An Interview With Eric Cervini
Your book The Deviant’s War, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, starts with Dr. Franklin Kameny’s right to work as a gay man in the government during the early days of the space program. What are the echo effects to today, that the United States would witch-hunt homosexuals at this time but touted that Von Braun, who worked with the Nazis in World War II, was at the head of their space program?
I think the irony was so clear then—especially for someone like Frank Kameny, who fought on the European front lines in World War II against the Nazis, to come home with the hopes of helping construct the manned space program in America, only to see that dream snatched away from him solely because he was gay. At the same time, the architects of the V-2 Missile—that was used against London and manufactured by enslaved people in the Third Reich—became not just the architects of the manned space program but celebrated architects of the space program and some of the founding fathers of NASA. I think the irony could not have been starker or more dramatic, and unfortunately, you see traces of that irony today. So many folks are being targeted, whether it’s in the South; or students who are activists; or authors being punished for trying to publish queer stories, queer books, or queer memoirs. And yet, at the same time, folks who are perpetuating racist, misogynistic, and transphobic policies are still being celebrated and elected today.
The Deviant’s War also examines America’s Morals Code and who it is that actually dictates to the government what is moral for the rest of the country. Could you talk about how your television work on The Book of Queer tears down the conservative narrative we are taught by depicting scenes ranging from biblical times to the modern White House?
That’s a wonderful question because it touches on the relationship between culture and how it has changed not just from within the government, but also within popular culture, within Hollywood. There’s always been an intellectual, a political, a cultural dialogue between those forces—between the government, Hollywood, and the rest of society. As you mentioned, for years, the government and Hollywood—including television but also all forms of media—and the Press worked hand-in-hand to perpetuate a cultured silence—a conspiracy of silence—when it came to “deviant sexuality,” as it was called then. It really took the Kinsey report and the sciences to change that, to force the media and therefore the government to start grappling with the fact that queer folks have been here—and queer—since the dawn of humanity. It’s that latter fact of human existence that we try to emphasize within the show, because so much of the rhetoric now is trying to persuade folks that to be queer, to be non-binary, to be trans is a new phenomenon, a novel threat to American morality, to our norms and customs. In reality, if you talk to any historian from any era, they’ll be the first to tell you—unless they’re willfully ignoring it—that, as I said, queer folks have always been here.
We are also working to influence not just public opinion but government perception and government policy via historical truths. It’s something that’s been very effective in the past; Frank Kameny would often invoke history to make his point, and activists always refer to history because the best way to prove something is true is to look at empirical evidence. It’s a complex, difficult phenomenon to affect change via Hollywood, but if there’s anything the last 20 or so years have taught us, it’s that it can be immensely effective in changing political attitudes and therefore policy.
I’m going to jump ahead to my question about Dr. Kinsey because you mentioned him: how different are Laud Humphreys’ Tearoom Trade and Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in assisting gay rights? Did Dr. Kinsey’s death curtail the public’s conversation on sexuality in the 1950s?
Oh, that’s a great question! I’ve never been asked that before, and I think it’s very interesting to put both of these books in dialogue. At the time, and certainly now (although his legacy has been tarnished a little bit) Dr. Kinsey was celebrated, particularly among queer folks for proving just how prevalent they—at the time, specifically white queer men—were in society. But even though Humphrey’s work exposed police harassment of queer folks, especially men, it was incredibly problematic, especially when it came to privacy concerns. I think Humphrey’s contributions are a bit more complicated. As you know from reading the books, his work is still taught, not because of the sociological implications but rather the ethical implications of his research. So, I think both were important for queer folks. I open with Laud Humphrey’s story because I think it also captures so much of the personal difficulties at the time. He was researching in the 60’s and 70’s as a closeted gay man, and Kinsey—in many ways—was also keeping a lot of secrets. Many of the scientists and scholars were working within a very scary time to be publishing this research, but they did anyway, which immensely affected activism mostly because it got the press, and therefore queer folks and the general public, talking about the problems—and the prevalence thereof, in Kinsey’s case—that were exposed.
You mentioned the climate in the 1950’s, but what were the conservative 1950’s like for someone in the queer community like Dr. Kameny, and how did J. Edgar Hoover use that environment to grow the FBI? How did our own government blackmail its citizens at the time?
Gosh, you know there have been many books written on J. Edgar Hoover’s reign of surveillance and terror, and there should be many more books written because I think it’s very difficult to overstate not only his influence on the American government but also his threat to American democracy. I think most scholars of the FBI would agree that he as an individual was one of the greatest threats to the institutions of American democracy since the founding of the country. He served for decades, grew the FBI from a small subset of the Department of Justice into a massive apparatus of surveillance, and as you mentioned, used blackmail—the very strategy it was supposedly protecting citizens from—to acquire information and then hold that information over people. So, if it learned that a middle government official had “homosexual inclinations,” as they might phrase it, then it would say, “either we tell your employer and expose this, or you can start working for us.” And we will never know the full extent of how many people were victims of this, because upon Hoover’s death all those records were burned. We will never know how many people were in the Sex Deviance files. We only know that it was hundreds of thousands of pages, so we can only guess. I think over time, hopefully, we will receive more information, but that’s up for many more historians to keep working on.
Okay, final question: In March 1965, when Judgment of Nuremberg was interrupted by breaking news of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, how did this event lead to a change in the gay rights movement? How did the gay rights march on the White House come about?
I think I included that scene in the book because of its symbolic importance. I think for the millions of people who were watching the film, which deals with the theme of culpability not just from the Nazis but the German public, to hear people who are actors on television revealing you can be complicit by being silent amid such terrible persecution and murder, and for that to then cut to the violence at Selma, it’s really hard not to make parallels between those two moments—between the atrocities of the Third Reich and the atrocities of American slavery and Jim Crow. That parallel on millions of American television screens showed not just America but also queer activists the success of Dr. King and Bayard Rustin in affecting political change. Queer activists did that by making those same parallels, asking how Americans can possibly claim to be moral while allowing this to happen, and by claiming morality for themselves and proving the immorality of their oppressors. That is what happened at Selma, and that’s also what happened at Stonewall. It’s also what happened every single time Frank Kameny took to the stage to talk about his own plight and the plight of many other queer federal employees who were being systematically persecuted and purged. It’s very hard to deny these lives being ruined was an immoral phenomenon. I think that’s just one example of how the Civil Rights Movement influenced what we would now call the Movement of Queer Liberation. There are so many more examples of that, whether it’s the March on Washington just a few years prior or the translation from “Black is Beautiful” to “Gay is Good.” Time and time again you see these parallels being made very consciously by Frank Kameny and others within the movement.
You recently announced a new project, RAINBOW BOOK BUS. Can you tell us more about that initiative and ShopQueer.Co?
My partner and I launched an independent bookshop called ShopQueer.co to support queer authors, so when you buy a book from us, the author gets at least double what they’d get anywhere else! We’ve seen such an amazing response so far, and over 100 authors have provided us with signed editions in support, at no extra cost to readers. We’re online-only at the moment, but we’ve got big plans, which is where the Rainbow Book Bus comes in! With the community’s support, we’re hoping to buy a school bus and renovate it into a traveling queer bookstore and book fair. In light of increasing book bans across the country, we want to do all that we can to protect and promote queer literature and get it into the hands of the people who need it most, no matter where they live. Folks can learn more and get involved at ShopQueer.co!
How can people find your work to learn more about Dr. Kameny’s fight for gay rights and the right to work, as well as everything else that you’re doing?
Social media is probably the best bet. Just search my name, Eric Cervini. I have a link tree to all the different places where you can buy the book, and I have a year-round class where we discuss different stories within queer history and different queer books by different historians all over the world. Just a few days ago, I interviewed a scholar of Fire Island, and I’m interviewing someone else tomorrow about the concept of the “sissy” in global queer history and how that intersects with race and racism. There are just so many scholars out there that are doing great work. I learn so much from them by doing Queer History 101 lessons and try to share everything I learned with other folks, so hopefully people are interested and subscribe.