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Recapping the Fight for LGBTQ Rights

Historian Eric Cervini’s new book brings pre-Stonewall queer history to life.

Eric Cervini (photo by Jakub Koziel)

Anyone looking for a compelling and juicy queer-history read (while they continue to shelter in place to stem the tide of COVID-19 cases) need look no further than The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. The United States of America (FSG, 2020) by Eric Cervini. Cervini, who received his PhD in history from the University of Cambridge, introduces readers to Frank Kameny, a legendary figure in the fight for LGBTQ rights. A prominent force in the early days of the Mattachine Society, Kameny bravely took on the United States government’s policy regarding homosexuals in 1957, when he was fired from his job with the Department of Defense for being gay. The Deviant’s War is a perfect summer read, especially in the absence of many Pride celebrations.

Gregg Shapiro: Eric, what does it mean to you to have your first book, The Deviant’s War, featured in a “13 Books to Watch For in June” column in the New York Times?
Eric Cervini: It was quite an honor. I’m so excited that my publisher, FSG, was able to get it out in time for the 50th anniversary of the world’s first Pride march. As people are wondering how to celebrate Prides without parades, I hope the book reminds readers that the very first Pride was about resistance. I hope people can be reminded of that fact once again.

The Deviant’s War: The homosexual vs. the United States of America is available for purchase on Amazon.

When did you first become interested in history and, by extension, gay history?
In college, I thought I was going to law school. I thought I was going to study government, and that I had a very straight path ahead of me, so to speak. [Laughs] Then I realized, after watching the film Milk, that I didn’t know the first thing about Harvey Milk when I was 20 years old. So many people of my generation were not taught about LGBTQ+ history in high school or even in college. And if I didn’t know Harvey’s story [as the nation’s first openly gay city official], then what other stories are out there that have not been turned into Oscar-winning films? So as an undergrad at Harvard, I was searching for other gay activists to research. Frank Kameny’s name came up, and I saw that he had just recently passed away. I saw that he had donated [what is probably] the largest individual LGBTQ+ collection of personal papers to the Library of Congress. No one had written a book about him. I went down to the Library of Congress and started thumbing through his daunting number of documents, and realized that I was staring at the secret history of gay rights in America. I’ve been hooked ever since, and that was seven years ago.

Early in the book, you write about the social data-gathering work of Laud Humphreys, Alfred Kinsey, and Frank Kameny. Do you see yourself and your book as a continuation of that legacy?
That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure I want to follow in Laud Humphrey’s footsteps, since he is primarily taught in sociology courses as an example of unethical research. [Laughs] But I think what Kinsey did was start a conversation. I hope that, like Kinsey, I can prompt a larger discussion in the media, in the public, and especially in academia about the stories that we’re forgetting when we teach queer history. I make sure that, yes, the story is primarily about Frank. But every chapter, as I’m sure you saw, begins with a different character who influenced or was influenced by Frank. That includes people like Bayard Rustin, Ernestine Eppenger, and Sylvia Rivera. These are people who also deserve their own books. I hope people read Frank’s story and recognize how important he was for our movement, but also recognize the less-discussed figures that are equally important parts of our community, and who deserve to have their own stories told. Just as Harvey Milk’s story compelled me to search for other stories that are hidden in the archives, I hope Kameny’s story does the same for other scholars, students, and members of the general public.

Absolutely! Can you please say something about your process of chapter titling, such as The Astronomer, The Letter, The Panic, The Crusader, and so on?
All of them are nouns. They’re all similar to these secondary characters I introduce who influenced or were influenced by Frank. These are objects or people that represent not just Frank’s life, but America in the 1960s. You have to tell Frank’s story to understand the pre-Stonewall homophile movement. But you also have to understand everything else that was occurring in America. You have to understand the Black Freedom Movement, Women’s Liberation, the Daughters of Bilitis. After Stonewall, you have to understand organizations like STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) in New York City. All these different aspects of American politics and culture were essential to influencing Frank and creating what we now celebrate each June.

The Deviant’s War has many examples of important history being made, such as in September of 1962 when Congressmen Nix and Ryan voted against H.R. 11363, and the April 1965 picketing protest at the White House. What would it mean to you to have your book become part of the syllabus for college-level history courses?
It would be a dream come true. I’ll never forget taking my first history class at Harvard and realizing that history—unlike the daunting lists of facts that we’re taught in high school—is also about storytelling and the human condition. These are fully formed human beings with complexities and flaws. Frank Kameny is a very flawed hero. So I hope it shows students who may be taking an Introduction to Queer History course that it doesn’t just have to be memorization of facts. These are human beings who changed over time and were confronted with extreme difficulties, and still resisted. I hope it compels them to study other figures within the movement who may have been forgotten, [and who need to be] painted in a very human light.

The LGBTQ+ community has lost some significant voices this year, such as Larry Kramer and Phyllis Lyon. You write about both of them in the book, as well as Mart Crowley and Terrence McNally. From the perspective of a historian, are there older people you would like to interview while you still have the chance?
Absolutely! There are so many people, especially in the second wave of activists within the Gay Liberation Front. Especially the women who were really struggling [to have a voice] within the Gay Liberation Front that was so male-dominated and so misogynistic. [Many lesbians] were confronted with having to choose between a male-dominated gay liberation movement and the women’s liberation movement. I think that struggle is something that needs to have a lot more books written about it. Many figures are still alive, like Eva Freund, who’s a veteran of the Mattachine Society in Washington, DC. Martha Shelley, who was one of the founding members of the Gay Liberation Front. Nancy Tucker, who created the Washington Blade. They’re all around, and so happy to talk. [Laughs] I’m so happy I got to talk to them for this book, but they also deserve their own books. Martha Shelley was in a biology class at Bronx Science with Stokely Carmichael! You can’t make that up. These stories need to be written.

With that in mind, have you started to think about your next book project?
I have a few ideas. I’ll be honest: I’m currently living in Los Angeles, so I have a passion for making history entertaining and accessible, rather than staying within academia. I’m very grateful that I was trained as an academic, but I think now I want to use those tools of research to bring history to the masses. Sharing archival materials is a big passion of mine—open-sourcing materials that are otherwise held behind paywalls or [in libraries]. One thing I’m working on with a nonprofit in DC is open-sourcing all the digitized documents that formed the backbone of my book. If you go to, you can access over 100,000 pages of documents, ranging from Frank’s papers to FBI files. I hope that people read the book and become inspired by Frank’s story and everyone else who’s in the book. A lot of these archives are closed now, because of the pandemic. I would encourage anyone who’s interested—you don’t have to have a PhD—to start researching history. Anyone can do it. Anyone can write an article or highlight a certain document, and it should be open and accessible to all.

Finally, we started the interview with your mention of the movie Milk. If a movie were made based on The Deviant’s War, who would you want to play Frank Kameny?
[Laughs] That’s a very difficult question. He had a very distinctive voice; very loud and nasal. Very staccato, as Jack Nichols would describe it. It would have to be a classically trained actor. It would take months of dialect training of some sort, in order to capture his New York accent and his style of speaking. If it is ever adapted as a movie—and for any LGBT story that is adapted—[the title role] needs to be played by someone who is LGBTQ+. I think that’s non-negotiable.

This article appears in the July 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Gregg Shapiro

Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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