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'Grandfather of the gay rights movement' gets his due in 'The Deviant's War'

Frank Kameny and other pre-Stonewall LGBTQ activists are the focus of historian Eric Cervini’s debut book.
Franklin Kameny
Franklin Kameny, 1971.Grey Villet / The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images file

One of the most widely held myths about the fight for LGBTQ equality is that it started at New York City’s Stonewall Inn during the summer of 1969. That uprising, while pivotal, was in reality preceded by a grassroots “homophile” movement that has been largely overlooked.

“Every single person who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community can thank Frank for for developing what we now celebrate each and every June, which is Pride.”

Eric Cervini

Eric Cervini, a historian, is trying to change that. His first book, “The Deviant’s War,” documents the efforts of gay activists during the late 1950s and ‘60s to plant the seeds that would eventually lead to decades of progress for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.

While Cervini notes that his book is not a biography, its central character is Frank Kameny, whose life and activism is the thread throughout its nearly 400 exhaustively researched pages. Though Kameny is not as well known as later activists like Harvey Milk or Marsha P. Johnson, his contributions to LGBTQ rights are at least — if arguably not more — important.

“Everyone should know his name,” Cervini said of Kameny. “Every single person who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community can thank Frank for for developing what we now celebrate each and every June, which is Pride.”

“The Deviant’s War” started as Cervini’s senior thesis at Harvard, where he graduated from in 2014, and continued into his PhD dissertation at the University of Cambridge, where he received his doctorate last year. A Texas native, Cervini, who came out in high school, said he “had not the slightest clue about what queer history was or who was important” while growing up.

“So much of this history just is not taught in high schools, very little of it is taught in colleges and so much of it is also hidden,” he said.

Cervini said his first introduction to LGBTQ history came from watching the 2008 film “Milk” starring Sean Penn while in high school.

“Starting from that moment, I said, “I want to learn more about my own past and my queer ancestors.’”

He initially set out to write about Milk for his undergraduate senior thesis but found that all the primary source materials were in San Francisco. But then in Harvard’s library database, he stumbled upon a name he had never seen before: Frank Kameny.

“He was so instrumental in those early years, and he had his hand in every part of the pre-Stonewall gay rights movement,” Cervini said. “Historians knew about him, they had long identified him as the ‘grandfather of the modern gay rights movement,’ but there hadn’t been any book written about him.”

From astronomer to warrior

The meat of “The Deviant’s War” starts in late 1957, when Kameny, then a 32-year-old, Harvard-educated, Hawaii-based astronomer for the U.S. Defense Department, was summoned to the Army Map Service headquarters in Maryland and asked a question that would drastically alter the trajectory of his life: “Information has come to the attention of the U.S. Civil Service Commission that you are a homosexual. What comment, if any, do you care to make?”

It was a time when psychiatrists deemed homosexuality a “sociopathic personality disturbance” and consensual same-sex activity could be punished by “sexual psychopath laws,” and Kameny was fired, just two months after the launch of Sputnik. He would never work for the U.S. government again.

“He had lost absolutely everything,” Cervini said. But unlike most of the thousands of gay and lesbian federal employees dismissed during the so-called Lavender Scare, Kameny decided to fight back. So the end of his government career marked the beginning of over a half-century of activism.

Demonstrators Protesting Treatment of Homosexual in the Military
Frank Kameny participates in a group picket outside the White house on Armed Forces Day, May 21, 1965.Bettmann Archive

But Cervini notes that “The Deviant’s War” covers just a part of Kameny’s activism — from his government dismissal in the late ‘50s to just after Stonewall. To fully cover his contributions to the LGBTQ movement, Cervini added, would take volumes and much longer than the seven years he put into writing the book.

In just the early years of his activism, Kameny covered significant ground: He sued the federal government in what’s considered the first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation to be brought to the Supreme Court; he co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, one of the earliest LGBTQ rights groups; and he was among a small group that held what is thought to be the first gay demonstration outside the White House. Not long after, he decided to take on the American Psychiatric Association and its classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder.

After more than five decades of activism, Kameny died at the age of 86 on Oct. 11, 2011. His death fittingly coincided with National Coming Out Day, which has been celebrated annually since 1987.

While Kameny is undoubtedly the star of Cervini’s debut book, we also meet a number of other pre-Stonewall activists who were crucial to the LGBTQ rights movement, including Barbara Gittings, Kay Tobin Lahusen, Ernestine Eppenger (a.k.a. Ernestine Eckstein) and Randy Wicker. We also find out about the early contributions of some more well-known names, like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Bayard Rustin.

“Even though Frank’s photo is on the spine of the book, we’re using him as a lens for understanding not just his life but all the different diverse lives within the early movement that then allowed all of our success much later to occur,” Cervini said.

An activism ‘guidebook’

While his book is focused on the mid-20th century, Cervini said there are many lessons in it today for today’s activists.

“It really is a guidebook for how activism works and also what doesn’t work when we’re dealing with an oppressive government,” he said. “Once again we’re fighting a lot of the same battles, and I think looking backwards and searching for templates for how we can combat persecution effectively and inclusively is so important, and that’s what I hope to do with this book.”

Another important lesson he hopes readers take away from “The Deviant’s War” is that Kameny and a number of his contemporaries “stood on the backs of those with the least to lose,” namely those who were not, like Kameny, white cisgender men.

“We are under attack once again,” he said, citing the transgender military ban and state-level policies pertaining to transgender youth. “Now we all have a moral obligation to be continuing the fight after the marriage successes, and after an openly gay viable presidential candidate. Now it’s our turn to return the favor and to fight for those with the least to lose.”

For today’s activists who are “continuing the fight” for LGBTQ equality, Cervini said they should recognize that they are currently making history and should follow the lead of Kameny, who saved tens of thousands of documents that enabled Cervini to tell his story.

“We need to make sure we’re not throwing out our emails when we’re planning marches and demonstrations against the current regime,” he said.

“The Deviant’s War” is available starting Tuesday, June 2, and Cervini will be participating in a virtual book tour through June 6, with guests including screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for “Milk,” and Pennsylvania state Rep. Brian Sims. Cervini also shares LGBTQ history lessons regularly on his Instagram account.

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