The Brilliant Astronomer Who Devised New Tactics to Fight Anti-Gay Bias


The Homosexual vs. the United States of America
By Eric Cervini

If the L.G.B.T.Q. movement had saints, a Jewish homosexual atheist scientist named Franklin Kameny would have an exalted place in the pantheon. Most people believe the 1969 Stonewall riots gave birth to militant gay politics. But for almost a decade before Stonewall, Kameny boldly challenged the reigning orthodoxy that homosexuality was a mental illness and led an audacious campaign against the federal government’s ban on employing gay workers. Brilliant, fearless, cantankerous and unstoppable, he was lionized in his old age by a movement that by the Obama era had achieved victories not even he could have anticipated. In Eric Cervini, a young historian of L.G.B.T.Q. politics and the author of the exhaustively researched and vividly written biography “The Deviant’s War,” Kameny has found his hagiographer.

Born into a middle-class family in Queens in 1925, Kameny showed his smarts and determination early on. When he was 4, he taught himself to read and decided to become a scientist. By 6 he had set his sights on astronomy, and as a teenager he set up a telescope at home to study the stars. After seeing combat in World War II, he earned a Ph.D. from Harvard, taught astronomy for a year at Georgetown, then put his training to work for the Army Map Service. His credentials and drive seemed to promise a rewarding career when the United States began scrambling to catch up after the Soviet Union put Sputnik in orbit.

His ambition, though, soon collided with government policies, enacted in the 1940s and early 1950s, that prohibited homosexuals from working for the government or many private employers with a federal contract. The ban was only one element of a larger system that began to be put in place in the 1930s to exclude homosexuals from full citizenship and membership in the community; it included censorship rules preventing Hollywood films from featuring queer characters, and liquor regulations preventing bars, restaurants or cabarets in many states from employing or serving homosexuals. Most worrisome to gay men were the threat of being arrested by the police, who kept gay bars and hookup spots under surveillance, and the F.B.I.’s growing capacity to funnel arrest records to federal agencies conducting employee security checks.

[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of June. See the full list. ]

In 1957, such policing cost Kameny his government career only a few months after it began. The Army Map Service fired him when its personnel office learned he had been arrested in California a year earlier while cruising for sex in a public washroom. Thousands of men and women lost their government jobs when security investigations uncovered evidence — or allegations — that they were gay.

Most tried to move on. But Kameny discovered that almost every job in astronomy required a security clearance, which left him no choice but to fight if he wanted to salvage his career. In his fast-paced account of Kameny’s budding war with the federal government, Cervini describes him going from one office to the next and writing to one official after another, moving up the chain of command to the secretary of the Army, the chair of the Civil Service Commission, congressional leaders and the president himself. Like most gay people in his situation, at first he dissembled or pretended to be straight, since that was the only way to get around the ban. But when it became clear that this tactic would not work, he began challenging the anti-gay ban more directly, in administrative and then legal appeals, all the way to the Supreme Court. The court, like every other authority, refused to reconsider his case.

Identity-based movements don’t just emerge out of thin air; people typically organize around an identity because the state and society have insisted that the identity disqualifies them from full legal and cultural citizenship. By the end of Kameny’s ordeal, he was jobless and barely eating or paying his rent. But headstrong as ever, he took on a new mission: to end the government policy that had turned his life upside down.

In 1961, he co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington. More than a dozen such homophile groups had been established in cities around the country in the previous decade. Most were dedicated to helping people who had been arrested or lost jobs, to supporting research on homosexuality, and to cultivating psychiatrists, lawyers and clergy members who were granted more authority to speak in defense of homosexuals than homosexuals themselves were.

[ Read an excerpt from “The Deviant’s War.” ]

Kameny advocated a more militant approach. Inspired by the direct-action tactics of the black civil rights movement, he argued that the gay rights movement needed to speak for itself and confront official discrimination head-on. In the early 1960s, he served as adviser to a number of gay civil servants who challenged the loss of their jobs, became the first openly gay person to testify before a (supremely hostile) congressional committee and helped organize the first gay picket in front of the White House. In 1971, he became the first openly gay candidate for Congress. Most important, in Cervini’s reckoning, he originated the strategy that had become standard by the 1970s and remains so to this day: finding openly L.G.B.T.Q. plaintiffs willing to risk public exposure by filing lawsuits against the discrimination they faced.

He also refused to accept that homosexuality was a mental illness or immoral. As a scientist not intimidated by arcane theories, he had only scorn for psychiatrists’ methodology and felt supremely confident in challenging their theories of homosexual pathology. (The biologist Alfred Kinsey had much the same attitude.) In 1968, inspired by the black power slogan “Black Is Beautiful,” Kameny coined the slogan “Gay Is Good,” which a national conference of homophile organizations adopted as its motto. A year before Stonewall is supposed to have launched the movement for gay pride, the conference attendees embraced the slogan to encourage in gay people “feelings of pride, self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth … these feelings being essential to true human dignity.”

Kameny is such a towering figure that he has already been featured prominently in several pioneering studies, including “Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities” (1983), by John D’Emilio; “The Lavender Scare” (2004), by David K. Johnson; and “Hoover’s War on Gays” (2015), by Douglas M. Charles. Their accounts of Kameny’s dismissal and subsequent crusade against the government, while briefer than Cervini’s, are often shrewder in probing Kameny’s motivations and assessing his personal and political development.

Cervini does shed new light on Kameny’s encounters with the police and his initial reluctance to go public as a gay crusader. Nor does he flinch from showing that the considerable ego that emboldened Kameny to wage war against his government sometimes made him impossible to deal with in homophile organizations, where he developed a reputation for insisting on control and brooking no dissent. But Cervini becomes almost reverential when he makes exaggerated claims about Kameny’s singular role in changing L.G.B.T.Q. life and consciousness.

Both the strengths and weaknesses of “The Deviant’s War” are tied to its relentless adherence to chronology. The narrative’s rapid clip is engrossing and succeeds in making readers feel they are witnessing history as it unfolds. But it often keeps Cervini from pausing long enough to weigh the relative significance of events, draw explanatory connections among them or analyze the reasoning behind the sometimes perplexing actions of key figures.

Cervini’s devotion to colorful detail helps to flesh out previous accounts. He provides vivid descriptions of the alliances and fractures among lesbian and gay male activists and of the movement’s pitched battles over tactics and the politics of respectability. He gives you a ringside seat for some of Kameny’s fiercest confrontations with security officers and elected officials at the Pentagon, the Civil Service Commission and the halls of Congress. And he takes you to the homophiles’ first picket lines before beautifully evoking the first march commemorating the Stonewall riots, in June 1970.

There are few revelations for historians in this book. But its 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 in the tumultuous decade leading up to Stonewall.


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