Just because June is over, it doesn’t mean we stop commemorating Pride. It’s actually more important to not contain our celebration to one singular month, and we must stay vigilant and vocal as much as we can. Discovery+’s The Book of Queer is a vibrant, hilarious, and course-correcting docuseries when it comes to queer history, and it teaches about our pasts in an entirely new way. Creator and Executive Producer ,Eric Cervini (author of The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. The United States of America), was eager to bring the hidden truths to light and encourage an entirely new audience to discover just how queer the world really was (and is).
There is an odd specificity to the way that some right-wing politicians have been attacking queer spaces in the last few months. Going after drag queens for reading to children in a library is a waste of time, if you ask me. The Book of Queer didn’t arrive just in time for this year’s Pride, but it’s a reminder to those conservative groups that we have been around for decades. Being our and proud is not a new phenomenon and it’s not a trend.
“We started the show when things were bad, but they weren’t horrendous. We’ve always been under attack in this country, but have we had a U-Haul full of men with weapons trying to attack? No. In some parts of the world, yes. Not everywhere. Discovery+ is trying to get this in front of as many people as possible–including straight folks–and Breitbart and Newsmax are breathlessly covering this show. They are trolling us in the comment sections. I think it’s because it flies in the face of their central thesis which is there is a new phenomenon of queer and trans people teaching these things. They think we are trying to “convert” the children. Twenty percent of Gen Z identifies as LGBTQ+, and that is unprecedented. What is not unprecedented is our existence. They are trying to argue that this is wholly new, and our show proves that we have been here and queer since the dawn of humanity. You can’t have both. Either Abraham Lincoln was sleeping with more men then women or to be gay is a new phenomenon that needs to be extinguished. That is, in my opinion, is why bigots are freaking out. You can’t be making this political argument without this concrete proof that some of the most celebrated people in history were queer or trans.”
We talked about how these attacks don’t feel wholly new–there is a familiarity to them. There is a direct line from Anita Bryant to, say, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and you could connect the dots between any number of politicians (Ron DeSantis or Rick Santorum–the list is robust!) who make it their mission to go after the rights of queer people. If we are going to celebrate the victories, we need to remember how history, as the old saying goes, repeats itself.
“For season two, maybe we will cover Anita Bryant? My next book is about the 1970’s, so I am reading a lot about her and The Briggs Initiative in California. It was the same argument. What’s also precedented is the fear-mongering of queer people–it happens every twenty years. Like clockwork. The Briggs Initiative would ban all queer teachers, and that’s the next logical step after Don’t Say Gay. You just ban us from being in schools. Activists came together, and they went to Ronald Reagan and asked how they can be the party of small government while at the same time that the state should be conducting a witch trial to expunge all queer people. Discrimination, at the end of the day, will always be illogical. Period.”
We may have heard the whispers of Eleanor Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln being queer, but it was important to Cervini that they approach each retelling in a new fashion. At the top of the series, Cervini pops up on screen (and throughout the five episodes) to teach us about the origin of the word ‘queer’ and how it is being used in this show’s context.
“We introduce the term ‘queer,’ because the word homosexual or bisexual or, even, gay didn’t exist. Using that word is very important. We can’t, as scholars or storytellers, responsibly label these people. The other important term we introduce in that episode is straight-washing, because the point of the show is that what we have been taught in school or via Hollywood is not the complete story. Whether it’s producers or historians, [someone has] been intentionally hiding these verifiable truths. If you look at Eleanor Roosevelt’s letters, and she talks about the [Lorena Hickok’s] soft spot on the upper part of her lip, we don’t have to do that much persuading. It’s in her letters, and it’s very evident. In history, of course, there are gaps. Do we know if they were actually sexually active with each other? We don’t know. That’s where, I think, comedy comes into play. That’s where the camp, the humor, and the joy come from the 12 queer comedians who wrote it fill it in with laughter. Very often, it’s ignored completely and the possibility of what it could have been becomes obscured. Of course, what the actors are doing on screen is made up. They are improv actors performing it, but everything the narrator says is fact. Trying to get people entertained and walking away questioning what they’ve been taught will create a lifelong critical thinker. That’s more interesting than just having a fun fact.”
As someone who was obsessed with the Los Angeles Dodgers (thanks to Hideo Nomo becoming Rookie of the Year in 1995), I was floored when Queer tells the story of Glenn Burke, an outfielder who was compared frequently to Willie Mays. Burke came out publicly in 1982 before his death in 1985. Why hadn’t I heard of him before now? In the episode tracing back the origins of the rainbow flag, we learn that Oscar Wilde encouraged his queer friends to wear a green carnation on their lapels in order to subtly identify one another. I researched Wilde’s work as a theater student when I attended a performing arts conservatory in college. These are two examples of how queer history is not properly documented. Cervini reveals there were so many stories to choose from.
“There’s so many. The hardest part of making this show–by far–was choosing the stories we told. When we were pitching it around town, the first thing that we were asked was, ‘Are there enough stories?’ I would kind of giggle, because if someone has read anything about queer history knows that these stories are infinite. The first thing we did was create a spreadsheet of hundreds and hundreds hundreds of stories, and, at the end of the day, we just had to pick what we wanted to tell. They were all fascinating to me. I studied American history, so I have a lot of depth in that field. But what I don’t have a huge foothold on is something like the multiple queer stories from ancient Egyptian history. King Tut’s day may have, to use a modern term, been non-binary? Who would’ve guessed that? It’s pretty well known within Egyptology, and you realize that they are so mind-blowing because they aren’t that accessible.”
“It’s much harder to go buy an academic book that’s very expensive or to get behind a paywall to get this incredible knowledge that has been produced in academia. That’s where it’s our job within Hollywood to take this knowledge that has been produced and make it accessible and entertaining. That’s my MO. You can learn as much as you want, but you aren’t going to remember those facts unless they’re fun. You need to know the impact on a human and emotional level, and comedy is one of the best tools we have to deliver that.”
I circle back to Burke, because I was so annoyed that I hadn’t heard of him before now. Imagine how many out professional athletes there could’ve been around the world if the Dodgers didn’t treat Burke in the way that they did. We could’ve fought the stigma of having a queer people playing baseball, and our society could be more educated, tolerant, and accepting.
“There’s different ways of interpreting this, but the Dodgers are now doing Pride events honoring Glenn Burke. There are so many layers to that in terms of if that is acceptable. Of course, more people should know his story, but given what the team did to him…is that appropriate? They didn’t want us telling this story, because we were pretty explicit in what happened. That’s why there is the disclaimer in the episode. Even his family, who worked with us. told us that what happened to Glenn shouldn’t happen to anyone. Not just on a professional sports team. The truth–not just the mythology–of how he was able to live authentically given the circumstances is what makes me cry every time I watch it. I don’t know the first thing about baseball, but it’s the human element that makes us remember these stories. It’s a hard balance, but, over time, we will get better at it.”
At the end of every episode of The Book of Queer, an original song plays by artists like VINCINT and Betty Who. Music is so important to our community, and Cervini reminded me just how many different ways we have performed it and leaned on it over the years. Not only does it provide a positive way to end every episode, it’s a light that burns in the name of resilience and optimism. You can try to take our rights away, but we will always fight back in order for our right to dance and sing again.
“The most subversive thing that queer people can do, next to laughter, is to sing. Whether we have created the blues (like with Ma Rainey) or lyric poetry and modern music storytelling, it’s how we’ve expressed ourselves. It’s often because we haven’t had other ways, and we’ve had to create other modes whether it’s camp or drag or music. It’s about survival. Given the queer community’s relationship to music, it would’ve been so inauthentic to not have music and call it a queer extravaganza. Right now, we need this joy. It’s one of the most subversive things we can do.”
The Book of Queer is streaming now on Discovery+. Cervini’s Pulitzer-finalist book, The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. The United States of America is available for purchase everywhere.