WASHINGTON -- Frank Kameny was out and proud before people knew what being "gay" meant.

Fired from his job as a government astronomer in 1957 for being gay, he refused to go away quietly. Instead, he got louder. He took his case to the Supreme Court in 1961 and helped stage the first gay rights march in front of the White House and Philadelphia's Independence Hall in 1965.

Kameny died Tuesday at the age of 86, leaving behind a 50-year legacy as an advocate who chipped away at countless other barriers for gay people in America. Kameny served as the initial protester, leader and legal strategist of what would become a movement, one historian said.

"Frank Kameny was the Rosa Parks and the Martin Luther King and the Thurgood Marshall of the gay rights movement," Yale Law professor William Eskridge told The Associated Press in May when Kameny's papers became part of a Library of Congress exhibit on U.S. constitutional history.

"Frank never accumulated a nest egg or a retirement fund or any of that," Eskridge said yesterday after learning of Kameny's death. "His full-time occupation was activism."

In recent years, Kameny saw changes in society that he never thought possible. Gay marriage became legal in a handful of states, including his adopted city of Washington. In 2009, he stood in the Oval Office as President Barack Obama signed a directive extending benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.

Most recently he celebrated the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"Being gay has become infinitely better than it was," he said in May.

Kameny was proud of his work toward gaining equality for gays and lesbians. When his petition to the Supreme Court was put on display at the Library of Congress, he was clearly tickled.

"I suppose you can say at this point, I have become one of the creators of the United States," he told the AP, echoing the exhibit title "Creating the United States."

Gay rights groups said it was Kameny's work that helped make life better for gay Americans and called him a pioneer and an inspiration in statements after his death. He had been in poor health and died on what is celebrated as National Coming Out Day, when many gay people celebrate coming out and encourage others to have the courage to do the same.

In 2009, Kameny said he wanted to be remembered most for coining the phrase "Gay is Good" in 1968.

Franklin Edward Kameny was born May 21, 1925, in New York City. He graduated from Queens College and served in World War II before earning a doctoral degree in astronomy from Harvard.

He was a government astronomer for just five months when he was asked to meet with federal investigators. He had been arrested for a misdemeanor in San Francisco that tipped off the civil service that Kameny was probably gay, Eskridge said, and was fired.

Friends and his sister Edna Lavey, 83, said Kameny never spoke of having a long-term boyfriend or partner.

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