In 1957, Frank Kameny, a rising astronomer working for the U.S. Defense Department in Hawaii, received a summons to report immediately to Washington, D.C. The Pentagon had reason to believe he was a homosexual, and after a series of humiliating interviews, Kameny, like countless gay men and women before him, was promptly dismissed from his government job. Unlike many others, though, Kameny fought back.
Based on firsthand accounts, recently declassified FBI records, and forty thousand personal documents, The Deviant’s War unfolds over the course of the 1960s, as the Mattachine Society of Washington, the group Kameny founded, became the first organization to protest the systematic persecution of gay federal employees. It traces the forgotten ties that bound gay rights to the Black Freedom Movement, the New Left, lesbian activism, and trans resistance. Above all, it is a story of America (and Washington) at a cultural and sexual crossroads; of shocking, byzantine public battles with Congress; of FBI informants; murder; betrayal; sex; love; and ultimately victory. Cervini will be doing an 18 city tour in the next week featuring conversation partners like Dustin Lance Black, Adam Eli, Sarah Schulman, and many more. What follows is an excerpt from The Deviant’s War.
It began, as usual, in a public restroom. For ten years, Laud Humphreys of Oklahoma had been an Episcopal priest, but now he watched the silent choreography of the men. As always, the ritual of a men’s room, or “tearoom,” functioned somewhat like a game: positioning, signaling, contracting, payoff. Standing, looking, touching, fellatio.
“Like the smell of urine, fear pervades the atmosphere of the tearooms, making furtive every stage of the interaction,” Humphreys later wrote. But if all went well, the ritual concluded with an adjustment of the pants and a zip of the fly. A shoulder pat, a hand wave, or a quiet “Thanks.” Nobody hurt, nobody offended.
In 1966, as a doctoral student in sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, Humphreys had initiated his research in the city’s public park restrooms. Married with two children, he developed a novel method to conceal his identity as a researcher and earn the trust of the “sexual deviants.” He adopted the role of the “watch-queen,” or a “voyeur-lookout” who guarded the men from nonparticipants and police officers. If someone approached, he coughed; if the coast was clear, he nodded.
“By passing as a deviant, I had observed their sexual behavior without disturbing it,” explained the sociologist. Over the course of two years, he observed hundreds of sexual acts, taking notes with a hidden tape recorder.
“By passing as a deviant, I had observed their sexual behavior without disturbing it.”
The next step in his methodology contributed most to the controversy that surrounded the publication of his findings. Humphreys also followed the men to their cars, recorded their license plate numbers, and then carried that information to a police station. There, after Humphreys claimed to be performing “market research,” friendly officers gave him the names and addresses of the men.
He waited a year, then changed his dress, hairstyle, and car. He traveled to the men’s homes, rang their doorbells, and said he was a social health researcher. While sitting in their living rooms or drinking beer on their patios, he asked the men about their lives.
Over half of them, he learned, were married to women. The rest, even if they identified as gay, saw tearooms as safe havens. After all, where else could they go to meet others like themselves? In midcentury America, gay bars were perilous places. The police could raid them at any moment. Patrons risked being identified by coworkers, neighbors, or even the Federal Bureau of Investigation. At home, roommates or landlords were watching. Sometimes, police officers used telephoto lenses or high-powered binoculars to catch acts of sodomy or lewd conduct.
The names, addresses, and occupations of those arrested for homosexual activity often appeared in the next day’s newspaper, which exposed their deviancy to families and employers. “Six Arrested in Perversion Case Here,” read one typical headline. A seaman, twenty-five, of McAllister Street; an auto agency clerk, twenty-seven, of Clay Street; a musician, thirty-six, of Taylor Street; a drama coach, twenty-three, of Seventh Avenue; a photo refinisher, forty-three, of Laurel Street.
After World War II, homosexual arrests—including those for sodomy, dancing, kissing, or holding hands—occurred at the rate of one every ten minutes, each hour, each day, for fifteen years. In sum, one million citizens found themselves persecuted by the American state for sexual deviation.
Men unable to risk identification had only the public restroom, a space both public and private. When an intruder—a policeman or an unsuspecting passerby—interrupted the ritual, participants could claim to be using the restroom for its intended purpose. They simply performed “huge elaborate disinterest” until the threat washed his hands and disappeared.
Laud Humphreys ultimately concluded that police departments, by criminalizing sexual activity in public restrooms, created crime from a harmless activity, stigmatizing homosexuality and incentivizing blackmailers. He estimated that 5 percent of St. Louis’s adult male population engaged in the ritual of the tearoom. “What the covert deviant needs is a sexual machine—collapsible to hip-pocket size, silent in operation,” he wrote. “In tearoom sex he has the closest thing to such a device.”
The sociologist also noticed something curious about the men he observed. When interviewed in their homes, those who visited tearooms tended to project a high level of morality. A “breastplate of righteousness,” Humphreys called it. Compared to a control group, tearoom participants lived in clean homes, drove nice cars, went to church, and supported the efforts of the local Vice Squad. They were conservative; they did not attend civil rights demonstrations. By embracing respectability, Humphreys concluded, these men shielded themselves—and others—from the humiliation of the tearoom.
With the publication of Humphreys’s research, journalists and fellow sociologists leapt to denounce the former priest. He had deceived the tearoom-goers and made them vulnerable to prosecution, they argued. Washington University’s chancellor, upset that Humphreys had not reported the men to the police, revoked his research grant and teaching contract.
Humphreys eventually repudiated the dishonest elements of his methodology, and at a 1974 sociology conference, while his wife sat in the audience, he announced that he was a gay man.
Sociology professors now teach Humphreys’s book Tearoom Trade as an example of unethical research, ignoring his findings about the men who exited the tearoom before enshrouding themselves in cloaks of propriety. Meanwhile, stories of gay liberation in America often begin with a June 1969 uprising, instantaneous and transformative, outside a bar in Greenwich Village.
A 1950s tearoom, however, is where this book, a tale of sexual deviants versus their government, begins. The path to equality exists not only because of a riot, but also because of a battle that began in a public restroom. Today, LGBTQ+ Americans march because a scientist named Dr. Frank Kameny once entered a tearoom. A young Harvard-educated astronomer, Kameny listened to classical music and wore three-piece suits. He never liked to talk about his participation in the ritual.
That summer evening, as Kameny stood before a urinal, two police officers hid above him, watching from behind a ventilation grill in the ceiling. They arrested him as he exited the restroom, triggering his personal ruin and the strange series of events that led him and his country to gay liberation.
Pride emerged, slowly yet irrevocably, from a regime of secrecy and shame.
Eric Cervini is an award-winning historian of LGBTQ+ culture and politics. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College and received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Cambridge, where he was a Gates Scholar. The Deviant’s War is his first book.