[The Beginning of My Conscious’ Enlightenment]
“Though Kameny did not have a word for it yet, by exposing the arbitrary logic of the purges with his own, contrary logic, he formulated gay pride as a political tool of resistance, a weapon to be wielded…”
– Eric Cervini, author of
The Deviant’s War, the Homosexual
vs. the United States of America
Since its conception, the educational system has been a driving force behind almost every toxic trait about America, its people, and its “culture”. I was fifteen years old when I first felt lied to by the schools and educational systems that I had been brought up to believe were shaping me into a “model citizen” (a phrase to which I am still searching for the perfect definition). Growing up, my family and I often made our way from Franklin, Tennessee (a suburb of Nashville) to Williamsburg, Virginia, where my grandparents live for Christmas; occasionally we traded that festive destination for Kensington, Maryland just outside of Washington D.C. to see my Dad’s brother and his wife and kids for the holiday. When I was a sophomore in high school, my Dad had the spontaneous idea to head up to New York for a day or two, after all, it was only a few hours away. I had only ever been to the city once before and, given that it seemed that my interest in the theater wasn’t going anywhere, my father thought it would be a good idea for me to get a little more acquainted with the theater capital of the world, as it were. So, a few days after Christmas we made the trip to the once foreign city. We stayed in Times Square, an area I actively avoid now that I live here, and explored as much of the city as we could over the few days we were there. On our way out, we stopped at a small diner in the West Village. As we drove down the one-way avenue, keeping our eyes peeled for any possible place to park, I felt my focus shift to an establishment on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Christopher Street: The Stonewall Inn. Before this fated run in with the Stonewall, I had never even thought about the possible history I carry with me like my wallet in my bag. I remember seeing the Inn with its countless rainbow flags and neon signs and posters advertising upcoming drag shows and club events and thinking “I don’t know how, but I know”. What I knew was that I was somewhere important. What I didn’t know was that my history had been kept from me, and that was why I was unaware of the power within myself (a power itself which I was, also, not yet aware of). After I saw Stonewall, I spent everyday learning and reading and searching for the pieces of the history of queer people I had not been given.
Once I came to college and decided to pursue my BFA in Musical Theatre, I still felt that I wanted to go into a concrete curriculum that would allow me to learn my own history as a queer person as well as a deeper understanding of the intricate systems of oppression that formulate the systemic disenfranchisement of peoples in our society. I quickly found my way to the study of gender and sexuality, claiming this as my minor in college.
My conscious enlightenment began with a semester-long course in Gender Studies during the first semester of my sophomore year at Marymount Manhattan College along with my completion of The Selected Works of Audre Lorde, a book I found calling to me the following summer, which I finished within days (a feat of mine, I might add, given that until then I hadn’t truly finished a book since turning the last page of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban when I was in 3rd grade). After Gender Studies came Sexuality Studies. A course of the same format with further reading assigned that aligned with and elaborated on its prerequisite. While I was taking Sexuality Studies, I was also enrolled in a Queer Theory course. My professor would later explain the courses were originally meant to be taken one after the other. However, blinded by my excitement and determination to understand every facet of a history I felt I had been made to think did not exist, I did not take his comment seriously. I actually felt a huge benefit in the opportunity to take these courses simultaneously since they both included some of the same and similar authors, as well as a directly related curriculum.
During my semester as a Sexuality Studies and Queer Theory student, I found my way into Strand Bookstore just a few blocks away from my apartment in the East Village. It was here that I found the book that would soon become the catalyst in my emotional and psychological liberation from the straight world of academia into the academia that allowed me to queer my own education. The Stonewall Reader is a collection of excerpts from essays by queer and trans writers documenting life before, during, and after the Stonewall Riots, organized by Jason Bauman through the archives at the New York Public Library. The Reader became my bible, then its prophets included the likes of Del Martin, Edmund White, and Harry Hay.
I think that my time with The Reader has felt like such a monumental part of my life because it brought forth a mix of emotions that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, all individual but collectively equal.
(1) I felt liberated. I found that the more I read of the Reader, the more my mind was able to perceive a history outside of what I had been given as The History. I make this distinction of “The History” to assert that for thirteen years of most of our lives, from Kindergarten to our Senior year of high school, we sit through history class after history class being taught the same thing about the same events over and over, just before making our way down the hall into whatever English course we are registered for to be told reiterate, don’t regurgitate! No, the irony is not lost on me. So, we spend just over a decade being taught The History with no regard to the individualism we take with us into the “real world” once we respectfully walk across a stage in front of however many people to show that we have completed our 12 years of indoctrination, dragging behind us luggage filled with regretful report cards, social anxiety, and a basic understanding of what Romeo & Juliet is about. The History remembers, almost exclusively, white, cisgender, heterosexual, male “influential historical” figures (“male” referring to cis people who were assigned male at birth and are not currently known to have challenged that assignment in their life, with recognition of the trans and gender non-conforming people who were never granted the language to properly express their truth). It feels as though we are to believe that the two most influential, if not the most important, Black historical figures are Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. With little to no mention of the multitude of others such as Malcolm X, Audre Lorde, Ruby Bridges, Langston Hughes, Coretta Scott King, or Claudette Colvin. We are likewise not given an opportunity to have so much as a basic understanding of influential queer people like Alan Turing, Franklin Kameny, and Harvey Milk. Furthermore, when we learn about people like Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens, we are kept from the mere suggestion that the founding fathers themselves possessed at some level a love for each other that existed on a plane of true affection and adoration for the souls and hearts of one another, rather than a love that only manifested in the form of a colleague and fellow politician. The list of peoples who have had their history kept from them goes on and on (women’s history, trans specific history, histories of Latin peoples, Asian peoples, Indigenous peoples, etc.). So, would it really surprise anyone that my mind faced an internal revolution and period of radicalization upon the realization that my power as a queer person extends past the words of affirmation given to me by the people I choose to surround myself with?
Another level of the emotional culture shock I found being exerted from my soul while reading The Reader was (2) anger. I am not typically an angry person. I try not to be, actively. I find that anger never solves anything and I am actively and outspokenly opposed to the concept of unprovoked violence and the idea of war as a means to an end deeply troubles me. However, The Reader essentially said to me remember the years you spent wondering why you were the only one? Guess what! You weren’t! You exist within a society that has actively repressed people like you, their minds, their ideas, and taken them and their presence away from you. You actually have a deep history living inside of you and you gain strength through the knowledge of that history. The Reader continued, almost as if reminding me, Yes, your knowledge brings you power, and your power frightens those in positions of power that seek to continue their lineage. Their lineage rests on the backs of the very people who have been highlighted, right-clicked, and deleted from your education because they posed a threat to the “sacred order” that wishes to remain male-, cis-, and hetero-centric.
As the semester became increasingly busy and spring musical auditions were coming up, I threw myself into audition prep, effectively transitioning my brain into “actor/singer mode”. The semester had already presented its share of challenges and life only became more complicated as exams approached and call-backs were announced. It wouldn’t be until the new year that I would find my way to another book of revolutionary proportions. As I write this it is January 11th, 2022. On the 9th I wandered back into Strand while on a day off from rehearsal with a friend (I was not asked to join the cast of either of the spring musicals at my school, but I was asked to come on as an Associate Choreographer, which I have found to be an experience I am nothing less than wildly grateful for). This time, instead of perusing the shelves trying to pass time, I headed straight down the first aisle, to the table on the right in the last row: the LGBTQIA+ books section. I scanned the table looking for something, anything, and picked up the first book that caught my eye: The Deviant’s War, the Homosexual vs. the United States of America by Eric Cervini. I turned the book over to read the summary on the back cover. The summary of the book began by recalling the life of Franklin Kameny, who had been featured in The Stonewall Reader. While the chapter from Kameny in The Reader, a coupling of letters written by Kameny to two U.S. presidents, had been more than enough to convince me to do my own research on the astronomer-turned-supposed-national-security-threat, I didn’t know much about him other than his experiences later in life with the U.S. judicial system. I do think I should mention that I am a mere 36 pages into The Deviant’s War so I do not feel that I can appropriately review, fully summarize, or speak critically in-depth about the book. That being said, this book has already managed to further liberate and radicalize my mind and soul. “And,” as Cervini explains Kameny would often remark to conclude stories of his life, “that was that.”
I wish now to speak not on the book as a whole, but on the first two chapters of the book aptly titled “The Astronomer” and “The Panic”, respectively. Cervini has found a beautiful way to tell the true story of Kameny, a scientist who was nothing less than a vessel of love and light and who desperately wanted to serve his country. Kameny was one of the first to volunteer to man a shuttle to space. He devoted his life to discovering the boundaries of the universe and exploring the stars. While working for the government in Hawaii, Kameny was called to return home. Upon returning, he learned that the U.S. government had received information that lead them to suspect that Kameny was gay. The government was actively pursuing gay employees of the State during what historians refer to as a purge. Through horrific lies and published stereotypes about gay people, the government was able to effectively terminate the employment of thousands of people working to serve their nation. All the while granting pardons and working alongside people who had ties to Nazi acts of terrorism and allowing these very people to receive credit for works and advancements that would not be possible without the many people they fired on the basis of “criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral, [and/]or notoriously disgraceful conduct”, which Cervini explains was laid out in Executive Order 10450 signed in 1953 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in an effort to further the range to which the government could continue its purge to include “all federal agencies” (note: Cervini also explains that Eisenhower won the presidency “…with the help of his slogan ‘Let’s Clean House’ and whispers that his opponent, Adlai Stevenson had homosexual tendencies”). The federal government saw queer people as a security threat. This notion came about through the presentation of testimonies and uncorroborated accusations that there were communist employees working for the United States in D.C. The presentation of these claims was given by Joe McCarthy. Of the people McCarthy claimed were communists, two of them were “suspected homosexuals”. McCarthy knew that even if the senate did not buy into his claims of a cell of communism growing within the government, they would never be able to argue that homosexual people should be allowed to hold space in a governmental office. After McCarthy’s testimony in front of the senate, other republican colleagues of his testified in his favor. The senate soon established a committee that was in charge of solving “the homosexual problem”. The leader of this committee was C.I.A. director Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter. “Of all the intelligence available to the C.I.A”, says Cervini, “its director chose to rest his case against homosexuals on the forty-year-old story of Colonel [Alfred] Redl”. Redl was a spy during World War I who sold Austrian war plans to the Italian military, amassing a large amount of wealth through his double agency. When the Austrian Empire caught on, Redl supposedly took his own life. After his death, word got out about the “homosexual traitor”, as Cervini puts it. “…fact became intertwined with fiction, and the myth of the homosexual traitor came into being”. Cervini goes on to explain that “The Austrian Army needed a scapegoat for the 1.3 million casualties in that first year of World War I, so it blamed Redl and the larger, more insidious ‘homosexual organization’…”. Eisenhower would later brag about the 2,200 employees that had been purged from the government under executive order 10450.
I do wish to make it clear that the era of McCarthyism, which included a blacklist of suspected communists working in Hollywood, was about many things. Its focus was on the continued pursuit of a pure American society. McCarthy, and his followers, felt that many types of people were a threat to this pureness coming into fruition, including yes, homosexuals and communists but, also anyone who was a drug addict, excessive drinker, or exhibited any signs and/or behaviors that would have indicated a level of untrustworthiness within them. “Sexual perversion” was but one of the criteria that would qualify an individual as a threat to national security. It is, however, my belief that the McCarthy papers, and any program or action they influenced, were a deliberate and tactical assertion of unconstitutional governmental power onto all gay people. It is also my personal belief that the aspects of McCarthyism that were aggressively geared towards gay people have been purposefully left out of common histories associated with Joe McCarthy and his political action.
Eisenhower’s executive order was only an extension of a witch-hunt on queer people and those who would consider themselves to be an ally, and it was not the last federal witch-hunt we have seen. Just in the past few years we have seen the state of Florida legalize what its politicians call “genital inspections”, as part of a wave of legislation seeking to bar trans students from participating in school sports.
So… What do we do with the fact that we have been robbed of our histories (I am speaking now directly to all peoples who exist within the institutions and under the systems of oppression that seek to keep us blind from our given powers)? We keep learning. I cannot stress enough the power that begs and pleads to be found within the ability to educate. I speak often about my belief in the reformation of the educational system. Not only in terms of our history lessons, but also (and possibly more so) in relation to the ways in which the school and educational system in America continue to perpetuate levels of financial, class, gender, race, and sexual oppression. The unspoken, but still obvious, suggestion of queer assimilation into heteronormative life and nomenclature is an arrow in the quiver that supplies ammunition for the bow of institutionalized homophobia and all forms of queer and trans oppression. The education of our minds leads to the liberation of our bodies.
And that was that. xx.
Jackson McAlister is a queer artist, student, and writer currently based in New York City. He is currently pursuing a BFA in Musical Theater with a Minor in Gender & Sexuality Studies. While studying in New York, he found his voice through his exploration of queer and gender theory which guided him towards the prospects of writing about queer life, politics, and social issues.
Quotes from: Cervini, E. (2021). The deviant’s war: The homosexual vs. the United States of America. Picador.