The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America
Eric Cervini
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35 (cloth)

In June 2010 a two block stretch of Washington, D.C.’s Seventeenth Street NW, a bustling part of the DuPont Circle gayborhood, was renamed Frank Kameny Way. The designation honored the founder of the Washington chapter of the Mattachine Society, which had fought for gay rights before most knew there was such a thing. Kameny had been one of the first to wage an often-lonely fight against homosexual employment discrimination by the federal government, an issue that reached a dramatic conclusion this week with the Supreme Court’s ruling.

The question of whether the government should hire homosexuals was a focus of Senator McCarthy’s Red Scare, adding a “Lavender Scare” to his inquisition. At the heart of this panic sat the fear that homosexuals were a risk on par with communists.

By honoring Kameny, the city paid tribute to the struggle for gay rights that had begun long before the well-known Stonewall Riots broke out in New York City in the summer of 1969. In the United States, he is probably one of the best-known pre-Stonewall gay activists: if few could name him, still fewer could name more than him. In addition to having a street named after him in the nation’s capital, he was also feted by Barack Obama in a 2009 ceremony in which the president extended benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees. Kameny features prominently in histories of the period, in which scholars have become increasingly interested over the last decade or so. He is also the subject of The Deviant’s War, historian Eric Cervini’s portrait of Kameny’s efforts to overturn the federal government’s systematic employment discrimination against homosexuals.

In The Deviant’s War, Kameny’s life comes alive in rich detail rarely found in other biographical sketches of the activist. Born in 1925, Kameny grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. After fighting in World War II, he earned a PhD in astronomy. Shortly after graduating in 1956, Kameny traveled to Berkeley for the American Astronomical Society’s annual meeting. While there, he went cruising for sex in the public bathroom of a downtown train station and was arrested by police officers who had observed him from behind a ventilation grate. Kameny pleaded guilty to loitering, paid a fifty-dollar fine, and received six months’ probation. He believed, Cervini notes, the punishment would be the end of his troubles.

A few days later, Kameny moved to Washington, D.C., where he had landed a job at Georgetown University. After a year in academia, Kameny began work for the Army Map Service in 1957. That fall, while on assignment in Hawai’i, the U.S. Civil Service Commission (CSC) summoned him back to Washington to answer charges that he was a homosexual. That December, the government fired him.

Kameny’s termination was part of an ongoing purge of homosexuals from the civil service. In 1947, under pressure from the Senate Appropriations Committee, Secretary of State George Marshall had instituted a new policy excluding those known for “sexual perversion,” among other things, from employment. The question of whether the government should hire homosexuals became a focus of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare, adding a so-called “Lavender Scare” to his inquisition. At the heart of this panic sat the fear that, because of their tenuous place in society, homosexuals were susceptible to blackmail. Politicians therefore considered them “security risks” on par with communists (in fact, a number of early gay rights activists were communists). Under public pressure, the federal government began to fire homosexual employees more assiduously. Between 1950 and 1970, the State Department terminated some thousand gay employees. In 1950 Congress began to put pressure on the Civil Service Commission, the body that eventually investigated Kameny, to purge the bureaucracy of homosexuals.

But Kameny, who comes through as a pugnacious figure in Cervini’s telling, refused to go quietly. In 1958 he began the process of appealing the CSC’s decision. After his attorney dropped the case, despairing of a favorable ruling, Kameny wrote his own appeal to the Supreme Court in 1961. In it, he argued that homosexuals were a minority, “comparable in size to the Negro minority in our country, and of roughly the same order of magnitude as the Catholic minority.” Moreover, Kameny made the audacious claim “that homosexuality, whether by mere inclination or by over act, is not only not immoral, but that . . . such acts are moral in a real and positive sense.” Later that year the court unanimously rejected his appeal.

Several months earlier, Kameny had written to the Mattachine Society of New York. The society, which communist Harry Hay had founded in Los Angeles in 1948, was one of the first gay rights groups in the United States. Chapters had soon opened in other cities, but by the early 1960s these groups had broken away from each other (and kicked out Hay for his communist politics). Mattachine, and other gay organizations from the period, were often described as “homophile” movements. The term, which German psychoanalyst Karl-Günther Heimsoth coined in 1924, had originated as a synonym for “homosexual,” but in the 1950s, groups like Mattachine adopted the term, appreciating that it didn’t contain the word “sexual.” Homophile sounded more upright and less tethered to bodily concerns. It signaled that the advocates had no interest in overturning social norms, but rather wished to conform to them. The term thus made it easier—these campaigners thought—to argue publicly for their rights. To later generations of activists, the term homophile became something of a slur, connoting what they considered these groups’ narrow conformism.

In 1956 a man named Buell Dwight Huggins attempted to found a Washington chapter of the Mattachine Society. But the group soon disbanded and Kameny never joined. After receiving his rejection from the Supreme Court in 1961, however, Kameny decided to refound the Washington group. On August 1, 1961, he organized an inaugural meeting at the Manger Hay-Adams Hotel across the street from Lafayette Park in downtown D.C.

Kameny wrote his own appeal to the Supreme Court in 1961. In it, he argued that homosexuals were a minority, “comparable in size to the Negro minority and the Catholic minority.”

Most of The Deviant’s War is dedicated to describing Kameny’s activism with and through the Mattachine Society. Kameny continued to fight federal employment blacklisting, both on his own behalf and for other gay men whom the government had fired. Over the course of the 1960s, Kameny’s national stature among homophile campaigners grew. More and more men approached him, hoping that he could help them fight their own terminations. These fights turned into test cases through which Kameny challenged the legal basis on which the government excluded homosexuals from federal positions. In front of the CSC and federal judges, Kameny and his allies argued that the federal government had no logical reason to dismiss homosexuals, that the firings were purely the result of prejudice.

Kameny also fostered the burgeoning homophile movement, helping to found regional and national umbrella organizations. Moreover, he planned some of the first public protests for gay rights. Ten members of the Washington Mattachine Society picketed the White House on March 8, 1965, protesting federal discrimination against homosexuals. Inspired by the pickets, activists organized a “Reminder Day” protest in Philadelphia on July 4, 1965. Under Kameny’s direction, this protest became an annual affair, designed to remind Americans that the government regularly denied homosexuals the rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. These marches were formal affairs, with a strict dress code and signs emphasizing activists’ demands for equal rights.

The homophile movement was largely swept away in the tide of gay liberation activism that followed the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969. The younger activists who emerged out of that upheaval had more sweeping demands. They sought to fight not only discrimination, but also the entire social and political system that they believed underpinned it. The Gay Liberation Front, the first organization to emerge from the riots, stood against racism, capitalism, and patriarchy. The new activists believed queer people would never be liberated if they sought only to conform to existing social, political, and legal structures.

Yet, as Cervini points out, many of these young campaigners had been active in the New York and Washington Mattachine Societies, and initially used the homophile organizations to advance their own agendas. At the 1969 meeting of ERCHO (Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations), over which Kameny presided, young activists succeeded in passing a motion that the Stonewall Riots be commemorated with an annual demonstration at the end of June. It was thus that the tradition of summer Pride marches, which continues to this day, was born.

A few years later, in 1975, the CSC rescinded its policy of firing homosexuals. The commission had lost a number of court cases to Kameny, in particular that of Clifford Norton, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that NASA and the CSC could not simply dismiss someone for their sexuality without providing some more compelling reason. By the early 1970s, the commission could see the writing on the wall. Even as Kameny’s staid mode of activism waned, he had won his own war, as Cervini puts it, with the federal government.

In 1975 the Civil Service Commission rescinded its policy of firing homosexuals after the court held that the CSC could not dismiss someone simply for his sexuality.

For a book dedicated to Kameny’s life and activism, The Deviant’s War is surprisingly critical of him. Even while he clearly sympathizes with and admires his subject, Cervini often dwells on the flaws in Kameny’s rhetoric and strategies. In particular, Cervini emphasizes the role of respectability politics in Kameny’s efforts. In so doing, he is in step with both current scholarly trends and Stonewall activists’ own assessments of homophile efforts.

In recent years, queer theorists and historians have examined how gay shame and the search for respectability dominated gay efforts before 1969 and how they have continued to color activism up to the present. Such critiques, which were also leveled against presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, argue that the focus on winning rights—whether the right to employment or the right to marriage or the right to serve in the military—fundamentally bolsters the homophobic system that first deprived queer people of those very rights. These scholars contend that efforts are better directed against those very systems and that activists would be better served by alliances with feminist, anti-racist, and socialist movements. They aptly note that the focus on rights has served cisgender, middle-class, white gay men well, but has often left behind more marginalized queer populations. Indeed, Cervini notes that the Mattachine Society of Washington never had a black member.

Time and again, Cervini brings up Kameny’s focus on the respectability of his movement. He quotes a report about an early homophile conference in 1963: “Deadly respectability was the keynote. . . . No bottled-in-blond men, limp wrists or lisping here, thank you.” Cervini also suggests Kameny himself was something of a hypocrite when it came to defending homosexuality. “Despite all his letters and meetings, threats and lawsuits, Kameny’s fear of seeing his name in the press remained intact,” he stresses. “He could claim to be an open and proud homosexual for the sake of legal argumentation, but he could not yet bring himself to live that assertion.”

Likewise, when Kameny began public picketing, he insisted on a conservative dress code. He “required male marchers to wear suits, female marchers to wear dresses. He required men to have recent haircuts and fresh shaves; he discouraged beards.” In this way, Kameny’s approach echoed that of a dominant branch of the civil rights movement, which also insisted on presenting bourgeois respectability. Kameny’s aim was to convince the government it could hire homosexuals. Appearing in anything less than pristine attire, he fretted, might undermine that core point. Kameny thus disdained anything that smacked of nonconformism, rejecting, for instance, lavender pins that stated “Equality for Homosexuals.” Other activists increasingly resented his micromanaging, especially when it affected their wardrobe. Throughout the book, Kameny comes across as a thin-skinned autocrat with small ambitions. Cervini describes him as “dictatorial” no fewer than five times.

In making such an assessment, Cervini seems to side with scholars such as Martin Duberman, a vociferous critic of respectability politics, who describes homophiles as a “pocket of resistance to aspects of the hegemonic culture in which they’d been raised and, in regard to some matters, they’d fully internalized its values and even seem to have felt guiltily inadequate at their inability neatly to fit the mold of ‘healthy’ monogamous coupledom.” (Although Duberman actually lauds Kameny elsewhere as a “militant.”) Even if Cervini does not go so far as literary scholar Michael Trask, who describes Kameny’s approach as “assimilationist politics,” his descriptions of Kameny and the efforts of the Washington Mattachine Society seem to offer a queer critique of the homophile movement.

Kameny developed the slogan “Gay is Good” in the late 1960s: “Not only did good connote a positive condition, but unlike other options—‘Gay is Great’ or ‘Gay is Grand’—it also connoted moral goodness.”

Yet to the extent that The Deviant’s War has an argument, it seems to contradict Cervini’s apparent critique of Kameny’s efforts. The book’s introduction, for instance, begins by noting that while “stories of gay liberation in America often begin with a June 1969 uprising,” Cervini’s account begins far earlier. While this characterization of queer history reads as outdated—historians in the last several decades have become ever more interested in pre-Stonewall activism—it does set up a clear argument, namely that Kameny, and his brand of activism, was an important or even necessary precursor to the more radical activism that got its start in 1969. Indeed, Cervini writes, “Today, LGBTQ+ Americans march because a scientist named Dr. Frank Kameny once entered” a public toilet.

At times throughout the text, Cervini seems to bolster such an argument by pointing out ways in which Kameny was actually something of a radical, how he formulated his project not in terms of gay rights but in terms of gay pride. In his 1960 petition to the Supreme Court, for instance, Kameny asserted that there was nothing wrong with homosexuality. “Though Kameny did not have a term for it yet,” Cervini notes, “by exposing the arbitrary logic of the purges with his own, contrary logic, he formulated gay pride as a political tool of resistance.”

Kameny also played an instrumental role in convincing homophile organizations to reject the notion that homosexuality was a mental illness. Early gay rights campaigners, most of them in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Germany, had conceived of homosexuality as a mental or physical aberrance, that is, as a pathology. They had used this conception to argue that homosexuals required tolerance and care rather than criminalization. Yet, by the 1950s, the pathologization of homosexuality had become a tool of oppression, an excuse to deprive homosexuals of rights and to impose gruesome so-called cures on them, including castration. Campaigners such as Kameny became increasingly convinced that they had to challenge this paradigm. Arguing that homosexuality was not a sickness was a significant step on the path to gay liberation.

Likewise, Kameny developed the slogan “Gay is Good” in the late 1960s, which homophile groups around the country quickly adopted. As Cervini explains: “The phrase was bland, but more important, it was broad. Not only did good connote a positive condition, but unlike other options—‘Gay is Great’ or ‘Gay is Grand’—it also connoted moral goodness.”

This strand of argumentation, which runs parallel to Cervini’s more critical assessments, seems to contend that homophile activists were not so very different from those who came after. Or, rather, that the difference was more one of style than substance. Far from being respectability-obsessed men focused on a narrow band of rights, they had an expansive view of a society in which homosexuality would be widely accepted, even celebrated.

This argument falls in line with a different strand of recent scholarship. As historians have become ever more interested in the homophile movements of the 1950s and ’60s, they have discovered that the caricatures passed down from Stonewall-generation activists are often false. For instance, David Johnson, a historian of homosexuality in ’50s and ’60s America, dedicated a chapter of his first book to Kameny. In it, he writes, “In the 1960s Frank Kameny and the Mattachine Society of Washington radicalized the movement as it began a program of social action aimed at changing federal policy.” Kameny was not some relic washed away with the tide of Stonewall, Johnson argues. Rather, he “had already won [the movement’s] first major legal victory and had established much of the rhetoric and tactics it would deploy over the next thirty years.” At times, Cervini seems to sympathize with such an interpretation.

How we see Kameny and the homophile movement has bearing on how we conceive of activism in general. Do we believe that slow, legalistic approaches are more likely to win the day? Or do we think that radical, disruptive activism is more likely to shift social views and institutions?

Thus, The Deviant’s War steps into a thicket of fraught questions and historical interpretations. Historians and activists today are genuinely divided over how to think about the homophile movement. Just how significant was it? Did it provide a basis for radical activism or for conformist politicking? In The Deviant’s War, Cervini flirts with both interpretations but never stakes a position.

This matters, because how we see Kameny and the homophile movement has quite a lot of bearing on how we, today, conceive of activism in general. Do we believe that slow, legalistic approaches based on rights are more likely to win the day? Or do we think that radical, vocal, disruptive activism is more likely to shift social views and institutional structures? Do we think capitalism and liberal democracy are sound or fundamentally flawed? These are, at base, questions about the relative merits of reform and revolution.

These are arguments that gay activists had over fifty years ago, and they are arguments that we are having today. The Supreme Court’s June 15 decision—which bars employment discrimination against homosexuals and trans people on the basis that it is a form of sex discrimination—seems to vindicate the rights-based, juridical activism that Kameny and other homophile campaigners pioneered in the 1960s. Far from the narrow, assimilationist agenda that critics detected in the struggle for marriage equality, the ruling offers queer people the right not to conform.

Moreover, these arguments have resonance beyond queer politics. Consider the protests that have erupted in this country since George Floyd’s murder on May 25. For years, commentators condemned Black Lives Matter as so radical that it was hurting its own cause. Yet, virtually overnight, a majority of Americans seem to have swung into solidarity behind the protests, and politicians in cities across the country have begun pledging to make dramatic cuts to police budgets. The lessons of the last few weeks seem to fly in the face of the homophiles’ strategy six decades ago: radical and vocal calls for change seem to be yielding results far more rapidly than virtually anyone could have expected.

The Deviant’s War alludes to these arguments over the nature of protest and the effectiveness of different strategies to achieve change. But while its content is often critical of the homophile movement, its tone is sympathetic to it. The book narrative structure is comedic, in the technical sense: it resolves happily with Kameny receiving a phone call from the Civil Service Commission in 1975 informing him that gay people would no longer be fired from federal employment. That is, Cervini tells it as a story of progress, even as he criticizes the methods.

Because of this curious admixture of sympathy and criticism, one might be tempted to think Cervini is arguing for a sort of modernization theory of social movements. That is, that a phase of narrow, respectable, conformist protest is the necessary precursor to more radical, society-altering movements. Alternatively, one might think the book is offering an argument along the lines of the one Alexis de Tocqueville made of the French Revolution in 1856. In The Old Regime and the Revolution, the French writer famously argued that reform often precedes revolution. One might discern in The Deviant’s War a similar argument that efforts to work within the system of bureaucracies and courts paved the way to Stonewall, that they made the more public, radical movement of later decades thinkable. But both of these hypotheses are speculation: Cervini shies from the broader implications.

In the end, Cervini may have found himself caught between his own critical impulses and his admiration for Kameny. “‘Gay is good.’ It is,” Cervini concludes. “And that is that.”

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