The Deviant's War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America

The Deviant's War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America

by Eric Cervini


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NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLER AND NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW EDITORS' CHOICE. One of The Washington Post's Top 50 Nonfiction Books of 2020.

From a young Harvard- and Cambridge-trained historian, the secret history of the fight for gay rights that began a generation before Stonewall.

In 1957, Frank Kameny, a rising astronomer working for the U.S. Defense Department in Hawaii, 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, Eric Cervini's 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. It traces the forgotten ties that bound gay rights to the Black Freedom Movement, the New Left, lesbian activism, and trans resistance. Above all, it is a story of America (and Washington) at a cultural and sexual crossroads; of shocking, byzantine public battles with Congress; of FBI informants; murder; betrayal; sex; love; and ultimately victory.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly


Historian Cervini’s ambitious and exhaustive debut recounts the life of astronomer and gay rights activist Frank Kameny (1925–2011) and the campaign to end federal discrimination against homosexuals. Dismissed from the U.S. Army Map Service in 1957 for allegedly lying about his 1956 arrest for “lewd conduct” in a San Francisco restroom, Kameny was living on 20 cents per day (“enough for two or three frankfurters and a half a pot of mashed potatoes,” he claimed) when an ACLU-affiliated lawyer agreed to represent him pro bono. Cervini tracks Kameny’s case against the U.S. government through the court system (the Supreme Court denied his appeal in 1961), as he became more and more involved in gay rights activism—cofounding the Washington, D.C., branch of the Mattachine Society, making TV appearances to combat negative stereotypes against homosexuality, and advising other government employees in their own discrimination cases. Weaving the Kinsey report, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s “Sex Deviates” program tracking homosexual arrests and allegations, and the 1969 Stonewall riots into his portrait, Cervini provides essential context, but occasionally overstuffs the narrative with undigested material, including trial transcripts and interviews. Readers interested in the origins of the LGBTQ rights movement will be deeply informed by this meticulous account. (June)

Library Journal


In his debut work, historian Cervini uses the life of astronomer and activist Frank Kameny (1925–2011) as a lens to bring postwar, pre-Stonewall homosexual organizing into focus. He also makes the case for Kameny's pivotal role in formulating a strategy of resistance that would emerge as a core ethic and aesthetic of gay liberation: pride. Kameny was the son of Jewish parents who were recent immigrants, an army veteran, and a first-generation college graduate who was poised to work for the infant U.S. space program when he was fired in 1957 because of his homosexuality. In contesting the underlying logic of his dismissal—that as a homosexual he was vulnerable to blackmail and a threat to national security—Kameny helped create a new homosexual citizen, a figure who demanded an end to class-based discrimination. In arguing for Kameny's influence, Cervini introduces many people, places, events, and organizations that were key to building toward what would become an increasingly loud and proud struggle for gay rights. VERDICT A meticulously-researched deep dive into the life and times of a man whose personality and persistence left an indelible mark on midcentury gay activism, this title is a welcome addition to the history of sexuality bookshelf. [See Prepub Alert, 12/9/19.]—Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook, Massachusetts Historical Soc., Boston

Kirkus Reviews

An account of the decadeslong struggle for civil rights for gay people, a story that begins at the height of the Cold War.

“After World War II,” writes historian Cervini, “homosexual arrests…occurred at the rate of one every ten minutes….In sum, one million citizens found themselves persecuted by the American state for sexual deviation.” One was Franklin Edward Kameny, a budding astronomer pressed into Army service in 1943, who, come peacetime, fell in love with another man. Arrested for “lewd conduct,” he was dismissed from his civilian post with the Army Map Service in 1957. It took him years to find regular employment, time in which he advocated for gay civil rights, speaking before audiences as a member of the Mattachine Society. None other than J. Edgar Hoover took a personal role in suppressing Kameny, among many others; meanwhile, Kameny organized demonstrations against the State Department, which, according to Secretary Dean Rusk, did not “employ homosexuals knowingly, and…if we discover homosexuals in our department, we discharge them.” It would take many years—in fact, into the presidency of Barack Obama—before some of the goals Kameny advocated for were reached. Cervini is wide-ranging in his coverage of such topics as the medical classification of homosexuality as deviance and the government’s justification for not hiring gay workers for fear that they would be security risks. In the latter case, just before World War I, a gay Austro-Hungarian officer sold military secrets to the Russians, and when CIA Director Allen Dulles went to work at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, he found “everyone still whispering about the homosexual spy who had lost the First World War for the empire.” While insightful on such big-picture issues, the author also focuses on individuals who made their identities known in order to protest such misguided policies.

A solid contribution to LGBTQ history—and that of civil rights generally. (23 b/w illustrations)

From the Publisher

"Exhaustively researched and vividly written . . . [A] riveting account of Kameny’s struggle will be eye-opening for anyone keen to have a crash course on L.G.B.T.Q. politics." —George Chauncey, The New York Times Book Review

"With spare prose and linear sequencing that recalls James Baldwin . . . [an] epiphanic work . . . Cervini’s is a singular accomplishment." —Michael Henry Adams, The Guardian

"A brilliant new book that ought to change [Kameny's legacy] forever . . . [Cervini] is a smooth writer and a brilliant researcher . . . a wealth of fascinating new details." —Charles Kaiser, The Washington Post

"[Kameny's] is a fascinating story, and Cervini does it more than ample justice in this insightful, meticulously detailed book. He has clearly done a remarkable job of research, creating an absolutely indispensable, highly readable work of history that belongs in every library." Booklist (starred review)

“Eric Cervini’s work is an important contribution to making our nation’s history whole and truthful. Grounded in extensive research, it tells the history of Frank Kameny’s tenacious and courageous battle with the federal government to secure respect, dignity and equality for gays and lesbians. Kameny was a pioneer who helped carve a path to a new and better world for LGBTQ Americans and for our entire nation. The Deviant’s War is a compelling work which should be on the reading list for everyone who cares about the quest for full civil rights for all Americans.” —US Senator Tammy Baldwin

"Eric Cervini has gifted us that rarest of treasures, a guidebook for real activism. Page by page, in painstaking detail, we see our flawed and beautifully idealistic hero Frank Kameny fight for basic human rights. Equal parts inspiring and sobering, The Deviant’s War avoids empty valorizing and focuses instead on what it takes to survive in a world that wants to erase you. Should be required reading for queer people and straight allies." —Garrard Conley, author of Boy Erased

"When Frank Kameny was dismissed from his job in 1957, the army lost an astronomer and the cause of freedom gained a general. For the next fifty years, having found his real life’s work, Kameny stood on every front line of the gay rights movement. Because of him, more than anyone else, hundreds of thousands of federal employees—including soldiers—now go off each morning, without fear, to earn their livings and serve their country. The Deviant’s War thrillingly gives Kameny his due, putting this brave, sometimes impossible, iron-willed man at the center of an epic struggle for liberty." —Thomas Mallon, author of Fellow Travelers

“A detailed and engrossing look at Frank Kameny and his decades-long fight to convince the government and society that, in his words, Gay is Good.” —Jim Obergefell, gay rights activist and plaintiff in Obergefell v. Hodges

"The Deviant’s War is a work of striking courage, exposing not only the great nemeses to homosexual freedoms but also the queer turncoats and quislings who exploited a closeted world. Frank Kameny, a central figure in American LGBT+ canon heretofore relegated to the sidelines, finally has a biography of the caliber he deserved. For this ambitious debut, Cervini is to be lauded." —Robert Fiesler, author of Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation

"Before Gay Rights, there was Gay Liberation, and before that, the Homophile Movement. Eric Cervini's much needed history of this foundational political formation reveals that highly alienated individuals—whose gifts and talents were rejected because of their homosexuality—found the courage to demand change. Through direct confrontation with the state, these demeaned men and women insisted on paradigm shifts in thinking that cost them dearly. Yet they tolerated stigma, poverty and anti-social labels to literally force the country to transform. An exciting and highly readable history." —Sarah Schulman

"The Deviant’s War offers a fast-paced narrative of the early years of the gay rights movement, focusing on the pivotal role of reluctant activist Frank Kameny. Through a careful reading of the sources, Cervini provides fascinating stories and, ultimately, a fresh new interpretation of this important gay rights leader." —David K. Johnson, author of The Lavender Scare

"Ambitious and exhaustive . . . Readers interested in the origins of the LGBTQ rights movement will be deeply informed by this meticulous account." —Publishers Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374139797
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 06/02/2020
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 46,059
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.70(d)

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