David K. Johnson: “Purge of the Perverts” Redux ... Scapegoating Gays

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: Red Scare, gay history

[David K. Johnson teaches history at the University of South Florida, is the author of The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: 2004), and is an associate scholar at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute.]

Conservative Republicans are scapegoating gay Americans again. Though their outrage over Rep. Mark Foley is recent, it employs tactics they honed during the McCarthy-era “purge of the perverts.”

Only a few days after Foley resigned in disgrace and news spread of a possible high- level congressional cover-up, Gloria Borger of CBS News reported that Republicans blamed “a network of gay staffers and gay members who protect each other and did the Speaker a disservice.” Though Borger initially said it was a story that “rank and file Republicans [would] only talk about privately,” they grew bold quickly. Before long, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins was asking, “Has the social agenda of the GOP been stalled by homosexual members and or [sic] staffers? When we look over events of this Congress, we have to wonder.” Even the New York Times ran a front-page article revealing that “the presence of homosexuals, particularly gay men, in crucial staff positions has been an enduring if largely hidden staple of Republican life for decades, and particularly in recent years.” Underscoring their alleged power and influence, the Times noted how gay Republicans “have played decisive roles in passing legislation, running campaigns and advancing careers.” Members of this “Velvet Mafia,” the Times noted ominously, were “holding their breath” in anticipation of more fallout from the Foley scandal.

The resignation of Kirk Fordham, openly gay former chief of staff to Foley and current chief of staff to Rep. Reynolds, seemed only to whet conservatives’ appetites. Labeling them “operatives” who had managed to “infiltrate and manipulate the party apparatus,” right-wing author Cliff Kincaid demanded that “the secret Capitol Hill homosexual network must be exposed and dismantled.” Calling them “subversives” thwarting the will of the people, the American Family Association’s Rev. Don Wildmon told The Nation, “they oughta fire every one of ’em.” The Traditional Values Coalition issued an ultimatum to their party: “Republicans need to make a simple choice between the [sic] innocent children and radical homosexuals who prey on them.”

Charges of a powerful gay network, a subversive fifth column that has “infiltrated” the party, are nothing new. In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy charged that Harry Truman’s State Department had been “infiltrated” by subversives, a category that initially included both communists and homosexuals. However, McCarthy quickly discovered that the charges of homosexual infiltration were more effective at stirring up indignation among voters. Though histories of the McCarthy era rarely mention it, three-quarters of McCarthy’s mail expressed outrage at his disclosures of “sex depravity.” Truman’s advisors warned that “the country is really much more disturbed over the picture which has been presented so far of the Government being loaded with homosexuals than it is over the clamor about Communists in the Government,” and the State Department’s admission that it had fired 91 homosexuals seemed to substantiate McCarthy’s charges. With a midterm election approaching, Republicans attacked the Democrats for “harboring” homosexuals. They followed the advice of New York Daily News editors, who wrote, “If we were writing Republican campaign speeches, we’d use the word ‘queer’ at every opportunity.”

When a Washington, D.C., official testified that 5,000 homosexuals lived in the nation’s capital and three-quarters worked for the federal government, headlines throughout the nation warned of a perversion menace. Local police began a crackdown on gay bars and cruising areas and the FBI investigated federal workers and job seekers. The State Department alone fired one suspected homosexual per day, more than twice the rate at which they fired suspected communists. In the government-wide purge that followed, thousands of civil servants suspected of homosexuality lost their jobs.

Just as today’s conservatives speak of an elite cabal of gay staffers, McCarthy spoke of “nests” of homosexual civil servants. During the Cold War, politicians feared that the bonds of loyalty between homosexuals were so strong—a sort of freemasonry—that those in sensitive government positions might betray national security secrets. A 1950 congressional committee that investigated McCarthy’s charges concluded that “the homosexual tends to surround himself with other homosexuals.... if a homosexual attains a position in Government where he can influence the hiring of personnel, it is almost inevitable that he will attempt to place other homosexuals in Government jobs.” Frank Kameny was one civil servant who lost his job in 1957 for suspected homosexuality. Despite his Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard, the civil service commission fired him at the height of the space race with the Soviet Union. One of the few to fight his dismissal, Kameny went on to become a gay rights activists and founder of the Mattachine Society of Washington and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, leading the first gay picket in front of the White House in 1965. (In an ironic twist of fate, his personal papers were accepted into the Library of Congress last week, and his 1965 picket signs pleading “Homosexual Americans Demand their Civil Rights“ will soon be on display in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.)

In an ominous parallel with the McCarthy era, federal prosecutors in Arizona announced in the midst of the Foley scandal their investigation of Rep. Jim Kolbe, the only openly gay Republican congressperson, for a camping trip he took a decade ago with a group that included former pages. Though the details varied markedly from the Foley scandal—Kolbe was not in the closet, and the men were neither still in the congressional program nor underage—the story served to further the connection in the public mind between gay politicians and sexual predators. And because Kolbe had come forward with early knowledge of Foley’s misconduct, it further raised the specter of gays “protecting each other.” Pointing to the trip, conservative journalist and media commentator Cliff Kincaid even warned of a “homosexual recruitment ring that operated on Capitol Hill.”

In the 1950s, conservative Republicans used the charge that the administration was “honeycombed with homosexuals” to take back the White House from the Democrats. Their campaign slogan was “Let’s Clean House.” This time, instead of Republicans competing with Democrats, it’s a struggle between the more moderate pro-business wing of the G.O.P. and the strident moralists of the Christian right –– a group that includes Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council, who has warned that “putting a homosexual in charge of AIDS policy is a bit like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse,” as well as those who can’t bear to see Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice refer affectionately to the new openly gay global AIDS coordinator’s same-sex partner. No matter who wins, the new rush to “clean house” victimizes the same people it did decades ago: gay men and women who serve their country in the federal and congressional bureaucracies.

Read entire article at National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

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Craig Michael Loftin - 10/30/2006

I would just like to add to Johnson's excellent piece that then, as now, we unfortunately see many gays leading the charge against civil rights for gays and lesbians. In the 1950s, we had Roy Cohn, a gay man who intimidated and harassed gay government workers in secret committee hearings in order to further McCarthy's radical agenda. Today, we see many many gays in the GOP staying closeted and keeping silent as their party works to undermine gay rights and work towards recriminalizing same-sex behavior. Gays seem to know their place in the GOP: the closet.
Where the hell are the Log Cabins on all this?
It seems like all the Republicans have to offer these days is bigotry, whether geared towards gays, Latinos, women, or non-Christians. Unfortunately, they know it works at the polls and keeps them in power, much like the Democrats in the South prior to the Civil Rights movement.