When he was an undergrad at Harvard, author and historian Eric Cervini's first encounter with queer history surprisingly did not come from a book. "I watched the film Milk about Harvey Milk, and I was shocked that I knew nothing about this story," Cervini says. "That's where my interest in queer history began."
Cervini earned his Ph.D. in history at Cambridge, and before he was 30, he wrote what is fast becoming a seminal read for the LGBTQ+ community. The Deviant's War:The Homosexual vs. The United States of America is the first in-depth book about Frank Kameny, a rising and talented astronomer at the U.S. Defense Department who was fired for being gay. Cervini's book was a finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in history and a New York Times best seller.
"Kameny was working in Hawaii and was sent to Washington, D.C., in 1957 and ordered to report to the Pentagon, because the Defense Department had reason to believe he was gay," Cervini says. "And after a series of really humiliating interviews, Kameny, like countless other gay men and women before him, was dismissed from his government job; however, unlike others, Kameny fought back."
"Kameny has often been called the grandfather of gay rights," he adds. "The Deviant's War follows all that Kameny did, particularly through the 1960s, when he was one [of] the founders [of] the Mattachine Society of Washington, which became the first organization to protest the systematic persecution of gay federal employees."
He devoted his life to advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, Cervini says. "I spent years researching the book and going through the thousands of Kameny's papers, which are in the Library of Congress. The book, while about the impact of Kameny, also addresses the government's atrocious treatment of gay and lesbian federal workers."
"There were tens of thousands of his personal papers, so my goal was to share them and hopefully inspire younger folks to learn about all he did," he says. "So many do not know who he is, particularly in this generation, and that's a tragedy."
Cervini notes that Kameny accomplished many firsts. "Rather than go out quietly, he fought his dismissal from the Defense Department in court for many years. He was one of the first in the 1960s that began picketing outside the White House, calling for equal rights for gays and lesbians. He was brave, courageous, and fearless."
In 2009, the federal government issued Kameny a formal apology for his dismissal.
The other side of Kameny's story was his lifelong obsession with the space program. Cervini theorizes that one of Kameny's biggest regrets was that he never became involved in all that NASA accomplished. "Kameny's papers showed that he followed the American space program religiously. As a matter of fact, he died just two months after the space shuttle program ended."
Kameny would be thrilled about the pictures of faraway galaxies that the Webb Space Telescope has recently delivered, Cervini says. "Frank would be amazed about what technology has accomplished; however, I don't think he'd be so happy with the Webb name."
The telescope is named after former NASA administrator James Webb, who led the agency during the 1960s. "Webb was the one who was imposing policies that discriminated against gay and lesbian government workers like Kameny," Cervini says.
"While Frank followed NASA and loved astronomy, which was his passion, I don't think he was a big fan of the agency. They were homophobic in the late 1990s, keeping Sally Ride, who was the first American woman in space, in the closet, and Frank was upset that Ride had to hide who she was."
This summer it was announced that Amazon Studios and Plan B Entertainment are developing a limited series around Cervini's book about Kameny. "I'm hoping that through this miniseries even more people will learn about Frank's life and his enormous influence on LGBTQ rights," Cervini says. "We all know that Hollywood productions can have a great role in shining a light on activists and influencers whose stories have been forgotten about. I'm hoping that this will help a new generation appreciate the life of Frank Kameny."
This story is part of The Advocate's 2022 History issue, which is out on newsstands August 30. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe -- or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.