Speaker 1: When Eric Cervini was working on his doctorate in LGBTQ history, he was surprised by how much had already been published in the field but really, apart from professional historians, most people it seemed, didn't really know this stuff. The research was largely in peer-reviewed journals, and academic press books, so the obvious solution he thought, was Instagram.
Eric Cervini: There was about a nine-month period between when I defended my dissertation and my book was published and during that time, I said, you know what, let's try this out. Let me put up some videos, I got a green screen, I put it up ironically, in my closet and said, let me film myself just telling some of these stories and having fun with it, posting goofy pictures, I'm going to pretend like I'm in ancient Greece or in Mesopotamia or Ancient Egypt and people liked it.
Speaker 1: Cervini his book, The Deviant's War, went on to be a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize but it was his homemade videos that inspired a real full-fledged history series on Discovery Plus, and that's just been launched, and it's called The Book of queer. Eric Cervini spoke with the New Yorkers, Michael Shulman.
Michael Schulman: Let's hear the elevator pitch for The book of queer, what is this show? How do you describe it? It's definitely not something your average documentary on the History Channel?
Eric Cervini: I would describe it as a queer history variety show. What that means is we're telling approximately 15 stories from the past ranging all the way back to ancient Egypt up until basically present-day and rather than taking the conventional Docu series approach, we do it through reenactments, comedians, they were all written by 12 Queer comedians and camp, humor, drag, and song every episode ends with a musical and original choreographed musical number.
Speaker 3: Open our book and dabble your mind, history is about to be redefined. Think you know the truth about the past, honey better think again. We're shining the light on queer lives at last, dishing drama from now till then. The pages are full of many courageous stories of glory that [unintelligible 00:02:21] outrageous. Baby we've always been here. Welcome to The Book of Queer.
Michael Schulman: Yes, you have some great queer celebrities on the show, can you tell me about some of them and what they do on it?
Eric Cervini: Sure, there's so many. Every episode is narrated by a different high profile number of the queer trans communities and they're helped by 18 historians, help actually narrate the stories along with Ms. Vangie and Gopnik and some of these incredible drag queens and comedians who also narrate it.
Speaker 4: Anyway, communities crave identifiers, and the queer community is no different.
Speaker 5: Darlin, I'm the rainbow flag. Look at me. I'm the reason you can spot a gay bar from a mile away.
Speaker 4: Today, the rainbow flag is the most recognizable queer symbol, but it was hardly the first. Back in the day.
Speaker 5: [coughs] Excuse me, can I speak for myself without you mud-slinging everything?
Speaker 4: Well, excuse me miss rainbow flag, but I am narrating.
Speaker 5: Anyways, to understand how truly powerful I am at uniting different queer communities, we need to first visit a few of those earliest symbols and groups, or as I like to call them my just a [unintelligible 00:03:44], rewind that, and do better.
Speaker 4: Okay.
Michael Schulman: I want to dig into some of the history and some of the people that you cover on the show. First of all, can you explain how the high five got invented?
Eric Cervini: [chuckles] I'll be honest, I learned so many new stories as part of the story, the first thing we did was collected hundreds of these queer stories with a team of researchers because I didn't know this one and it's the story of Glenn Burke, an incredible baseball player who played for the Dodgers and what people don't realize is that in the 1970s, the high five was not really a common form of communication, it just wasn't something that was really done yet and at the World Series, Glenn Burke brought it to America and it was the first time, no one really knows why he raised his hand in the air to congratulate Helsy Baker, but he did it.
This is a gay Black man who did this and we tell that story as or this is the inventor of the high five but I think even more important is his entire life story of what happened to him next.
Michael Schulman: All right, what did happen to him next?
Eric Cervini: If you're a relatively open gay Black man playing in the MLB in 1977, 1978, and the management of the team learns this, you can guess what happened and it's not a pretty story. He was traded to the Oakland A's, he was the soul of the Dodgers and they kicked him out.
Speaker 4: During the 1982 interview on The Today Show, Glenn spoke publicly about his queerness.
Glenn Burke: The people that you like, and live with, and work with might not understand the problem of being gay, and a professional baseball player. It came to the point where I was uncomfortable, I thought that the world should know how I felt. When I got fed up with the situation, I thought I'd tell people about it.
Eric Cervini: It's a hard story especially, I'm sure you notice that the MLB didn't participate in the telling the story, they would not allow us to use their footage, we couldn't even license it. That made it even more difficult to tell the story but it was an honor, not just to learn his story of how he died, I don't want to call it a spoiler but he dies, of course of AIDS, so it would have been amazing to interview him about it but fortunately, we had an incredible actor, we had the help of Glenn's family and played off I think.
Michael Schulman: One thing that's very interesting to me in thinking about these historical figures is the issue of using very modern terms like non-binary or gender non conforming, or gay or lesbian or bisexual or queer, any of those to describe people who lived long, long, sometimes centuries, but even in some cases, just decades before they were in popular use, how do people in your field think about that?
Eric Cervini: It's been a subject of debate for decades, can you call someone gay when that word didn't exist? One of the very first things we do, and we do it in the very first story, which is Abraham Lincoln, is defined the word queer which just means deviating from that subjects society's norms surrounding gender and sexuality. Howdy, I'm Eric Cervini, The Book of Queer's resident homo historian. Welcome to the footnotes. You may have noticed that we haven't labeled a gay because that wouldn't make too much sense.
Speaker 8: Why?
Eric Cervini: Because sexuality, just like race, and gender is what we call a social construct, or concept that we as a society just came up with. In during Lincoln's time, the idea of a homosexual hadn't yet been conceived or constructed in the English language, that's why we love the word queer. All it means in the words of queer theorists, David Halperin is whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant.
Michael Schulman: What do we know about Lincoln's sexuality?
Eric Cervini: Well, we know he had four children, so we have to start there but we also know-
Michael Schulman: The proof is the pudding.
Eric Cervini: Exactly. We also know that he loves for men and the proof is in the letters, the proof is in the memoirs written by his contemporaries, and by these men themselves. The historian, who tells this story, Thomas Belserskis wonderful scholar, he says, it always goes back to the bed, when you look at whom was Lincoln sleeping with. Its men, he did not sleep with his wife, they prefer not to but when his wife was out of town, who did he sleep with? Men, time and time and time again and we're very careful about saying we're not calling him gay, we're not saying even that he was bisexual, all we're saying is that he had four intimate relationships with other men that may have been sexual.
We let people decide for themselves. We call him queer because we do believe that this was beyond even the differences in masculinity back then, this was going beyond even that in terms of his intimacy with these men.
Michael Schulman: The people on the show, the historical figures are both people that everybody knows like Lincoln and Alexander The Great, and Eleanor Roosevelt, but also people who may not be familiar to wide audiences and I'm wondering, can you tell us about Harry Allen?
Eric Cervini: Harry is one of my favorite characters. Harry was essentially an outlaw, a trans outlaw. His story we identified from a wonderful book by Peter [unintelligible 00:10:00] and he tells the stories of all these gender nonconforming and what we would now use the term trans folks in the West and the frontier, this is the late 19th, early 20th century. Harry is one of those figures who goes out West, of course, there are fewer laws, fewer regulations, it's easier to live on the margins because there's just fewer structures in place to regulate you.
That's true for not just sexually deviant folks, but also folks who transgress gender norms. The record is incredible because what happens is he kind of becomes a celebrity in Washington and Seattle, Portland, traveling all around and just making trouble. He's very much a quintessential trans outlaw, and the newspapers report on it. There's just this wealth of sources from the press, whether it's Seattle newspapers, local newspapers, that are just talking about, they would use "this woman" who was presenting as a man and created this scandal that people just couldn't get enough of.
Just getting arrested, biting cops hands, causing fights, and essentially, anytime he would get arrested, he would say, "Look, I'm a guy. That's what I am," and they would try to find ways of punishing him, but they never could quite figure it out.
Michael Schulman: Right. When the show was announced, Breitbart wrote an article saying that the trailer makes "wild claims" about President Lincoln being queer and calls Joan of Arc non-binary. I'm wondering what was your reaction to that?
Eric Cervini: I assume, and I hope that that is the first of many such articles that we get. Because look, given what's happening in Florida, what has happened there, what is happening in my home state of Texas to trans kids there in Alabama, Arizona, everywhere. This show is a response to a very intentional, nationwide attempt to erase not just our history, but our own existence.
Speaker 9: If that's not queer, I don't know what is.
Michael Schulman: The tone of the show is so original. People who might recognize elements of drunk history in this sketch comedy format, but it's also it also includes a lot of academics, PhDs, it's a footnoted TV show, which I've never seen before. It's a show that's not told straight in more ways than one and I was curious if you felt that there was a kind of style of queer storytelling that was important. Is there a reason that queer history shouldn't be told straight?
Eric Cervini: I think when you look at how the folks that were describing their stories, whether it's Jose Saria, or even Harvey Milk or Gil Baker, they use humor themselves to tell the stories. Humor is a survival tactic and so I think humor and queerness are inextricable.
Michael Schulman: Eric, thank you much for talking with us. It's a real pleasure and I look forward to people seeing The Book Of Queer.
Eric Cervini: Likewise, thank you so much for having me.
Speaker 1: That's Eric Cervini talking with the New Yorker's Michael Schulman. The Book of Queer is streaming now of Discovery Plus with new episodes each week in June.