Just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you’re sick.
Today that simple declaration is the conventional wisdom in civilized cities and towns all over the world. But as recently as the 1960s, almost no educated person believed it, whether they were gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual or trans.
One brilliant, litigious and exceptionally stubborn man did more to change the mind of the world than anyone else. His name was Frank Kameny, a Harvard-educated astronomer who lived his whole adult life in Washington. Kameny may be responsible for more fundamental social change in the post-World War II world than any other American of his generation, but it’s usually only students of gay history who know that.
“The Deviant’s War” is a brilliant new book that ought to change that forever. The author, a young Harvard- and Cambridge-educated historian named Eric Cervini, is a smooth writer and a brilliant researcher. Besides being the first full-length biography of the intellectual father of the gay liberation movement, Cervini’s work provides a wealth of fascinating new details about the movement before the Stonewall riots of 1969.
The son of a Jewish electrical engineer and a secretary, Kameny enjoyed a comfortable middle-class life growing up in the New York borough of Queens. The precocious student entered Queens College at the age of 16.
By then he was well aware of his attraction to other boys. Like almost every gay boy of his generation, he assumed that those desires would rapidly be replaced by a “normal” attraction to girls. But unlike nearly everyone else in his situation, even before he graduated from high school, he had decided that if his gay desires never went away, that had to mean he was right and society was wrong.
The reader gets a stark idea of how much time and energy were wasted — and how many thousands of lives were ruined — when Cervini points out that between 1945 and 1960, 1 million homosexuals were arrested in the United States, or one every 10 minutes. In Washington in the late 1940s, the police touted a “Sex Perversion Elimination Program.”
After President Dwight Eisenhower signed an executive order in 1953 banning the employment of homosexuals in the U.S. government and all of its contractors, thousands of gay employees were fired as federal departments competed with one another to expel as many “perverts” and “deviants” as possible — the words most often used by the press in that era. In 1957, even the American Civil Liberties Union declared that it was not within its “province” to “evaluate the social validity of laws aimed at the suppression or elimination of homosexuals.”
Kameny joined the Army in 1943. When I first interviewed him in 1995 for my own gay history book, he told me that he had fought “virtually slit trench by slit trench through the Rhineland in the 9th Army under Gen. William Hood Simpson, halfway across Germany.” When the war, he was certain he would be shipped off to the Pacific, until President Harry Truman dropped two atomic bombs and the war in Asia ended as well. Kameny never doubted that Truman had made the right decision about the bomb.
After getting his doctorate in astronomy at Harvard, Kameny was hired by the Army Map Service in the summer of 1957. Three months later the space race began when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. Kameny’s timing seemed perfect — he dreamed of becoming one of America’s first astronauts. But his dreams were shattered just two months later, when the Army discovered that he had been arrested on a morals charge in a San Francisco men’s room a couple of years earlier, and he was immediately fired.
Unlike every other gay federal employee before him, Kameny fought his firing. In his brief asking the Supreme Court to hear his case, he said that homosexuals were “a group comparable in size to the Negro minority” and that the government had branded him as “dishonest” and “immoral — “neither of which” he was. That was a revolutionary statement all by itself.
He called government rules banning homosexuals from federal employment “a stench in the nostrils of decent people, an offense against morality, an abandonment of reason, an affront to human dignity, an improper restraint upon proper freedom and liberty, a disgrace to any civilized society, and a violation of all that this nation stands for.”
Kameny lost his appeal to the court, but he had found his voice. For the next 50 years he would continue to repeat these same ideas; to recruit members for a new branch of the Mattachine Society, Washington’s first effective group of gay activists; to organize the first gay picket lines outside the White House and Independence Hall in the mid-’60s; to argue the cases of other homosexuals who had lost their jobs; and to transform the attitude of American psychiatry.
The black civil rights movement provided the blueprint and the inspiration for the gay rights movement: “It was no coincidence that Kameny first made the comparison between homosexual and racial discrimination in the summer of 1960,” writes Cervini, when young black Americans were staging the first sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. In 1961 Kameny told the chairman of the federal Civil Service Commission that “the homosexual in this country is in the position that the Negro was in about 1925, when he first began to fight, in a coordinated fashion, for his proper rights.” And in 1962, Robert Nix, a black congressman from Philadelphia, became the first federal legislator to invite Kameny to meet him.
How Kameny successfully emulated black civil rights leaders — even inventing “Gay Is Good” in 1968 in response to Stokely Carmichael’s “Black Is Beautiful” — forms one of the spines of this compelling narrative. The book also does a fine job of tracing the decades-old divide within the movement, between those like Kameny who thought gays needed to look as much as possible like heterosexuals to be accepted (White House picketers were all required to wear suits if they were men or unrevealing dresses if they were women) and those most eager to celebrate gay differences.
Cervini also correctly identifies the importance of the Kinsey report, whose revelations about the prevalence of gay sex acts caused an uproar in 1948, especially within the homophobic psychiatric establishment.
More than anything else, Kameny changed the world through a two-step process: first by convincing gay people that they weren’t sick and then by getting millions of straight allies to embrace that point of view. His single greatest contribution was the pivotal role he played in persuading the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of disorders in 1973 — the singular accomplishment that made all future LGBTQ progress possible.
Besides its rich portrait of Kameny, this book is careful to give honorable mentions to many other pre-Stonewall activists, including Jack Nichols and Barbara Gittings, as well as later figures such asJim Fouratt, Randy Wicker, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.
Kameny lived long enough to see many of the great victories of the gay movement of the 21st century, and he was a guest of honor several times at President Barack Obama’s White House. I telephoned Kameny the day after his first White House visit, where Obama had warmly greeted him as a fellow Harvard alumnus. “How does it feel, Frank?” I asked.
“I feel like the frog who turned into the prince,” he replied.
Kaiser is the author of three books, including “The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America.” He is acting director of the LGBTQ Policy Center at Hunter College.
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