Gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny was honored Tuesday with a Capitol Hill memorial service in the same room where the House Un-American Activities Committee once targeted gays in 1968.
Kameny is credited with staging the first gay rights protests in front of the White House and Philadelphia's Independence Hall a few years earlier in 1965. He had been fired from his job as a government astronomer in 1957 for being gay and instead devoted his life to fighting for gay rights. In 1961, he was the first person to take a case to the Supreme Court claiming discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Kameny died Oct. 11 in his Washington home. He was 86.
U.S. Office of Personnel Management director John Berry, who is the highest ranking openly gay person in government, helped lead the remembrances. The office he leads succeeded the Civil Service Commission, which fired Kameny.
"Frank broke the silence. He knew he was born equal to any man on earth," Berry said. "We have lost one of the great champions of truth."
Berry grew up in the 1960s. He said he knew he was gay and interested in public service but was deterred because of the loathing for gays then in the ranks of government power.
"Frank Kameny freed us from that," Berry said. "His life cleared the path that I and countless others followed into public service."
Kameny was born in New York City in 1925. He served in World War II before earning a doctorate in astronomy from Harvard University. He had been a government astronomer for just five months when he was called to meet with federal investigators who suspected he was gay.
More recently, Kameny saw the end of the prohibition against gays gaining top security clearances during the Clinton administration and the repeal of the don't ask, don't tell policy for military members this year.
Earlier this year, some of Kameny's papers were added to a Library of Congress exhibit on U.S. constitutional history, and his picket signs are on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
Yale Law Professor William Eskridge, a scholar of gay history, said Kameny was the Rosa Parks, the Martin Luther King Jr. and the Thurgood Marshall of the gay rights movement because he served as its first protester, leader and legal strategist.
"He was the up and equal homosexual who would not sit at the back of the bus," Eskridge said, adding that Kameny was "our most determined grassroots organizer."
Members of Congress also honored Kameny.
District of Columbia congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton also compared Kameny to Parks for his "lonely act of defiance." Like Parks, she said, Kameny "got tired of suppressing his identity."
Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, who is gay, said Kameny should be remembered for his courage, his integrity and also his joy.
"Frank was having a hell of a good time fighting the bad guys," he said of Kameny's upbeat demeanor. "Self-pity is not a great battle cry."
Wisconsin Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who is a lesbian, said she stood in the White House with Kameny when President Barack Obama granted some domestic partner benefits for federal employees.
"Frank didn't live to see our dream of full equality for LGBT Americans," she said. "It is up to all of us to pick up the trail where he left off."
The memorial service also marked the 50th anniversary of Kameny's co-founding of the Mattachine Society of Washington, considered the first gay rights group in the nation's capital.
Brett Zongker can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/DCArtBeat