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BOOKS New book explores life of astronomer-turned-activist Kameny
by Tony Peregrin
2020-05-12

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Dr. Eric Cervini—a Harvard and Cambridge-trained historian sometimes known as the "Hunky Historian"—reveals the secret history of the fight for LGBTQ rights that began a generation before Stonewall in his new book, The Deviant's War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America.

Cervini, 28, first found Instagram fame via his one-minute videos that engage audiences on a variety of historical topics such as Michelangelo's sexuality. The videos later expanded to Cervini's YouTube Channel and, now, the podcast The Deviant's World.

Cervini's debut tome describes the life of Frank Kameny, who, in 1957, was an astronomer working for the U.S. Defense Department in Hawaii at the height of the space race. At a certain point, Kameny was ordered to appear in Washington, D.C., where he was submitted to a series of humiliating interviews designed to expose him as a gay person. Kameny was summarily dismissed from his federal job, like countless other gay men and women—but unlike others, he refused to leave without a fight.

The Deviant's War is based on tens of thousands of Kameny's personal papers housed in the Library of Congress, Pentagon transcripts, the Kinsey Report and the FBI's "Sex Deviants" program that tracked and recorded the arrests of gay men throughout the U.S.

From his shelter-in-place residence in Los Angeles where he lives with his two plants Coco Montrese and Fig O'Hara, Cervini revealed why Frank Kameny is the Rosa Parks of the LGBTQ rights movement, and what lessons from the past will guide the LGBTQ community after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Windy City Times: How did you discover Frank Kameny, a name that is not immediately recognizable by some LGBTQ history enthusiasts?

Eric Cervini: In college, I started noticing hints that parts of our history—gay history, or queer history, or deviant history—had been erased. I decided I wanted to write a research paper about Harvey Milk, but all the archival materials were in San Francisco, and I was a financial aid student stuck in Boston with no way of getting to the West Coast.

But on the Harvard library database, I saw a name I did not recognize: Dr. Franklin E. Kameny. He was the first to take the fight against the gay purges to the Supreme Court, to Congress, and to the White House. He was, as historians had long identified him, the grandfather of the gay rights movement—yet nobody had written a book about him.

WCT: Frank Kameny has been described as "the Rosa Parks and the Martin Luther King and the Thurgood Marshall of the gay-rights movement." How does he embody all three of these important historical figures?

EC: Historians have long recognized that Kameny was largely responsible for bringing militancy to the pre-Stonewall gay rights movement, known as the homophile movement. Before him, activists were appalled by the idea of demonstrating for homosexual rights; instead, they argued that they needed to assimilate into straight society.

And in my book, I argue that Kameny, by declaring that homosexuality was morally good in his 1961 Supreme Court brief—an unprecedented legal argument—he developed an early iteration of what we now know as gay pride, nearly a decade before Stonewall. In other words, we can thank Frank Kameny for the Pride celebrations of today.

WCT: As a historian, how will the COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally change the ways LGBTQs interact with each other and the world? Are there lessons from the past that might inform our future?

EC: With Pride celebrations largely cancelled on the 50th year anniversary of the first Pride march, I think we must use the unfortunate situation as an opportunity to reflect upon and reevaluate some of the traditions that have emerged in the past few decades. After all, the first Pride march was very different: marching was risky and often terrifying, and you risked outing yourself in a time when the stakes were much higher. It was more clearly an act of resistance. Anyone could march; there weren't barriers between spectators and marchers. The march ended with a free, inclusive gathering in Central Park. I think we should consider returning to this original form of Pride, especially in a time when resistance is more important than ever before.

WCT: If you could have dinner with any historical figure, other than Frank Kameny, who would it be and why?

EC: You eliminated my usual response! I think I'd choose Bayard Rustin. His story is astonishing, and although he wasn't directly involved in the homophile movement, he is absolutely a founding father of the modern gay-rights movement. Without his 1963 March on Washington or his propagation of Gandhi's strategy of nonviolent direct action within the Black Freedom Movement, homosexuals would not have started marching, either. We owe him.

The Deviant's War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is slated to be released Tuesday, June 2.


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