Friday, October 21, 2011

Some memories of Dr. Kameny

Memories of Frank Kameny from Ken Phillips (, University College London:

I first met Frank Kameny when I was still a PhD student, in 1971, on my first visit to the US, and just about to embark on a project at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center for the OAO-C spacecraft, later to become Copernicus on its launch. My group at University College London (Mullard Space Science Lab) had a small X-ray telescope on board. I was given Dr Kameny's name by Antony Grey, who was a gay activist in London, as a contact. With much nervousness and from a public phone at GSFC, I telephoned Dr Kameny on my arrival in the DC area. He suggested we meet up in DC, which we subsequently did, at a restaurant in a huge bar that I think was then called Grand Central, in a derelict area of SE Washington. On the way there, in Frank's car, and just a few sentences into our first conversation, Frank asked me about my background and reason for visiting the US,and when I did so, he revealed that he like me had been an astronomer, working on photometry of RV Tauri variable stars. He asked me about my work as a solar and X-ray astrophysicist, which I told him. All this amazed me, I hardly realized that there could be other gay scientists like myself let alone someone working in almost my identical field. Even more curiously, I was always interested in variable stars myself, as an enthusiastic amateur in my teens, and had read about RV Tauri stars from a 1954 book by Cecilia Payne-Gaposchin which I still have on my bookshelves. I understand Frank's thesis adviser was Dr Payne-Gaposchkin at Harvard.

I met Frank on and off a number of times during a postdoc I had, also at Goddard, between 1972 and 1975. As I remember, he was a supporter of a DC-area gay/lesbian scientist group which I attended a couple of times. Despite his atheism, he once came to the DC branch of the Metropolitan Community Church in the early 1980s, and gave a stirring account of his early years of activism. He was introduced by Larry Uhrig, the MCC pastor, as the "Oldest Known Homosexual" which he laughingly appreciated. I got my friend Jeannie Johnson to take a photo of Frank and me on this occasion. I last saw him at a book reading by Larry Kramer at DC's Lambda Rising bookstore in 2004. There was at one stage almost an altercation between Larry Kramer and Frank about some issue which I forget, then someone identified Frank to Larry Kramer who was amazed that his opponent was in fact an old-time friend. They ended up in each other's arms in an amiable embrace. I'm not sure, but I'll bet this emotional moment was written up in the Washington "Blade" or one of the other local GLBT newspapers at the time. Frank then seemed to be in fine fettle still. I was living in DC at the time when on a NASA senior fellowship, also at Goddard.

As Americans are wont to say, they broke the mould when Frank died, there will never again be his like. His incredible bravery in the early years of gay activism, against a background of ultra-conservative McCarthyism and its aftermath, was and always will be an inspiration to me and I'm sure the many others Frank came into contact with. May he rest in peace.

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