Goodreads Review: The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America by Eric Cervini

Two star review, originally posted here on April 9, 2021.

I was very surprised that I did not enjoy the book. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s that it’s just boring. The primary culprit is the subject matter itself. You’d think the fight for gay rights would be pretty exciting, but no. In this case it’s just all dry, procedural committees and lawsuits. This guy makes a committee. Other people form a different committee. They disagree on which tactics to employ. Then they have a conference. And at the conference there is another committee. A couple hudred pages later, what’s happening? A committee is having a meeting and the guy leading the meeting is a total downer. There were many, many times when I wondered if I had accidentally restarted a chapter because the history here was just so repetitive. On the one hand, if that’s how this story evolved in real life, then there’s only so much the author can do. On the other hand, maybe he could have been a bit more selective.

There was still a benefit to these dull bits, though. I was heavily reminded of my own community which at times seems to consist entirely of comittees and meetings and excruciatingly boring disagreements and strong characters sabotaging projects over petty gripes. It’s perhaps important to see that this can also be how change is often made. Revolution and progress aren’t always razzle dazzle and unity. Sometimes it’s just a messy unglamorous grind.

I also found myself heavily relating to the event that started everything for our protagonist Kameny- the ridiculousness of government background checks. Honestly, the early part of his fight could just as well have been a revolution against stupid background check procedures in general, as opposed to the targeting of gay people specifically. Even the staunchest homophobe at the time could understand that it makes no sense to ban an openly gay person from employment on the basis of them being potential targets for blackmail. I had this exact conversation with an older govt employee who, way back in the 60’s or 70s’, was asked during his intake how he would feel about an openly gay coworker. This guy is as old-school conservative as they come, and he shrugged and said “if we all know he’s gay, then there’s no way to blackmail him about it, so what’s the problem?” His background check investigators did not like that answer. The whole process is full of logical inconsistencies like this. Here’s a benign example from a friend: The forms tell you to list every [whatever they’re asking about] going back X amount of years. When he was a young new employee, he listed his high school under education. Several years later he was filling out this same form for his renewal, but at this point it had been more than X amount of years since he’d graduated high school, so he did not list it on the form. The investigators called him in for an interrogation because of “inconsistencies” on the forms. WhAt WaS He HiDiNg?! Kaminy’s early fight here was just as stupid and frustrating. He was technically in trouble for ommitting an arrest (I think- it was early enough in the book I’ve already forgotten the details), and then for maybe mischaracterizing the arrest? It was such a minor stupid point, and it’s the exact kind of minor stupid point that had thousands of applicants sweating bullets every year. In this case, of course, it had the extra tinge of being heavily dipped in homophobia, which lead us to the whole rest of the book. But dang if those early chapters didn’t hit close to home for me even as a cis straight lady.

It was also interesting (at first) to hear how different Kaminy’s ideas about presentation for early marches (everyone must look clean cut and have suits and ties at all times!) are the polar opposite of the flamboyant Pride parades we experience today. “This guy would be shitting himself,” I thought as I read about his rules. So of course, later on, this conflict wound up being a bigger wedge in the ranks. Kaminy’s hypocrisy was fascinating. He was being mistreated by society for not conforming enough to what is considered proper, and yet here he was telling other gay people they weren’t conforming enough to what is considered proper. A similar hypocrisy arose when, towards the end of the book, Kaminy ran for office and wound up losing for not brigning up gay issues enough. He seemed stuck in a constant battle of trying to gain gay acceptance without actually seeming gay. Other hypocrisies? Sidelining lesbian organizations, drag queens, and trans individuals. Again, gay is good, but, like, not THAT kind of gay. From what I gather, these kinds of schisms seem to still persist today.

So, there was clearly potential here for a truly engaging book. Cervivi clearly identified plenty of elements in his book that were worth exploring and highlighting. And yet, somehow, all of that was just completely buried for me by the repetition and the petty infighting. I’m still glad I read it because I think it’s my first foray into the history of gay rights, but it just wasn’t keeping my interest like it should have.

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