“I hope people question what they know or what they think they know, what they’ve been taught or what they haven’t been taught,” the author and historian told HuffPost. “I want folks ― whether they’re queer or trans, straight or cisgender ― to really ask themselves: ‘What preconceived notions do I have about myself, about history, about the country, about persecuted groups?’”
“The Book of Queer,” which premiered June 2 on Discovery+, isn’t a typical documentary. The five-episode series is a thoughtful, if cheeky, look at LGBTQ people who changed the world, as recapped by present-day queer stars like Dominique Jackson, Leslie Jordan and Alex Newell.
There are segments dedicated to Gilbert Baker, the creator of the rainbow flag, and Marsha P. Johnson, the transgender activist known as one of the first to resist police brutality during the 1969 Stonewall uprising. Others dive into the legacies of World War II code breaker Alan Turing, and Harvey Milk, who in 1977 became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California.
Catch a clip from the first episode of “The Book of Queer” below.
Each of these historical figures is portrayed in colorful vignettes featuring musical numbers, campy humor and modern lingo. (Joan of Arc, celebrated for her willingness to subvert the gender norms of 15th-century France, is referred to here as a “head bitch in charge.”) And though Cervini insists he’s not an actor, he proves himself to be an affable screen presence, appearing in period garb to offer “footnotes” in each episode.
Still, the most compelling moments in “The Book of Queer” will raise a few eyebrows. The show’s premiere episode, for instance, makes the case that Abraham Lincoln had numerous romantic relationships with men.
Though “The Book of Queer” isn’t the first outlet to present evidence of this theory, Lincoln’s perceived sexuality has been hotly disputed by historians for years. Cervini stresses that whether the former president would have self-identified as gay or bisexual during his lifetime is largely irrelevant, given that such labels didn’t exist as social constructs until decades later. As to the legitimacy of Lincoln’s rumored relationships, however, he believes the historic documentation speaks for itself.
“We wanted to surprise folks,” he said. “If you’ve venerated Abraham Lincoln all your life and then you realize he slept with men more often than he slept with women, that may tell you about the diversity of human sexuality, intimacy and experience.”
Cervini, 30, has made LGBTQ storytelling a cornerstone of his career thus far. The Texas native’s passion for queer history began after watching 2008’s “Milk,” the Oscar-winning biopic about Harvey Milk, during his first year at Harvard University. It was then he started to realize “just how infinite the queer community’s past is, and yet the general public has never learned about it.”
Not long afterward, Cervini started researching Frank Kameny, another pioneering figure in the LGBTQ rights movement. A former Department of Defense astronomer, Kameny sued the federal government after being fired in 1957 because he was gay. Though his case was unsuccessful, it was the first civil rights claim based on a plaintiff’s sexuality or gender identity to be pursued in a U.S. court.
In 2020, Cervini published “The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. The United States of America,” an acclaimed book on Kameny comprising eight years of research that began with his senior thesis at Harvard. The book went on to become a 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist and a New York Times bestseller.
“I can’t tell you the number of times I heard: ‘There’s no market for this.’ So proving that wrong was fun,” Cervini said. “It’s a very fun thing to do, to prove folks wrong, especially if there’s no basis in them saying that other than homophobia.”
“Folks want to know what has been kept from them, not just within the LGBTQ community but all of America,” he added. “If you tell people in any part of the world, ‘This is the history they don’t want you to learn,’ they’ll want to consume it.”
The success of “The Deviant’s War” was critical in getting Discovery+ to develop “The Book of Queer,” based on “The Magic Closet,” an Instagram video series Cervini produced from the closet of his Los Angeles home. The new title, he said, was meant to prevent the show from being confused for a home design program: “For us, the metaphorical closet comes to mind first. But for 80% of America, they think, ‘Oh, what a great closet in that home.’”
The season finale of “The Book of Queer” will air Thursday on Discovery+. Though a second season of the show has yet to be announced, Cervini has a follow-up Hollywood project in the works. Last month, Amazon Studios and Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment firmed up plans to adapt “The Deviant’s War” as a limited series. Matthew López, who won a Tony Award for Broadway’s “The Inheritance” and is directing the film version of another queer favorite, “Red, White & Royal Blue,” will write the screenplay.
And though Cervini couldn’t have predicted the current wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation that’s been sweeping across the U.S. in recent months, he hopes viewers will use the lessons of “The Book of Queer” and “The Deviant’s War” as an impetus to mobilize against it.
“I didn’t realize just how broad this systematic attack on our history, our education, our existence in Florida, Arizona, Alabama ― everywhere ― would be, and unfortunately, I wish that weren’t the case,” he said. “But we’ve also been through similar attacks before. So I think if we use our history as a guidebook and learn not just how we were successful but also where we excluded folks [like] trans people of color ... we’ll create the alliances we forgot about and be able to beat it back and make even more progress.”