"A BURNING SENSE OF INJUSTICE"
SHORTLY BEFORE THE DAWN OF THE SPACE AGE, astronomer Franklin E. Kameny accidentally launched his undeniably brilliant career—in a San Francisco men's room.
Dr. Kameny was in California in August 1956—just two months after receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard University—to deliver a paper at the annual conference of the American Astronomical Society. On August 29, the young scientist took a bus from Berkeley into San Francisco, got off the bus and walked into the depot rest room to relieve himself. The stranger standing at the next urinal made an unsolicited advance, attempting to grope Kameny's penis. "Where I made the mistake is that I responded," Kameny said later. Kameny had responded in kind, by touching the stranger. Two plainclothes officers with the San Francisco police force's "Sex Detail" burst out of a closet where they'd been peeping through ventilation grillwork. Mortified, Kameny was arrested along with the stranger.
Hoping to put the incident behind him quickly, Kameny, then 31, pled guilty the next morning. He was fined $50 and placed on six months' probation. Under California law, it was a simple and routine matter to get such convictions erased. Kameny completed probation, then changed his plea to "not guilty" in order to get his conviction set aside. The original charge was dismissed in March 1957.
Unaware of the federal government's intense efforts to rid itself of homosexuals, Kameny, then a university professor, soon applied for a Civil Service job with the Army Map Service (now known as the Defense Mapping Agency). The job application asked whether he had an