Founders of Mattachine

In late 1960, at a party in D.C., a young man overheard a stranger discussing The Homosexual in America. The 1951 book, published by Edward Sagarin under the pseudonym Donald Webster Cory, was the first widely available pro-gay treatise in America—though its writer went on to a career as a closeted, publicly anti-gay college professor. The young man knew the book; as an openly gay teenager in 1950s Washington, he had read all the materials on homosexuality that he could get his hands on. He approached the stranger and struck up a conversation. This was the first meeting of Jack Nichols and Frank Kameny, who went on to found the Mattachine Society of Washington.  

Jack Nichols and Frank Kameny

Mattachine founders Jack Nichols and Frank Kameny in 1975, fifteen years after their first encounter. Photograph by Theodore Tyson Richards.



Nichols was the 22-year-old son of an FBI agent; Frank Kameny was a 35-year-old World War II veteran who had seen action at the Battle of the Bulge. Upon returning to the U.S., Kameny began his college career, which culminated in receiving a Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University in 1956.But on a trip to San Francisco in 1956, Kameny was arrested by plainsclothes officers on a charge of “lewd and indecent acts” in the men’s room of a bus terminal. Trying to make the charges go away quickly, Kameny pled guilty, paid a small fine, and completed a 6-month probation, upon which time charges were dismissed. He moved to D.C., where he worked first for Georgetown University and then for the U.S. Army Map Service. Unfortunately for Kameny, the Civil Service Commission was somehow informed of his arrest in San Francisco, and he was confronted by investigators. Although he refused to answer their questions, arguing that information about his sexuality was not the government’s business, the Army Map Service fired him in December 1957, and the Civil Service Commission informed him in January 1958 that he was barred from all jobs connected to the federal government.

If the government thought that Kameny, like every other gay man or lesbian it dismissed, would quietly disappear, the government had bullied the wrong homosexual. Kameny began by appealing his firing through the Civil Service Commission’s chain of command and, getting nowhere, filed suit against the government. After both his initial suit and appeal failed, Kameny’s attorneys gave up the fight as hopeless—so he taught himself how to file his own petition and approached the Supreme Court in January 1961. Although the Supreme Court did not choose to hear the case, Kameny’s lawsuit was the first ever attempt to get the United States government to recognize that homosexuals were discriminated against as a group and that government policies toward gays and lesbians were unconstitutional. It marked the beginning of Kameny’s decade-plus long crusade against the Civil Service Commission and its policies.

The Mattachine Society of Washington was Kameny’s next step in fighting the government over the civil rights of gays and lesbians.