New History Book Illuminates Gay Liberation's Great Debt to the Civil Rights Movement

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New History Book Illuminates Gay Liberation's Great Debt to the Civil Rights Movement
Image:Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The revolution started with a handjob. Or something like that. On August 28, 1956, an astronomer named Frank Kameny was arrested after hidden police officers observed, through a public restroom’s ventilation grille, Kamney make sexual contact with another man while both stood at urinals. Later, during his interrogation, Kameny would explain that the man touched his penis “for a few seconds” and there had been no erection or solicitation. Regardless, Kameny was soon fired from his job at the Army Map Service, and so began the struggle that would come to define his public life: the fight for gay rights.

Historian Dr. Eric Cervini’s painstakingly detailed new book, The Deviant’s War, tells the story of Kameny’s legal battle to restore his job and then passage into a more generalized gay activism as the eventual leader of the Mattachine Society of Washington, one of the earliest gay activist groups in the U.S. It reminds us that the struggle for gay equality began as the fight for sexual freedom (many other men, some aided by Kameny, were fired for similar public sex and attempted to fight for their jobs in court), and it articulates the extent to which the struggle for gay rights predated Stonewall—the famous uprising at the queer New York bar occurs more than 3/4 of the way into The Deviant’s War’s narrative. (The book is 512 pages, though in my digital copy almost half of them contain the cited research via end notes. The research Cervini performed is nothing short of exhaustive.) For a one-stop gay history shop, you could hardly do better for The Deviant’s War $35 list price. It should be required reading this Pride Month for all who are interested in gay history.

“It wasn’t just one riot, it wasn’t just one year even,” explained Cervini from his home in Los Angeles, in a recent a phone interview with Jezebel. “It was a decades-long process.”

Cervini, who graduated from Harvard in 2014 and got his PhD from Cambridge last year, built on the work he’d done in school. The Deviant’s War started as a history of the Mattachine Society of Washington, but ultimately functions as a general history of the early gay rights movement with Kameny’s life as its spine. After all, he is, as Cervini and other historians have noted, the “grandfather of the gay rights movement.” During the time that Kameny started fighting his war, homosexuality was considered an illness by many in the mainstream, including psychological experts. Additionally, Cervini writes that: “After World War II, homosexual arrests—including those for sodomy, dancing, kissing, or holding hands—occurred at the rate of one every ten minutes, each hour, each day, for fifteen years. In sum, one million citizens found themselves persecuted by the American state for sexual deviation.”

This context makes Kameny’s courage all the more poignant. In a 60-page petition to the Supreme Court that he wrote in 1961, Kameny asserted “flatly, unequivocally, and absolutely uncompromisingly, that homosexuality, whether by mere inclination or by overt act, is not only not immoral, but that for those choosing voluntarily to engage in homosexual acts, such acts are moral in a real and positive sense, and are good, right, and desirable, socially and personally.” Years before the concept of gay pride had a name, Kameny was living it and in front of a judicial system that upheld laws arguing the contrary. Later, it was Kameny who invented the slogan “Gay Is Good.” Cervini, however, is careful to refrain from deifying him. He emphasizes the tremendous amount of help Kameny had via other queers (including lesbians like Barbara Gittings) and doesn’t let Kameny’s contributions drown out his shortcomings.

“He is responsible for the foundation of gay rights in America, but just like our own grandfathers, he said and did some racist things,” said Cervini. “Just like we would call out our own grandparents if they said something racist at the dinner table, I think we need to do that same thing with our own ancestors within the gay rights movement, within the fight for queer liberation. We need to tell their stories and appreciate that they gave us life, but we also need to hold them accountable and learn from their mistakes. That’s what I try to do with Frank throughout the book: allow his words and actions to speak for themselves and also show the tangible consequences of some of these strategies, including respectability.”

Kameny was a somewhat stern autocrat who demanded business attire at protests, resolving that those who were fighting for the right to be employed should look “employable.” He argued that onlookers would be more receptive to his and his fellow picketers’ cause of equality if they bore “the symbols of acceptability, conventionality, and respectability, as arbitrary as those symbols may be.”

Though the events in The Deviant’s War stretch back some 70 years, so many of its themes remain relevant. Respectability politics is a glaring example. The use of overtly signifying “respectability,” which often manifests in the insistence that one’s queerness is “normal” or makes them “no different” than heterosexual counterparts, remains a trusted political strategy: Look no further than the failed presidential campaign of Pete Buttigieg, especially as it related to his marriage.

“When you attempt to prove that to be different or to be queer is just like being straight or ‘normal,’ that as a political strategy will fail,” said Cervini. “You see it over and over in history on the legislative front, on the electoral front, in Frank Kameny’s own campaign. When you decide to hide a part of your community and you don’t embrace everything single facet, then your community will not rally behind you and you will lose your base. That is what happened with Frank Kameny, that is what happened with the Human Rights Campaign when they removed trans protections from their own legislative proposals in the early 2000s. It happens over and over and it proves that it’s self-defeating.”

The recent Supreme Court decision that firing someone based on their sexuality or gender identity is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is proof in itself that the past isn’t dead—it isn’t even past. That queer people in half of the states in the U.S. could have been legally fired before last week goes to show how startlingly current Cervini’s telling of gay history is. And with a sweeping reckoning with the position of police in our culture underway, including the question of whether they should exist at all, the book provides a necessary reminder that queers and gender-nonconforming people were once police targets. Gay purges that Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover incited (on the justification that gay men were liabilities because of their blackmail-ability) found cops spying on men in bathrooms and arresting them for having sex and pulling people out of venues like Stonewall for presenting in manners that were perceived as not aligning with the sex on their driver’s licenses. If anyone has any question as to whether or not police belong at Pride parades, they’d do well to read The Deviant’s War.

Cervini carefully underlines how much of Kameny’s strategy was lifted from the Civil Rights Movement, including the presentation of “respectability.” Kameny openly yearned for “a catalyzing moment,” in Cervini’s words, for his movement—“something like the 1955 case of Rosa Parks.” Kameny’s “Gay Is Good” slogan came as the direct result of hearing Civil Rights protesters chant, “Black is beautiful” on television. Bayard Rustin, the black gay man who worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, inspired Kameny’s protests (though Rustin played no role in the Homophile or Gay Liberation Movements and Cervini says it’s unlikely that he and Kameny ever crossed paths).

If anyone has any question as to whether or not police belong at Pride parades, they’d do well to read The Deviant’s War.

The whiteness of Kameny’s Mattachine Society of Washington, and the early gay liberation movement in general, though, becomes explicit toward the book’s end, when the Society’s paltry outreach to attract black members (via a flyer distributed at black gay bars) is discussed. Many of Kameny’s words were oblivious to intersectionality, often describing the Civil Rights and Homophile movements as separate entities, when in fact the active membership of more black queers would have made clear how inextricable the movements could be and, in fact, were (at least philosophically) for many American citizens. Cervini does write at length about Ernestine Eppenger, who was lesbian and black and a key figure in the lesbian activist group Daughters of Bilitis, as one of the people of color involved in the early movement. Though Cervini writes, “Today, LGBTQ+ Americans march because a scientist named Dr. Frank Kameny once entered a tearoom,” and the deep interrogation of the whiteness of Kamney’s movement comes late in his narrative, Cervini nonetheless repeated several times during our conversation that, “we have gay rights because of trans women of color.”

“My section on Sylvia Rivera is not about Sylvia Rivera at Stonewall,” he explained. “It’s about her being the first person to get arrested in the Gay Activists Alliance for a city petition for an anti-discrimination law in New York City. That happened in 1970. She was single-handedly responsible for the GAA becoming an incorporated entity in the city of New York. She was single-handedly responsible for rejuvenating the legal action community of the Gay Activists Alliance, which became a year or two later, Lambda Legal. Twenty years after that, Lambda Legal became the first gay-rights organization to join the legal fight for marriage equality in Hawaii in 1993. So we quite literally have gay marriage because of Sylvia Rivera.”

Cervini’s book includes a detailed retelling of the Stonewall uprising of 1969, but he said in our interview that he’s ultimately not so concerned about who did what at Stonewall. He does make passing reference in The Deviant’s War to arrested trans patron Yvonne Ritter picking up “something off the ground—maybe a brick or a piece of glass, she does not know” and throwing it. The book posits that Marsha P. Johnson, who has sometimes been credited in the Stonewall mythology with throwing the first brick, didn’t show up until the second night of the uprising, during which she climbed a lamppost in high heels and dropped a bag of bricks on a police car below.

“Randy Wicker, who was Marsha P. Johnson’s roommate for 12 years, he was well aware that she didn’t arrive until Saturday, as she admitted in her own words, but he doesn’t care,” explained Cervini. “He made me swear not to make a big deal about that in my book and I wasn’t going to anyway, because he has dedicated the rest of this life to making Marsha P. Johnson a saint. A saint is one who does magical things and by definition that is going to be part of our mythology and not necessarily our history. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

When it came to researching his book, Cervini hit a wall at one point—a paywall—when he noticed that Cambridge didn’t have a subscription to some necessary databases of queer history. (He ended up having a friend at Harvard help him out with access.) Because access to queer history has been so difficult for so long, particularly for those outside of the university system, Cervini created an online archive of his research, which he’s made available for free at The Deviant’s Archive. Cervini also regularly devotes posts on his Instagram to elements and figures of queer history.

“There’s several more books that could be written from this material, so I put it all online,” he said. “I hope people read the book, see a fact that shocks them, see something that I wish I could have spent more time on—stories like Sylvia Rivera, stories like Ernestine Eppenger, people who deserve their own books.” After all, history is made by those who write it.

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