review, LGBTQ history, history of sexuality
If the L.G.B.T.Q. movement had saints, a Jewish homosexual atheist scientist named Franklin Kameny would have an exalted place in the pantheon. Most people believe the 1969 Stonewall riots gave birth to militant gay politics. But for almost a decade before Stonewall, Kameny boldly challenged the reigning orthodoxy that homosexuality was a mental illness and led an audacious campaign against the federal government’s ban on employing gay workers. Brilliant, fearless, cantankerous and unstoppable, he was lionized in his old age by a movement that by the Obama era had achieved victories not even he could have anticipated. In Eric Cervini, a young historian of L.G.B.T.Q. politics and the author of the exhaustively researched and vividly written biography “The Deviant’s War,” Kameny has found his hagiographer.
Born into a middle-class family in Queens in 1925, Kameny showed his smarts and determination early on. When he was 4, he taught himself to read and decided to become a scientist. By 6 he had set his sights on astronomy, and as a teenager he set up a telescope at home to study the stars. After seeing combat in World War II, he earned a Ph.D. from Harvard, taught astronomy for a year at Georgetown, then put his training to work for the Army Map Service. His credentials and drive seemed to promise a rewarding career when the United States began scrambling to catch up after the Soviet Union put Sputnik in orbit.
His ambition, though, soon collided with government policies, enacted in the 1940s and early 1950s, that prohibited homosexuals from working for the government or many private employers with a federal contract. The ban was only one element of a larger system that began to be put in place in the 1930s to exclude homosexuals from full citizenship and membership in the community; it included censorship rules preventing Hollywood films from featuring queer characters, and liquor regulations preventing bars, restaurants or cabarets in many states from employing or serving homosexuals. Most worrisome to gay men were the threat of being arrested by the police, who kept gay bars and hookup spots under surveillance, and the F.B.I.’s growing capacity to funnel arrest records to federal agencies conducting employee security checks.
In 1957, such policing cost Kameny his government career only a few months after it began. The Army Map Service fired him when its personnel office learned he had been arrested in California a year earlier while cruising for sex in a public washroom. Thousands of men and women lost their government jobs when security investigations uncovered evidence — or allegations — that they were gay.
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