The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. The United States. Eric Cervini. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2020. 512 pages. $35
History is a series of causes and effects: A lie about voter fraud leads to bloody insurrection. The murder of George Floyd leads to a national call for police reform. The election of a black president leads to the election of a racist president. A racist president leads to a resurgence of white nationalism.
In this age when reality itself is under attack and the social justice movement is enjoying a renaissance, it’s important to note not only what specific events spark movements, but also what specific incidents motivate activists.
In the case of queer history, the fight for work-place protections began with a bathroom arrest a generation before Stonewall. In 1956, Frank Kameny, a rising astronomer working for the U.S. Defense Department in Hawaii, went to San Francisco to present a paper at the American Astronomical Society’s annual conference. After delivering his paper, Kameny went to a public restroom where he was approached by another man. Police, hiding behind a grill, observed surreptitiously as the two men had a sexual encounter. Both men were immediately arrested.
The following year, Kameny received a summons to report immediately to Washington, D.C. The Pentagon had reason to believe he was a homosexual, and after a series of humiliating interviews, Kameny, like countless gay men and women before him, was promptly dismissed from his government job. Unlike many others, though, Kameny fought back.
Based on firsthand accounts, recently declassified FBI records, and forty thousand personal documents, The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. The United States, Eric Cervini’s first book, unfolds over the course of the mid-twentieth century, when The Mattachine Society became the first organization to protest the systematic persecution of gay federal employees.
In The Deviant’s War, Eric Cervini, an award-winning historian of LGBTQ+ culture & politics and summa cum laude graduate of Harvard College, traces the forgotten ties that bind gay rights to the Black Freedom Movement, the New Left, lesbian activism, and trans resistance. Above all, this book is a story of America (and Washington) at a cultural and sexual crossroads; of shocking, byzantine public battles with Congress; of FBI informants; as well as murder, betrayal, sex, love, and, ultimately, victory.
Despite being a rather dense tome that sometimes feels like a doctoral dissertation, The Deviant’s War made it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list—a testament to the continued relevance of Kameny’s story. History buffs will devour this book and love every bite. There is also a lot here for younger social justice warriors, if they’ll take the time to read it.