‘War’ Hero

An Interview with Gay Historian and Writer Eric Cervini

The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, despite what the POTUS says, or the cities and states that have chosen to reopen, endangering everyone. In other words, we will all be better off if we continue to shelter-in-place, at least until there is a vaccine. With that in mind, anyone looking for a compeling and juicy queer history read 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 Ph.D. in history from the University of Cambridge, took it upon himself to introduce readers to Frank Kameny, a legendary figure in the fight for LGBTQ rights. Kameny, a prominent force in the early days of the Mattachine Society, bravely took on the United States government’s policy regarding homosexuals when he was fired from his job with the United States Department of Defense for being gay in 1957. “The Deviant’s War” is a perfect summer read, an informative alternative to a Pride parade, if you will.

Gregg Shapiro: Eric, what does it mean to you to have your first book, “The Deviants 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, in the middle of a pandemic, miraculously was able to get it out in time (for June), which is, as you may know, the 50th anniversary of the world’s first Pride march. I think as people are wondering how to celebrate Pride 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.

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GS: When did you first become interested in history and by extension gay history?

EC: In college, I thought I was going to law school. I thought I was going to study government and had a very straight path ahead of me, so to speak [laughs]; then I realized after watching the film “Milk,” like so many people of my generation, who were not taught in high school or even college about LGBTQ+ history. I didn’t know the first thing about Harvey Milk when I was 20 years old. That signaled to me that if I didn’t know Harvey’s, then what other stories are out there that have not been turned into Oscar-winning films, which stories are out there that deserve to be told? Very soon thereafter in undergrad at Harvard, I was searching for other gay activists who I might be able to research. Frank Kameny’s name came up, and I saw that he had just recently passed away. I saw that he had donated, I believe, 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.

GS: 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?

EC: That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure I want to follow Laud Humphrey’s footsteps [laughs]. He’s 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’ve made certain to 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, recognize how important he was for our movement, but also recognize the less discussed figures that are equally important parts of our community who deserve to have their own stories told. I hope just as Harvey Milk compeled me to search for other stories that are hidden in the archives, I hope Kameny does the same to other scholars, students and members of the general public.

GS: Absolutely! Can you please say something about the process of chapter titling, such as “The Astronomer,” “The Letter,” “The Panic,” “The Crusader” and so on, in the way that you did?

EC: 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 Transvestites Action Revolutionaries) in New York City. All these different aspects of American politics and culture were essential to influencing Frank and to the creation of what we now celebrate each June.

GS: “The Deviants War” has many examples of important history being made, such as in September 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 the book become part of a syllabus for college-level history courses?

EC: It would be a dream come true. I’ll never forget taking my first history class at Harvard and realizing that history, unlike what we’re taught in high school — don’t get me wrong, my history teachers in high school were heroes, but they’re also given a daunting list of facts indeed that they needed to teach and that was it — and it wasn’t until college that I realized that history is also about storytelling and the human condition. These are fully formed human beings with complexities and flaws, just like Frank Kameny who’s a very flawed hero. So, I hope it shows students who may be taking their very first Introduction to Queer History, that it doesn’t just have to be memorization of facts. These are characters, human beings who changed over time and were confronted with extreme difficulties and still resisted. I hope it compels them, like I said, to study other figures within the movement who may have been forgotten. But, also, to paint them in a very human light.

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GS: Since the beginning of 2020, the LGBTQ+ community has lost significant voices such as Larry Kramer and Phyllis Lyon, both of whom you write about in the book, as well as Mart Crowley and Terence McNally. From the perspective of a historian, are there people to whom you would like to speak while you have the chance?

EC: Absolutely! There are so many people, especially in the second wave of activists within the Gay Liberation Front. Especially women, lesbians in particular, who were really struggling with a movement, especially within the Gay Liberation Front that was so male-dominated and so misogynistic that they were confronted with having to choose between a male-dominated gay liberation movement or 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 Washington. 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 the same biology class at Bronx Science with Stokely Carmichael! You can’t make that up. These stories need to be written.

GS: With that in mind, have you started to think about your next book project?

EC: 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 in rigor and bring them to the masses. Especially sharing archival materials is a big passion of mine. Open sourcing materials that are otherwise held behind paywalls or institutions. One thing I’m working on with a non-profit in D.C. is open sourcing all the digitized documents that formed the backbone of my book. If you go to thedeviantsarchive.org 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 in doing the research for themselves — you don’t have to have a Ph.D. 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.

GS: Finally, we started the interview with your mention of the movie “Milk.” If there was a movie made of “The Deviant’s War,” who would you want to play Kameny?

EC: [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 really would depend. It would have to be a classically trained actor. It would take months of dialect training of some sort in order to be able to capture his New York accent, plus just his style of speaking. So. I really can’t even begin… but I would say I think it’s so important that if it is ever adapted, and for any LGBT story that is adapted, it needs to be someone who is within our community. Someone who is LGBTQ+. I think that’s non-negotiable.

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One Reply to “‘War’ Hero”

  1. I strongly disagree with Eric Cervini’s characterization of the Gay Liberation Front as being, “So male-dominated and so misogynistic that [lesbian members] were confronted with having to choose between a male-dominated gay liberation movement or the women’s liberation movement.”

    As a gay male member of GLF from 1969 to 1972, I experienced first-hand the strong connections between the gay male members of the group and the large active lesbian membership throughout the group’s three-year existence. Numerous lesbians like Martha Shelley were founders of the group and its first statement of purpose was largely written by Lois Hart who then became the first editor of GLF’s newspaper, Come Out!.

    Perhaps Eric is confusing GLF with GAA which was almost openly hostile to feminist politics. One of the main reasons the male founders of that group left GLF to form GAA in late 1969 was so that they would no longer have to deal with the open criticism they were receiving from GLF’s high-consciousness lesbian-feminists. The much praised “single-issue” focus of GAA was in many ways an excuse for their “Rockefeller 5” and other male members to set aside the women’s movement, civil rights and anti-war struggles that were so important to GLF members.

    Remember that lesbian-feminists’ quintessential manifesto “The Woman-Identified Woman” was first published in “Come Out!” in June of 1970. And the same issue printed Steven Dansky’s ground-breaking piece, “Hey Man!”, setting forth an agenda for gay men to confront their male supremacy. GLF men adopted consciousness-raising from the women’s movement and the dozens of GLF’s men’s CR groups included responding to feminist demands as a central topic of discussion. GLF men supported and applauded GLF lesbians’ famous Lavender Menace action at the National Organization for Women’s conference in May 1970. Separate women’s dances were funded and supported by the whole GLF membership. A significant men’s cell within GLF, named Fems Against Sexism, was formed to confront the Macho-maleness of some hyper-masculine men within GLF—famously shaving off one man’s beard. When appropriate, GLF men joined GLF lesbians at demonstration such as the protests at the NYC Women’s House of Detention—an infamous hell-hole in Greenwich Village where hundreds of women were detained while awaiting trial.

    Over time many women did leave GLF to spend more intensive time with fellow lesbians—a natural outcome for many women who were first coming out—and coming to political-consciousness—in those early years of gay liberation. But these were not necessarily hostile exits as Eric implies. As the first organization formed after Stonewall, GLF served as an umbrella group that spun off successor groups including Radicalesbians, but also GAA, Gay Youth, Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR), The Third World Caucus, the Gay Revolution Party and others. While some of these group departures appeared at the time to be factional splits, they accurately represented the diversity of the original gay liberation organization and were, in fact, organic expressions of separate identities and goals.

    In 2019, GLF was named one of the Grand Marshals in New York’s Pride March celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall and the founding of GLF. Thirty-five veterans of GLF, including myself, were able to join this event and proudly led the march behind our GLF banner. We have long maintained an email tree and are regularly in touch. I do urge historians like Eric to reach out to us for first-hand information and fact checking that would avoid erroneous generalizations such as the one I have addressed here.

    Reply

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