ERIC CERVINI begins his compelling history of Frank Kameny and the Washington, D.C., Mattachine Society with the famous (and infamous) 1960s study of the sexual practices of men in restrooms by sociologist Laud Humphreys. Eventually published in 1970 as Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places, the book was the first to turn public sex into a subject for sociological study, free of the moralisms and legalisms that such activities had been saddled with for decades.
The public restroom holds a particularly important place in the history that Cervini is recounting in The Deviant’s War. In August 1956, a young Frank Kameny—who had just delivered a paper at the American Astronomical Society’s annual meeting in San Francisco—entered a public restroom and was approached by another man. Police were staking out the restroom, as they often were in the 1950s and 1960s, hiding behind a ventilation grill, spying on the whole encounter. Kameny would be arrested along with his companion. In court, he pled guilty and paid the fine, assuming after a period of probation his arrest would be set aside and the case registered as “dismissed.”
James Polchin is a frequent contributor to these pages and author of Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall(Counterpoint).