For this historian, a book on gay rights activist Frank Kameny was the ‘ulterior motive’

David Wilson for The Boston Globe

Eric Cervini thought he knew what his future held. He was an undergraduate at Harvard studying government. He planned to attend law school. Then he took a history class, and he “totally fell in love.”

A research project on Harvey Milk proved unwieldy — all the primary sources were in San Francisco — so Cervini looked at related figures. “Frank Kameny’s name popped up.” Kameny, a fighter for gay rights since the 1950s, had recently died and his papers, tens of thousands of documents, were at the Library of Congress. Cervini took a bus to D.C. and got to work.


“It started as an urban history paper in undergrad [Cervini graduated in 2014]. I just have not been able to put it down.” The project continued throughout graduate school and culminated in the book “The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America.”

Although he now has a PhD in history, Cervini says “the ulterior motive for getting the degree was not entering academia, it was writing this book.” Now that the book is out, he’s still focused on telling Kameny’s story by whatever means possible. “Every historian has to weigh research with their public-facing side. For me that outward public-facing role is so important. One thing I’m excited about is finding ways of doing that, whether it’s Hollywood, or the Internet, or social media.”

As we enter Pride Month during the pandemic, at a time when many aspects of gay rights seem threatened, Cervini takes strength from the past. “The one thing I’ve learned from my research is that pride, even before Stonewall, has always been synonymous with resistance. Now that the parades are canceled, we’re having to reevaluate what pride really means and how do we celebrate it,” he said. “In order to celebrate pride we need to find concrete ways of fighting back.”


Cervini will read at 6 p.m., June 5 for a virtual event presented by Harvard Book Store. More information: www.harvard.com/event/virtual_event_eric_cervini/

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.