In honor of Pride Month, NBC Out is highlighting and celebrating a new generation of LGBTQ trailblazers, creators and newsmakers. Visit our full #Pride30 list here.
Award-winning author and historian Eric Cervini uncovered his passion for LGBTQ history through the magic of Hollywood.
Cervini, 30, had just come out as gay when he watched “Milk,” a 2008 biographical film based on the life of gay rights pioneer and politician Harvey Milk. Milk was the first openly gay elected official in California — and one of the first in the country. He is credited with sparking the legal LGBTQ rights revolution before being gunned down at San Francisco City Hall on Nov. 27, 1978.
But even as a lifelong history buff and then a history major at Harvard University, the Texas native had never heard of Harvey Milk.
“I watched it and said, ‘Oh, my gosh. Why wasn’t I taught this story?’” Cervini recalled. “And then I thought, ‘Well, what are the other queer stories that are out there that I also don’t know?’”
Cervini’s curiosity in Milk led him to discover another gay rights pioneer he had never heard of: Frank Kameny. Kameny’s story would catapult Cervini from an inquisitive college student to a New York Times bestselling author, Pulitzer Prize finalist and LGBTQ pioneer in his own right.
After initially stumbling across Kameny in his school library’s database, Cervini took a bus to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. — the “not cute part” of the James Madison Memorial Building, Cervini noted — where Kameny had left over 80,000 documents after his death in 2011.
Scouring the documents, Cervini discovered that Kameny was fired from his job as an astronomer for the Defense Department in 1957 after his superiors found out about his sexuality. At the time, American psychiatrists considered homosexuality a “sociopathic personality disturbance,” and same-sex relations were illegal in parts of the country.
Kameny’s ousting from the Defense Department prompted his devotion to LGBTQ activism for more than a half-century afterward. In that time, Kameny sued the federal government in what’s considered the first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation to be brought to the Supreme Court; co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, one of the earliest LGBTQ rights groups; and was among a group of protesters who held what is thought to be the first LGBTQ demonstration outside of the White House.
Cervini would make Kameny the subject of his senior thesis at Harvard, from where he graduated in 2014 (and where Kameny earned a doctorate nearly six decades earlier). While his friends were getting “very cushy,” private industry jobs in tech and consulting, Cervini said, he wanted to keep studying Kameny’s story and turn it into a book.
“I won’t lie and say that I didn’t consider quitting and pursuing other things,” he added. “Being a queer historian is not the safest career choice.”
“Even all of the literary agents, publishers would say, ‘There’s just not a market for it. People don’t buy queer history,’” he added. “But every time I had to decide, I just couldn’t put it down. It was just so fascinating and important to me.”
Having been awarded the Gates Cambridge Scholarship — a higher-education program by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which fully funds postgraduate research in any subject at the University of Cambridge — Cervini headed to the United Kingdom.
There, as a doctoral student, he continued studying Kameny and began writing “The Deviant’s War,” a 512-page work of nonfiction centered on Kameny’s life and based on firsthand accounts, recently declassified FBI records and 40,000 personal documents.
After years of being laughed at by friends and professors, and struggling with self-doubt, Cervini published the book — which took him eight years to write — in June 2020. It was an instant hit.
In the months that followed, “The Deviant’s War” landed on The New York Times Best Sellers list, won the the 2021 Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction and became a finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for history. The success of “The Deviant’s War” also elevated Cervini himself, generating his Instagram and Twitter accounts hundreds of thousands of followers.
“Honestly, a big part of why I worked so hard was to prove people wrong and to show that queer history, when told with humanity and honesty, sells,” Cervini said. “People have an insatiable demand to understand their past, especially queer folks, because it’s been hidden from us. It’s been totally concealed.”
When queer people learn about their past, Cervini said, they can use the strategies and tools that were successful in previous fights for LGBTQ rights and apply them to the struggles queer advocates face today.
“There is not a single argument being made by the right, right now, in any of these states, that hasn’t been made before by bigots and politicians trying to stoke paranoia, making the exact same argumentation that our children are at risk because of ‘sexual perverts,’” Cervini said. “If there’s anything to learn from history, it’s that even in the darkest of times, there is a path forward — and it’s usually by looking backward.”
In recent months, conservative lawmakers, television pundits and other public figures have accused opponents of a newly enacted Florida education legislation — which critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law — of trying to “groom” or “indoctrinate” children. The word “grooming” has long been associated with mischaracterizing LGBTQ people, particularly gay men and transgender women, as child sex abusers.
Cervini said the recent events reminded him most of former beauty queen Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign in 1977, which painted gays and lesbians as a threat to the country’s youth.
Moreover, LGBTQ activists have been fighting against the more than 320 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in state legislatures this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group.
But Cervini said he is “confident” that LGBTQ activists will unite to prevail in the ongoing fight against the slew of legislation and charged rhetoric.
“It’s in times of attack by bigoted politicians, by super-right-wing activists, that we come together,” Cervini said. “That is when we’re most effective.”
“Pride has almost been synonymous with resistance,” Cervini added. “It’s when we forget about that, when we forget that Pride is about fighting back, that’s when we fall apart.”
Cervini’s career thus far has led him back to his starting point: Hollywood.
This month, he’s launching “The Book of Queer,” a five-part comedy docuseries on Discovery+. The series highlights some of queer history’s most prominent figures, such as Alexander the Great, Joan of Arc and Marsha P. Johnson, with a comedic twist.
“Not all of queer history ends with a cowboy or a politician or a scientist dying,” Cervini said. “A lot of it involves stories of liberation and joy and family and humor and comedy and camp.”