‘The Deviant’s War’ takes a look back at pre-Stonewall LGBTQ history

In 1957, at the height of the Space Race, a government astronomer named Frank Kameny received a summons to report immediately to Washington, D.C. The Pentagon had reason to believe he was a homosexual. And for the first time, a homosexual fought back. (note: while LGBTQ people do not commonly use the word "homosexual" in 2020, it was the word used at the time)

Based on firsthand accounts, recently declassified FBI records, and forty thousand personal documents, comes The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America, a new book (one of the New York Times' most anticipated June 2020 titles) from Harvard and Cambridge-trained historian Dr. Eric Cervini that traces the secret history of the fight for gay rights that began a generation before Stonewall.

The book unfolds over the course of the 1960s, as Kameny built a movement against the government’s gay purges. It traces the forgotten ties that bound gay rights to the Black Freedom Movement, the New Left, lesbian activism, and trans resistance. Above all, it is a story of America (and Washington) at a cultural and sexual crossroads; of shocking, byzantine public battles with Congress; of FBI informants; murder; betrayal; sex; love; and ultimately victory.

The Deviant's War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of AmericaGLAAD caught up with Dr. Cervini to learn more about his new book, which traces a direct line from the past to help inform the future of the LGBTQ rights movement.

GLAAD: FOR THOSE WHO AREN’T FAMILIAR YET WITH THE DEVIANT’S WAR, HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR BOOK TO SOMEONE WHO’S NOT YET FAMILIAR WITH IT? 

Dr. Eric Cervini: The Deviant's War is the secret history of the fight for gay rights that began a generation before the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Most people assume that the path to LGBTQ+ equality began with Stonewall, but The Deviant's War tells the story of Frank Kameny, the grandfather of the gay rights movement, as he invented what we now know as Pride. Plus, the book traces the forgotten ties that bound gay rights to the Black Freedom Movement, the New Left, lesbian activism, and trans resistance. Above all, it is a story of America (and Washington) at a cultural and sexual crossroads; of shocking, byzantine public battles with Congress; of FBI informants; murder; betrayal; sex; love; and ultimately victory.

WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT FRANK KAMENY AND HIS ROLE IN LGBTQ HISTORY?

Frank Kameny was almost singlehandedly responsible for developing the legal and ideological foundations of Gay Pride, and his story began in 1957. A Harvard-educated astronomer, Kameny was well-positioned to help create America's manned space program (NASA was formed two years later), but after the government learned of his sexual orientation, it banned him from federal employment. In response, Kameny founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, and he became the first openly gay man to testify in Congress on behalf of the homosexual minority, the first to protest at the White House to call for the end of the gay purges, and the first to declare—first in his legal writing, and later on a picket sign—that to be gay was morally good.

MANY PEOPLE HAVE HEARD OF “THE LAVENDER SCARE,” BUT CAN YOU EXPLAIN HOW THE U.S. GOVERNMENT ACTUALLY SPIED ON KAMENY AND OTHER EARLY ADVOCATES FOR LGBTQ RIGHTS?

In the 1950s, each year, 1,000 people were arrested for homosexual activity in Washington, DC alone. An estimated 1 million Americans were arrested for homosexual activity in the 15 years after WWII. At least 5,000 sexual deviants were removed from the federal government in the 1950s, which is a conservative estimate. I would estimate that well over 10,000 were purged from the federal bureaucracy, not including the military, before the Civil Service Commission changed its policies in 1975. On top of these appalling statistics, I found proof that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was heavily invested in infiltrating and ruining Kameny's group--and the larger homophile movement--during the 1960s. In fact, the role of one FBI informant, and his betrayal of countless "sexual deviants" in Washington, is one of the most dramatic parts of the book.

Dr. Eric Cervini (Jakub Koziel)HOW WAS THE MATTACHINE SOCIETY A PRECURSOR TO STONEWALL AND THE SUBSEQUENT POST-STONEWALL BIRTH OF THE GLF (GAY LIBERATION FRONT), AND LATER, THE GAA (GAY ACTIVISTS ALLIANCE)? 

(Dr. Eric Cervini, pictured left)


Although the gay rights movement exploded in size after Stonewall, it benefitted from the foundations that Kameny and others within the homophile movement had already laid. In his 1961 Supreme Court petition, Kameny had asserted that to be gay was morally good. He had helped sue the government multiple times--persuading other victims of the gay purges to join his legal crusade--for nearly a decade. Because of Kameny, the ACLU recognized gay rights as a valid civil liberties issue. And by 1968, a year before Stonewall, he had translated the rhetoric of the Black Freedom Movement, like "Black is Beautiful," into "Gay is Good." So when organizations like the GLF and GAA came into being, they already had a robust toolbox of strategies and rhetoric to pull from.

TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE EFFORTS OF THE EARLY (AT THE TIME CALLED THE) GAY RIGHTS MOVEMENT TO ALIGN WITH OTHER IDENTITY-BASED SOCIAL JUSTICE MOVEMENTS, SUCH AS THE BLACK FREEDOM MOVEMENT, THE WOMEN’S RIGHTS MOVEMENT, AND THE NEW LEFT - WAS THERE EVER AN EFFORT TO BUILD MORE BROAD COALITIONS?

The pre-Stonewall "homophile" movement was overwhelmingly white and male-dominated, and that's something that my book explores and critiques. It examines how the exclusion of other marginalized groups actually held back the cause; because Kameny's organization, the Mattachine Society of Washington, failed to be truly inclusive--and because it failed to attract Black members--the group ultimately faded from relevance. Plus, The Deviant's War shows how Kameny and other activists consciously adopted the tactics of the Black Freedom Movement, yet they never attempted to create meaningful alliances with Black activists. And when they did (e.g., the Gay Liberation Front in 1969), other activists fled in protest. These failures shed light on past mistakes within our movement, and they tell us how we can do better in our current era of protest and change.

Frank Kameny picketing in a still from a documentary, The Lavender Scare. Photograph - PBSWHAT LESSONS CAN BE LEARNED ABOUT THE TRAJECTORY OF THE LGBTQ RIGHTS MOVEMENT FROM READING YOUR BOOK?

I hope the book teaches readers that although the LGBTQ+ rights movement has accomplished a great amount of success in recent decades, we did so at the expense of the most marginalized members of our community. Our ancestors within our movement repeatedly forgot or excluded trans people, people of color, and those experiencing homelessness––the very groups who put their bodies on the line before, during, and after the Stonewall Riots. Our ancestors repeatedly borrowed the tactics and rhetoric of the Black Freedom Movement, but they rarely made an effort to fight for Black Americans' own rights. Now, as we grapple with a national reckoning in race relations and success in the Supreme Court, we need to ask: who have we forgotten, and how do we fight for them?

WHERE DO YOU BELIEVE THE LBGTQ MOVEMENT HAS GOTTEN THINGS RIGHT? AND WHERE HAVE WE GOTTEN THINGS WRONG? AND HOW CAN WE LEARN FROM THE PAST IN ORDER TO MOVE FORWARD?

In recent weeks, I've been saying it repeatedly: we borrowed Gay Pride from the Black Freedom Movement, and we have gay rights because of trans women of color. It's our moral obligation not just to declare that Black Trans Lives Matter, because they do, but to take it a step further: cis white gay men like me need to be on the front lines of the current battle to protect those we have forgotten in the past--especially Black trans women. Above all, the past reveals our successes and our mistakes, and we need to learn from both to create a more just and equitable world for future historians to study. 

The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America is available now at Amazon as well as other retailers.

Issues: