Frank Kameny Dead: Former Government Astronomer And Gay Rights Pioneer Dies At 86

10/12/2011 12:48 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

WASHINGTON — Frank Kameny, who was fired from his job as a government astronomer in 1957 for being homosexual and became a pioneer in the gay rights movement, died Tuesday at his home in Washington. He was 86.

Bob Witeck, a friend of Kameny's for three decades, confirmed his death. Kameny had been in failing health, and a medical examiner said he suffered a heart attack or heart failure, Witeck said.

Witeck said plans for a memorial in November were being discussed.

Kameny had been a government astronomer for just five months when he was asked to meet with federal investigators. They told him they had information he was homosexual and he was dismissed.

Kameny didn't leave quietly, however. He contested his firing by the U.S. Civil Service Commission by writing letters to the agency, both houses of Congress and eventually the White House.

He sued and lost in lower courts, but pressed on with a lengthy brief in 1961 that is now regarded as the first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation to be brought to the U.S. Supreme Court. Soon after, he co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, which advocated for equal rights for gays and lesbians.

In 1965, Kameny and 10 others became the first to stage a gay rights protest in front of the White House and later at the Pentagon and elsewhere. Many of Kameny's signs as well as buttons and leaflets from that time are now housed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.