IN CONVERSATION WITH DR.ERIC CERVINI
Dr. Eric Cervini is an award-winning historian of LGBTQ+ politics, a New York Times bestselling author and a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his first book, ‘The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America’. Cervini is the executive producer of ‘The Book of Queer’, a five-episode docu-series highlighting some of history’s most fabulous ‘queeroes’, whose stories and contributions have been erased, marginalized or straightwashed throughout the years. The series premiered this June on discovery+.
Eric, you graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College and was a Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge, where you received your PhD in History. Before your PhD, you graduated at Harvard with a BA in History and got your Masters of Philosophy in historical studies. Why did you decide for this course of your studies? What pushed you to get your PhD and now continue your research in this field?
I grew up in Texas in a small town. I certainly did not grow up thinking that I would become a queer historian. I did not even know that was a possibility, let alone did I know that I was gay. It took a lot of time to figure out who I was and then to figure out what my history was as well. And I always say, it was Hollywood that first got me interested in queer history. It was the film ‘Milk’ about Harvey Milk, a city councilman in San Francisco, who was the first openly gay elected official in California. And I was shocked, as an 18, 19-year old who had just come out of the closet, that I did not know this story, that it was the film that taught me.
And then the next question was what other stories are out there that still need to be told. One of the stories that I stumbled upon very shortly after watching that film, was a man named Frank Kameny, who’s considered the grandfather of the gay rights movement in the United States. But there hadn’t been a book written about him, very little had been written and even fewer people knew his name, especially among the general public. And so what began as an essay in college, became my senior thesis, which became my Masters, and then my dissertation and my book, because I just couldn’t put it down. Every single chance that I had to go get a real job or to make a little bit more money with a salary, I had to decide if do I maybe go to law school or go work at a company, or do I keep learning more about this story, do I keep working on this story in order to share it with people. And every single time, I just couldn’t put it down.
And I fell in love with that story. It became my book after eight years and I fell in love with queer history because the number of these stories, that exist and are just waiting to be told, are infinite. And I think that’s what ‘The Book of Queer’ proves is. We just tell 15 of these stories, but there are an infinite number of them just waiting to be told. So I hope to encourage people to do the same thing, to start telling their own stories, writing. You don’t need a PhD, you could write a blog, you could write a tweet about something you’ve learned about queer history and that’s just as important.
As an authority on 1960s queer activism, you serve on the Board of Advisors of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of queer American history. Why is queer history so important in America and also so important today around the whole world?
I think in America, like in many countries, there’s been a bit of a regression. There’s been a bit of a backslide in our rights. We achieved gay marriage a few years ago, but in the past few years there has been, at least in this century and unprecedented, attack on us, especially on trans children, and especially in the American South. I know it’s happening in parts of Europe, in Britain, as well that trans people are under attack. In the US alone, there are 300 bills, 300 pieces of legislation that have been introduced in 36 states, in over two thirds of our country. We’re having to fight for our rights once again. And so I think telling these stories, not just how we survived, not just how we thrived, but how we fought back, how we were able to get through much worse conditions, much worse political context, is so important. We were able to survive the inquisition, the black death, the Aids crisis. We can certainly survive he troubles of today.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in America and in the world when it comes to LGBTQ community?
There’s so many, and I think we’re learning as a movement that so many of our struggles are interconnected. Right now I’m in Los Angeles, homelessness is a very large issue here. And when you first think of it, you may think “Oh, what does that have to do with gay rights or queer liberation?” But then you look at the statistics and you see that 40 % of youth experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ+. Many of them have been kicked out of their families, they have no home to go back to, so they’re on the streets. So many of these struggles, that may not seem related, are actually one and the same. Black Lives Matter is a very important movement here. And those who are black and queer black and trans are much more likely to face discrimination, to face violence in their day to day lives. And so I think that something that we can all do, not just in America, but all across the world, is ask how do the rights of the LGBTQ+ community intersect with or interact with other movements, and how can I make sure that we’re not forgetting people who exist at that intersection.
What do you believe is the right approach to improve the awareness on LGBTQ and on people being more open and acceptive towards the community?
I think the best way to do it is to share our stories. I think there’s so much language right now that is dehumanizing, that is telling us that we are less than human, that we have no place in history, no place in European history, no place in American history. And what ‘The Book of Queer’ proves is we have always been here. We have always been queer since the dawn of humanity. So how can these bigots, these very prejudiced people claim that to be trans or to be non-binary or to be queer is something new, a new threat, when we had what was potentially a non-binary Egyptian Pharaoh, Joan of Arc transgressed gender norms, we may be able to call her queer. So many of the most venerated people in our history in America, like Abraham Lincoln, who we have learned about, also were transgressing gender and sexual norms. And that part of their history, of their stories is just as important, because it proves that you don’t have to be straight or cisgender or ‘normal’ in order to create history, to create change. It’s the people who are a bit different, a bit queer, who have created some of the most foundational changes in human history.
In June 2020, you published your first book, ‘The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. The United States of America‘. The book became a New York Times Bestseller and is the first work of LGBTQ history to make the list in 27 years. I would love to hear more about the story of the book itself.
I just did an interview with a friend of mine who’s also a queer author and it was an interview about publishing queer books in particular. His name is Greg Mania. He has a newsletter and we talk about this a little bit and some of the difficulties of publishing queer books and queer histories to begin with, because for years we were told, whether it was in Hollywood or in the publishing industry, that there wasn’t a market for queer history. There just wasn’t demand, people weren’t interested. It was boring. And I think what hopefully the book proved, but even more so this show, is that queer history is anything but boring. There is so much laughter and joy and drama in these stories, you have to work really hard to make them boring. And so that’s what we tried to capture in the show, just how diverse and vibrant and full of joy and laughter and love queer history really is. To make it boring would be the least authentic thing you can do. Of course we can always improve, but I think we did a good job of hopefully not making it boring.
‘The Deviant’s War’ also won the Publishing Triangle’s Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction, the New York Times Editors’ Choice and the ‘Best Read of 2020’ at the Queerties. How does it make you feel when your book received such praise and honor?
I couldn’t have imagined it. At the end of the day, this was an undergraduate essay that turned into something much larger than me. My biggest concern was getting the history right and being respectful to the humans, the real life people who shared their stories with me. So many people spent hours sharing their stories with me and were so kind, there were so many historians who shared with me their interviews with people who had passed away. And I wanted to make sure I did right by them and made sure that I was respecting not just the people who made history, but the people who told history before me. And I think it shows that you can do that. You can be respectful, you can cite your sources and you can have a serious work of history that’s also incredibly entertaining and also full of laughter and comedy as well. And that’s something we try to magnify even more with the TV show.
Are you already working on your new book maybe or have an idea what your next book will focus on?
Yes. I’m in the very early stages of the next book. The first one was about the 1960s mostly. And so I think this one is gonna be about the 1970s. So stay tuned.
This June the series ‘The Book of Queer’, which you executive produced, premiered on discovery+. It is is a fun and fabulous documentary series that highlights history’s forgotten LGBTQ+ heroes, kings and queens. Tell us more about the concept and story of the series.
Our philosophy was we want people to be surprised, that they’re learning. We want people to be entertained first and walk away from it with a better understanding of queer history. If you’re part of the community, learning more about our own history. And if you’re not, learning about the history of a group that needs a bit of help right now, that needs support, because like we talked about, we are under attack and we need people to speak up for us. And I think one of the best ways you can do that, one of the best ways anyone can become an ally, is by listening to the stories of the people who are asking for help. Listen to what we have been through in the past, what we have had to overcome and then listen to how you can help us today. And that’s true even for people within the community.
I’m a white cisgender man, I should be listening to women within the community, to trans people within the community. People who are very often left behind when we’re fighting together. Uh, and So I think having these stories being shared to create empathy within the community and outside of it, is the number one goal. And we’re trying to do that through comedy, through joy, through laughter and through music, because very often people just assume that history is always boring. But I think the show proves that it’s quite the opposite.
The series actually pulls backs the curtain and takes a deep dive telling the LGBTQ+ story of the past, through interviews with revered queer historians and experts who are as colorful as the rainbow flag. Why was it so important to present the story through interviews with queer historians and experts?
I think one of the biggest takeaways from being a historian is how little I know. I think understanding that history itself is infinite. I will never close a book, finish a book and say “That’s it, I’m done. I have learned everything there is to learn about queer history, about any history”. It’s just not gonna happen. It’s infinite. So I think part of being a historian and being a storyteller of queer history itself is recognizing that there is always gonna be someone else who knows more about any given topic than you. And so what we try to do as a TV show, is bring in those people who are the experts in ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient Mesopotamia, and asking them to tell us their expertise, what have they spent decades and decades of their life studying and to share it with us.
I learned something new every single day making this show. And I think people watching will learn something new every time they watch it. Every single time I watch an episode, even though I made it, I still learn something new or I say “Oh my gosh, that that’s a joke I didn’t even understand, but now I get it”. Or there’s a fact I totally forgot about. Hopefully people will be watching it for a long time.
The series also blends comedy with social impact, using witty recreations and original music videos to bring each of the stories to life with a modern tone. And each episode will be narrated by a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Why did you decide on this approach, that each episode is narrated by a different person?
We decided this very early on. Even though this was my idea, a couple other people were kind of the face of this project. It wouldn’t have been truly authentic if it was just one person telling all of these stories because the LGBTQ+ community is so diverse, there are so many different experiences within it. It would be much more authentic to have as many voices as possible. We have the largest, all queer cast in the history of television. We want as many people involved in the telling of these stories as possible, because like I said, our history is infinite. The more people that we have behind the camera and in front of it, the more, truly authentic it will be. I think as with the first step, hopefully we’ll be able to keep growing it and making it more diverse and telling more of these stories, because as you know, there are so many of them just waiting to be told.
Eric, how do you like to spend your free time? What are some of your favorite activities?
I live with my drag queen boyfriend and our dog, so I’m often watching him perform or playing with the dog, or both.
interview by JANA LETONJA
You can watch the series at: https://www.discoveryplus.com/nl/show/the-book-of-queer