Historian Douglas Charles explains why the old FBI went after gay people

Historians in the News
tags: LGBT, FBI



For nearly four decades, the Federal Bureau of Investigation used the so-called Sex Deviates Program to investigate and badger gay men and women in the United States. That harassment was justified by the belief that homosexuals posed a security risk in two ways: their behavior was thought to be an indication of immorality and it supposedly made them susceptible to blackmail. Douglas Charles’s Hoover’s War on Gays (University Press of Kansas, 2015) is the first monograph to trace the history of that program. In it, Charles demonstrates that the Bureau was driven by “an overarching and intense fear and loathing of gays.”

Part of what makes Charles’s study noteworthy is the level and type of research it involved. The Bureau’s Sex Deviates File once included nearly 350,000 pages of information, but most of it was intentionally destroyed in the late 1970s. Writing on the topic necessitated an imaginative approach to the remaining source material, and as a result, Hoover’s War on Gays contains not only a compelling narrative, but also a record of innovative scholarship.

I began by asking Professor Charles about the connection between the Sex Deviates Program and the development of the national security state.

Christopher Elias: Why did the FBI regard homosexuals – or, in their language, “sex deviates” – as such a danger to the security and well-being of the United States? What does their interest tell us about the composition of the American security state?

Douglas Charles: The FBI was/is a product of its time. As such, it viewed gays and lesbians the same way that a majority of Americans did at mid-century. Those perceptions, moreover, were a function of changing times. Prior to the Great Depression, homosexuality was, of course, regarded as a sinful act, but nothing that was considered an overarching threat. But with the advent of the Great Depression, Americans dramatically altered how they thought about gender and sexuality. During that economic calamity, with mass unemployment and social dislocation, Americans’ very perception of society shifted. Millions were left unemployed, men were unable to support their families, they lost their homes, they sent their children away to live with relatives, jobless men became transients. In a patriarchal, heterosexually dominant culture this could only be viewed as a mass failure of masculinity. If heterosexual men were regarded as failing, homosexuals (men, in particular) were seen in an even worse light, and even as a threat. First, it started as a perceived threat to children, given public biases that gays targeted children while popular child kidnappings/murders headlined the news during the Depression. Gays were routinely targeted, and the FBI pushed an educational campaign to warn Americans about them. Second, during the mid-1930s, the federal government worked intimately with ordinary Americans for the first time to effect Depression relief via the New Deal. FDR’s programs always held a family focus, and in short order, the federal government came to realize that gays were present in society and, even more importantly, a threat to the family values of the New Deal itself. The federal government, including the FBI, quickly found itself regulating homosexuality by purging gays from New Deal programs.

It was only a small step (and a short period of time) from these perceptions to the belief that gays were a national security threat. By the late 1930s, the United States was edging closer to fighting in the Second World War. If gay men had been regarded as a threat to masculinity, children, and society during the Great Depression, it was easy for them to be seen as a security threat during wartime. The idea was that given widespread and popular disgust with homosexuality, Nazi agents could leverage gays to betray their country in wartime. This occurred simultaneously to the emergence of popular fears that a fascist Fifth Column operated covertly in the United States, as it had during the Spanish Civil War. Thus gays were ferreted out of military ranks, and the FBI began investigating prominent government officials accused of being gay. But the belief that homosexuality was a threat and popular target of blackmail skyrocketed with the Cold War, intensifying fears that covert Communist subversives were infiltrating America. Hence, the emergence of the Lavender Scare, congressional hearings and reports on the threat of gays, the FBI’s creation of its Sex Deviates Program, and the like. With the FBI tasked with protecting America from subversive forces, it played a central role in targeting gays in the National Security State. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. ...




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