The Global Cable, Human Rights, United States The Deviant's War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America

August 9, 2020
By Summer Reading List | Perry World House

This summer, we've launched a special edition of The Global Cable - our 'Summer Reading List.' Throughout the summer, we're releasing new conversations with authors, discussing their latest books and the inspiration behind them.

Our guest this week is Eric Cervini, an award-winning historian of LGBTQ+ politics and culture. A former Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge, where he received his Ph.D., he is an authority on 1960s gay activism. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Harvard Gender and Sexuality Caucus, and on the Board of Advisors of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., a nonprofit dedicated to preserving gay American history. Cervini’s new book, The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America, is a history of the fight for gay rights that began a generation before Stonewall.

In our conversation, Cervini tells the story of World War Two veteran Frank Kameny, whose security clearance was rejected because he was gay and who became an important figure in the American gay rights movement; what the absence of some gay activists from the public narrative says about who we remember and why; and how the United States should honor its LGBTQ+ heroes.

Listen on Apple Podcasts | Libsyn | Spotify | Stitcher

Music & Produced by Tre Hester.

Franklin Few

On every episode of The Global Cable, we ask our guests the 'Franklin Few' - an updated version of a questionnaire used by Penn founder Benjamin Franklin. Here are Eric Cervini's answers.

Someone you'd like to meet: Frank Kameny, a central figure in The Deviant's War. Kameny was a government astronomer who fought back against his firing for being gay, and went on to play a major role in the American gay rights movement. 

A book, movie, or anything else you'd recommend to listenersThe Pink Line by Mark Gevisser, exploring queer and trans liberation around the world. 

Someone who's recently done something that deserves praise or attention: Edafe Okporo, Executive Director of the RDJ Shelter in New York City. The Shelter cares for asylum seekers - particularly LGBTQ+ asylum seekers - from around the world. 

Something Penn and Penn students can do to be of service to the world: Harnessing the energy in protest and activism that arose across the United States in June, and using it to get out the vote in the 2020 presidential election. 

Listen now


Eric Cervini [00:00:09] Well, a lot of historians have done great work on what was known as the 'Lavender Scare.' So at the same time that Senator McCarthy was purging alleged communists and security risks from the federal government, he and his allies were also targeting alleged security risks who were gay or sexually 'deviant.' And their reasoning was, if you were gay, then you were necessarily susceptible to blackmail by Communist agents and therefore a security risk. And so in the 50s, federal employees who were alleged to be gay were being purged from their jobs at the rate of 1000 per year.

John Gans [00:00:54] Welcome to The Global Cable, a podcast from Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania, where we discuss the world's most important issues with the people who work on them. I'm John Gans, director of communications and research here at Perry World House. With COVID-19 keeping us indoors and at home more than we might have expected this summer, we decide to release a special series of our podcast, a Summer Reading List.

[00:01:18] On each episode, we'll speak to an expert about their new book. They'll share what inspired them, what they learned during the writing process, and more. Our guest this week is Eric Cervini, an award winning historian of LGBTQ+ politics and culture. A former Gates scholar at the University Cambridge, where he received his Ph.D., he serves on the board of directors of the Harvard Gender and Sexuality Caucus and the Board of Advisors of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., a nonprofit dedicated to preserving gay American history. Cervini's new book, The Deviant's War: The Homosexual vs. for The United States of America is a history of the fight for gay rights. In our conversation, Cervini tells the story of World War Two veteran Frank Kameny, whose security clearance was rejected because he was gay and who became an essential figure in the American gay rights movement. We also talk about what the absence of some gay activists from the public narrative says about who we remember and why, and how the United States should honor its LGBTQ plus heroes. Eric Cervini, welcome to The Global Cable.

[00:02:26] We're here to talk to you about your your new book, Deviant's War. And I just I thought I would ask right off the top, Deviant's War is a great title. How did you come up with it?

Eric Cervini [00:02:35] Well, I wanted a title that wasn't just about one person, even though it uses the grandfather of the gay rights movement, Frank Kameny, as the lens to gay activism in the 60s. I wanted a title that referred to the larger struggle. And, you know, the word 'queer' has been used more recently, but that wasn't in use in the 1960s. And the one word that was used that was kind of an umbrella term used by psychiatrists and also the government was the word 'deviant.' And even though it was a neutral term originally coming out of the psychiatric field, it eventually expanded and became a bit derogatory, kind of like the word 'queer.' And so I thought it was a nice, useful word to show that it wasn't just about one man, wasn't just about even one movement, but a much larger struggle against the systematic persecution of 'sexual deviants', as they were called in the 1950s and 60s.

John Gans [00:03:40] You mentioned Frank Kameny's name, and I first heard that almost a decade ago when I saw him in a picture with then President Barack Obama signing an order that guaranteed benefits to spouses of gay federal employees. And so, you know, you mentioned him and mentioned that the book is partly based on him, or at least he's the one through line, through the whole thing. Why was he at that bill signing and why did you decide to write this book about him?

Eric Cervini [00:04:09] Well, a lot of historians have done great work on what was known as the 'Lavender Scare.' So at the same time that Senator McCarthy was purging alleged Communists and security risks from the federal government, he and his allies were also targeting alleged security risks who were gay or sexually 'deviant.' And their reasoning was, if you were gay, then you were necessarily susceptible to blackmail by Communist agents and therefore a security risk. And so in the 50s, federal employees who were alleged to be gay were being purged from their jobs at the rate of 1,000 per year. And usually, if this happened to you, if you were a federal employee and your boss found out you were gay, you would just quietly resign or get fired and you would just move on with your life. But Frank Kameny was a government astronomer. And in 1957, the same year that Sputnik was launched, the beginning of the space race - you could not have picked a better time to be a Harvard educated astronomer - the Defense Department found out he was gay. And they immediately dismissed him.

[00:05:22] And he became the first to fight back. He took his case to the Supreme Court, becoming the first openly gay man to do so. He was the first to demonstrate outside of the White House for the rights of gay federal employees, and really built a movement around him, because until him, the idea of fighting back, of demanding gay rights was unheard of. It just was not anywhere near the movement that we have today, and especially a decade before the Stonewall riots, which is usually considered as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. And so he was the first to fight back. And finally, beginning really in the Clinton administration, that's when the purges officially ended. But, of course, remnants of it continued through the continuation of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' And it wasn't really until the Obama administration that the last remnants of the gay purges or the Lavender Scare ended. And so he actually made it to the White House a couple times. And one of the best photographs, one of my favorite photographs that you mentioned, is Frank Kameny with at the time, Representative Baldwin, Joe Biden, Barney Frank, and the President as he was expanding health care benefits for federal employees. And so that was just a couple of years before Frank Kameny passed away. And it really was, I think, a happy ending to his story.

John Gans [00:06:55] Well, I think one of the things that fascinated me was that you really do, I think because he had such a huge collection of his papers and had kept so many different mementos, that you were able to really get into his thinking, and his thinking even as a kid, his strictly logical thinking. And you can see how somebody could logic and say, well, of course, I deserve rights. Of course I deserve these sorts of things and worked in a way that said eventually this will come about. And it's an amazing, I think, demonstration of somebody who was able to believe, and fight for things, even though much of the world would never even have imagined giving way. And we've seen in our lifetimes how that changed. You mentioned in the acknowledgments that you found this topic in part because you were an undergraduate looking to research gay activists and really only knew one name at the time, which was Harvey Milk, who was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States. What does the absence of other gay activists like Kameny and those you profiled the book from the public conversation say about who we remember and why?

Eric Cervini [00:08:03] That's a great question. And I think so much of our history is not taught and so much of it is - I think you're seeing a great conversation now about especially the founding of our country, and what does it mean that many of our founding fathers were in ownership of enslaved people? And how does that guide and tell us and reflect upon the stories we tell ourselves and of the founding of our nation? And I think throughout history, there are so many marginalized groups who existed. And we're fighting back and are so crucial to our understanding of not just our history, but of our identity as a nation, and we have to tell those stories. And I think that was one of my biggest realizations of watching the great film Milk about Harvey Milk, and first thinking how in the world did I not know? You know, as a gay guy who is 20 years old and considers myself a fan of history, how did I not know his story?

[00:09:08] And then the second part was, well, what other stories out there have I not been taught, that we're not taught in central Texas public high schools, or not even taught at Harvard? Harvard - at the time that I started, it may now - didn't have an LGBT History 101. And I think that's a shame. And it's now my responsibility as a historian to not just tell the stories of people like Frank Kameny, but also to encourage other people, whether they're students or just fans of history, to do their own research and to learn about their past and also learn from the lessons of the past, including the mistakes of people like Frank Kameny, because he made a lot of mistakes. He's the grandfather of the gay rights movement. But just like our own grandparents, you know, they said things and did things that were maybe a little racist. Right? Or maybe a bit problematic. But at the end of the day, they're responsible for our existence. And so we have to talk about the full complexity and spectrum of their existences and what we can learn from them now.

John Gans [00:10:14] Yeah, it's a great point. And I think Kameny's story is actually an interesting example of the power of history to do harm, in the sense that his history-making really begins with the U.S. government's rejection of his security clearance, even though he'd served with distinction and honor and bravery in World War Two. And you expose that this distrust of gay men in security circles was actually based on bad history, an analysis of a story in Austria. Can you explain how that came to be? And I found I was like, that was a piece. I mean, I've worked in national security, and I never knew the story of how that historical anecdote became American policy based on one person's analysis.

Eric Cervini [00:11:00] Right. Yeah. It's one of my favorite parts of the story, because it's also very disconcerting, because as you said, it shows how one person - in this case, it was Admiral Hillenkoetter, one of the first founders of the Central Intelligence Agency. And his telling of really a myth, which was this urban legend, essentially, that a homosexual spy who was an Austrian intelligence official lost World War One for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That he, because he was gay, was giving these secrets to the Russians and other entities throughout World War One. And that is why the Empire lost. And, you know, historians since then have found that's completely, verifiably inaccurate. Yes, he was gay. But the reason he was giving all of these secrets over to the Russians, for example, was because he was becoming fabulously wealthy. They were paying him huge quantities of money. And in fact, they thought that he was straight. So they didn't even know that he was gay, as we would now call it. And so the fact that in 1950, as the government is responding to the beginnings of the Lavender Scare, and you get a CIA official who has just heard rumors from this case, you know, multiple generations prior. And that is his one piece of evidence to prove to elected officials that gays are inherently a security risk. It just shows the extent to which illogic and prejudice can go to warp actual facts.

[00:13:02] And I think one thing you mentioned, I'm glad you did, is that Frank Kameny, I think a big part of his activism was how logical he really was. You know, he was trained as an astrophysicist and prejudice is always illogical. Of course, it doesn't make sense to claim that gays are a security risk when you have straight people having affairs with women or children. And there's plenty of evidence throughout history of them getting honey trapped, or of them becoming security risks, but no evidence of gay officials doing the same thing. So he was the one to latch upon that and say, wait a second, this just doesn't make sense. There has to be something else that's guiding these policies because it's clearly not rationality.

John Gans [00:13:52] So you've obviously, and we've so far talked a lot about Frank Kameny. There are dozens of other people profiled in this book. And I think that's one of its real strengths is you just get to know a generation of activists that really I had never heard of. And I'm assuming a lot of other people haven't. And they're all worth knowing. Anyone who's written a book will tell you that sometimes the headline makers aren't the people that they grow to admire most or whose lives are the most affecting to the people who delve deep into them. Who is the most memorable other than Kameny? Who else did you come away from, and like to tell the story, and will tell the story in the future?

Eric Cervini [00:14:32] Well, there are so many characters who I grew to to love. Very few of them are still alive.

[00:14:39] But a couple of them are. And I've had the honor of talking to them and spending hours interviewing them, including people like Kayla Houisen, who is one of the first lesbian activists. And also Randy Wicker, who actually organized the very first gay demonstration in America, and perhaps in the entire world. And he's still alive. He's 81. But also people who we as historians have not given proper credit to for their contributions to the gay rights movement. People like Bayard Rustin, who was a gay black man who organized, was the architect of the 1963 March on Washington, at which Martin Luther King Jr. declared, 'I have a dream' - that was organized by a gay black man. And because of his sexual identity, he really also has been erased from history.

[00:15:32] And what's so fascinating and one of the great tasks of being a historian is finding these hidden connections. Even though Frank Kameny and Bayard Rustin likely never met face-to-face, Frank Kameny attended the '63 March on Washington. He was there in the audience with a delegation of gay activists. And in '63, gays had never marched. A few months later, they did. And they did so because they were directly inspired and guided by the strategies and the philosophies of Bayard Rustin and the larger black freedom movement.

[00:16:10] And you see that similar connection between Stokely Carmichael, who popularized the phrase 'black power' and also 'black is beautiful.' Well, that became 'gay is good.' And so you see these relationships not only between people, but also between movements, between ideologies and tactics, that I think is so important to actually unpack and track.

John Gans [00:16:36] You've just mentioned a few of the names in the book, Deviant's War, and these are the people that shaped the world we live in, and the rights we all enjoy. Last December, construction began on a new U.S. Navy ship that will be named after Harvey Milk.

Eric Cervini [00:16:51] Oh, you're kidding. Oh, that's great.

John Gans [00:16:53] And at a moment when public memorials are being debated in real time as we speak, how should the country honor these LGBT+ heroes today and in the future?

Eric Cervini [00:17:07] Well, I think first step is telling their stories. I mean, so many books exist on our founding fathers, on, you know, various presidents, on various senators and elected politicians who usually all look the same, who have very similar, privileged backgrounds and, you know, may not add as much to the full spectrum of diversity in our country.Now you're seeing, you know, we need not just one book on Frank Kameny. We need several. Right? My book only covers, you know, the 50s and 60s. It ends in 1971. It is by no means a comprehensive biography. To do that would take a Robert Caro-esque project of decades, or multiple historians. So I leave it to other people to look at Frank Kameny in the 70s and 80s and 90s and 2000s, but also look at other activists, whether it's Ernestine Eppenger, who was the first black woman to march for gay rights in 1965. You know, she deserves her own book. Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, really the the grandparents of the modern day trans rights movement, they deserve several books. And so I think that's where we have to start. Then, when it comes to art, and when it comes to monuments, or naming things after people, then I think that can come next. But I think first, it's the job of historians to say, OK, who are we forgetting and who have we forgotten in the past?

John Gans [00:18:43] Well, you mentioned founding fathers, and almost 300 years ago, one of Penn's first trustees, Ben Franklin, developed a questionnaire he used for conversations among fellow Philadelphians interested in current and global affairs. We've updated it for use today and to anchor our Global Cable podcast. These are just a few short questions that can have short answers.

[00:19:03] And, you know, you've mentioned a few of the people you've met in the course of this book. Who would you most like to meet today - either someone you've already met or somebody who's passed away or even just someone who's alive today - and why?

Eric Cervini [00:19:17] From inside the book?

John Gans [00:19:19] Any, it doesn't have to be in the book, it can be outside the book, can be in history, can be whoever you think.

Eric Cervini [00:19:25] Well, I'm biased. I mean, one of my greatest regrets is that I didn't learn Frank Kameny's name until after he passed away - about a year and a half after he passed in 2011.

[00:19:37] And there are so many questions just from researching the book that, you know, I wish I could have asked him and gotten his thoughts on certain matters and clarify things that I wasn't able to discover through his archival papers. And so that's kind of the selfish response, you know, as a historian. I'd love to know the full story of the past. But even then, that, as you know, as someone who has done archival research, sometimes there are just questions you you can't answer. And even if you were alive, I'm sure there would still be things that we'd continue wondering about.

John Gans [00:20:15] All right. That sounds good. And a fair answer. So we've all sort of been stuck inside for a while. And this is a podcast for the summer that's dedicated to getting people reading books that, you know, maybe they didn't see, or maybe haven't been able to get out to bookstores to see and catch on shelves. Have you read anything, a book or movie article, seen any movies, documentaries, or listened to anything, podcast or music, that's related to world affairs, that you think our listeners might be interested in? Pass along a recommendation or two?

Eric Cervini [00:20:46] Yes. So one book that actually just came out today, by my publisher, it's Mark Gevisser. He wrote The Pink Line, which is actually looking at the frontiers of queer and trans liberation across the world. So looking at it in Nigeria, and South Africa, and Eastern Asia, and looking at how some of the conversations and issues that I discuss in my book, looking at those across borders. And it really is a groundbreaking book. It's called The Pink Line. And it's out today. It's July 28 - I'm sure it'll be out for a couple of weeks by the time this comes out. But I highly recommend it.

John Gans [00:21:30] That's great. And do you know of any individuals in the United States or elsewhere who's done something that you think deserves praise or imitation, who maybe hasn't gotten enough attention for what they're up to right now?

Eric Cervini [00:21:42] One person I just had the pleasure of interviewing for my own podcast. His name is Edafe Okporo, and he runs a shelter in New York City for asylum seekers, particularly LGBTQ+ asylum seekers coming from all over the world, whose lives are endangered because either their identities are criminalized, or they're up against armed mobs who are trying to kill them. And it's called the RDJ Shelter in New York City. And I'd suggest anyone who wants to help support asylum seekers and those who are fleeing violence and in other countries to search for the RDJ Shelter. And also Edafe, who has a couple of books of his own and is really phenomenal.

John Gans [00:22:37] That's excellent. And what's the podcast? You can you can name drop it here.

Eric Cervini [00:22:40] Sure! it's called The Deviant's World. So the book is The Deviant's War, but the podcast, which is a bit broader in scope, is The Deviant's World, but still very on brand.

John Gans [00:22:54] We applaud you for this. All right. So the last thing I may ask is, we're at Penn, the University of Pennsylvania. And we always like to try to ask our accomplished and  thoughtful guests, can you think of anything right now in which Penn and Penn students can be of service to the country and to the world?

Eric Cervini [00:23:13] Well, I think right now it's 2020. I think we need to be harnessing so much of the energy in protest and activism that arose in June, and use it for this election, and funnel so much of that momentum into getting out the vote. Making sure that not just you are registered, but also making sure, you know, your family members understand the stakes, how they affect you, how this election affects you as an individual, as a student, whether you're LGBT or you're a woman or, you know, you're unemployed right now. Make it clear how current policies are affecting you right now, and how important this election is, so that your loved ones and those who may not necessarily agree with you. And I think that's probably the best thing anyone can do. In 2020, only 98 days, I believe, out from the election.

John Gans [00:24:17] And I think we'll publish this podcast in about a week, so over 90. I think the other thing we're gonna have to tell everybody this year is not just register, but figure out how to vote. You know, you're gonna have to figure it out, make sure your grandparents, parents, everybody knows how to actually get their ballots in and get them counted.

Eric Cervini [00:24:34] Exactly.

John Gans [00:24:35] Excellent. Thank you so much for joining us here on The Global Cable, Eric. And congratulations on The Deviant's War. I wish you all the best luck with that. And thanks again for joining us.

Eric Cervini [00:24:44] Thanks so much for having me.