An Interview with Eric Cervini

publicity photo of eric cerviniIf how corporations currently embrace Pride Month is considered any indication of how homosexual culture is accepted, you might think that being LGBTQ is a [rainbow-covered] walk in the park. This generation has been raised watching Pride parades and having openly gay relatives. But this path was not always literal rainbows and sunshine. Eric Cervini takes a deep dive into the history of homosexuality in America and the war that has been waged against those who seek their own truth. Cervini explores historically accurate stories of those fighting on the front lines for freedom, as actual soldiers and laying the groundwork for Pride as we currently know it.

The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. The United States of America begins in 1957, with Frank Kameny, a rising astronomer working for the U.S. Defense Department in Hawaii. Based on firsthand accounts, recently declassified FBI records, and forty thousand personal documents, The Deviant’s War unfolds over the course of the 1960s, as the Mattachine Society of Washington, the group Kameny founded, became the first organization to protest the systematic persecution of gay federal employees.

Cervini’s work is based on firsthand accounts, recently declassified FBI records, as well as over forty thousand personal documents. We recently sat down with him and asked a few questions to get you excited about his session.

CALS: What was your motivation to write this book?

Cervini: I realized in college there was such a dearth of queer histories that were accessible but are hidden and I wanted to show everyone in the general public that there are stories to be told. I wanted to include tidbits of these different stories, and not just Frank’s, so that their stories are brought to light so that scholars might write books about them.

CALS: What was the most shocking thing you uncovered during your research?

Cervini: The most shocking thing to me was the extent to which the federal government went. In the 1960s many gays and lesbians began to organize formally – the homophile movement. And the FBI went to great lengths to infiltrate these groups, specifically the Mattachine Society, the FBI spent hours trying to destroy this group of activists going so far as using blackmail and threats of ruining their lives.

book jacket imageCALS: Why do you think this book is important?

Cervini: I think it shows how much of our history isn’t taught in our public schools or even shown on television. Everyone, regardless of how you identify, you have your own history that may not have been taught. There are so many different perspectives of American history and this is just one of them. As we have the continuing conversations of civil rights It’s important to talk about how these stories are intersected. They have the same enemy of persecution at the federal level.

CALS: Can you talk about the importance of Frank Kameny’s attic?

Cervini: His attic was horrific, very unsanitary– essentially, Frank had hoarding tendencies. He kept every single letter for the entirely of his life. It’s a historian’s dream come true, but it’s also hard to go through. If all of the documents that were recovered from his attic were stacked on top of each other, it would be the height of a 6-story building. They constitute the majority of the sources in my book. He passed in 2011. Before I started on this project.

CALS: How long did this book take you to write?

Cervini: It was about 8 years, it began as an undergrad research paper, then became my senior thesis, then my master’s dissertation, then my PhD dissertation, then this book.

CALS: During all of that, did your perspective change on what you were researching?

Cervini: [Kameny] was the first figure that I stumbled upon, outside of Hollywood, like Harvey Milk. And I immediately thought, “How is there not a book about this one person?” It started as a biography, but as I tried to put his live in the context of 1960 America, I realized you have to tell the stories that were going on at the same time- black, women, anti-war, gay liberation. Things that we hold as common place now. These stories were all important, so the book adapted.

CALS: If you could do it all again would you change anything about the book or the process?

I’m writing a second book, so hopefully I’m a bit more efficient. The original manuscript was 50% longer than what this hefty book is. It took a while to make it digestible. I plan on keeping it under control and keeping the writing pithy.

CALS: What can people expect from your upcoming session?

Cervini: I think it’s important the fact that it’s pride month, the book at the end of the day is an examination of PRIDE and the history and being able to tie that back is crucial. You understand where you come from and have a template of what to do. There are so many who are still being persecuted.

This book is a must read for historians, LGBTQ and allies alike. Register here so you can learn about his book directly from Cervini and ask him your own questions.

Some of Eric’s responses have been shortened or slightly altered for clarity.