Last edited: May 01, 2004

Historian David K. Johnson: Exposes the U.S. Government’s Anti-Gay Crusades

Gay Today, December 31, 2003

Interview by Raj Ayyar

Dr. David K. Johnson is the author of one of the most important American history books of our time: The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians by the Federal Government (University of Chicago Press). It is a carefully documented indictment of anti-gay demagoguery that turned into a common practice among U.S. politicians over a half-century ago. Dr. Johnson has provided today’s generation with disturbing details of the maltreatment that U.S. security agents visited upon thousands of loyal American citizens, people who endured vile campaigns against their well-being, conducted by their own government.

Raj Ayyar: How did political demagogues in the federal government persecute gays during the Cold War Era and what did people attracted to their own sex suffer at the hands of our government?

David K. Johnson, Ph.D.: In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Republican demagogues charged that homosexuals had infiltrated the federal government under the Roosevelt and Truman administrations and that they posed a threat to national security. They considered communists and homosexuals both to be morally weak and psychologically disturbed. They also argued that homosexuals could be used by the communists—blackmailed by them—into revealing state secrets. This set off a Lavender Scare that affected the lives of thousands of Americans.

Much of the vast apparatus of the Cold War loyalty/security system, initiated under the Truman administration and expanded under the Eisenhower administration, was focused on ferreting out and removing both communists and homosexuals from government positions. Civil servants describe horrendous interrogations by government security officials about their sex lives. Merely associating with “known homosexuals” or visiting a gay bar was considered strong enough evidence for dismissal.

Raj Ayyar: Historian George Chauncey says that after reading your remarkable book, “we will never be able to view the McCarthy Era in the same way again.” While most pundits assume that the late Republican demagogue, Senator Joseph McCarthy, was trying to ferret out communists working for the U.S. government, am I right when I say that your book The Lavender Scare doubtlessly proves otherwise and that Ann Coulter’s most recent book-wherein she cites McCarthy as a hero and uses him as a starting point-demonstrates that she’s a hopeless know-nothing?

David K. Johnson: Ann Coulter is only the most recent and most famous of a growing group of conservative writers bent on re-habilitating the legacy of Joseph McCarthy. They claim that new evidence from Soviet archives vindicates the anti-communist crusaders from the 1950s. In fact, the evidence from the archives is ambiguous at best. As they did in the 1950s with the famous “pumpkin papers,” these right-wing pundits engage in a tortured manipulation of the evidence in order to prove their point.

They, of course, completely ignore how McCarthy and his allies targeted gays and lesbians as well as communists. When McCarthy made his initial charges that the State Department harbored known security risks, the State Department responded by denying that it had uncovered any communists in its ranks, but admitted that it had fired 91 homosexuals. To the public, this seemed to confirm McCarthy’s charges.

In the popular imagination, communists and homosexuals were soon conflated. Both seemed to comprise hidden subcultures with their own meeting places, cultural codes, and bonds of loyalty. In the 1950s, fear of political and sexual deviance became so intertwined that it is impossible to understand the Red Scare without also examining the concurrent Lavender Scare.

Raj Ayyar: Republican rumor-mongers chased down the son of Senator Lester Hunt, a Democrat from Wyoming. Could you tell GayToday’s readers what happened to Senator Hunt in 1954?

David K. Johnson: This was one of the most notorious examples of Republicans using the issue of homosexuality as a partisan political weapon. In 1954, Senator Lester Hunt was up for re-election. At that time, the Republicans held control of the Senate only by the narrowest of margins and were desperate for an additional seat. The head of the Republican Campaign Committee learned that Hunt’s son, Lester Hunt, Jr., had been arrested on a morals charge in Lafayette Park—then a well-known gay male cruising site. He used this information to pressure the Senator to withdraw from the race. When Hunt refused to succumb to this kind of blackmail, his son was forced to stand trial. Embarrassed by the resulting publicity, Senator Hunt became increasingly despondent and reclusive. He eventually withdrew from the race and ten days later shot himself with a .22 caliber shotgun in his Senate office. This story became the inspiration for Allen Drury’s best-selling novel, Advise and Consent.

Raj Ayyar: I’d say that The Lavender Scare has great current significance as a work of history because it exposes the anti-gay fear-mongering that Republicans initiated during the Cold War Era. It appears, especially as you show Cold War Era Republicans discovered, that voters in rural America were much more alarmed by the presence of homosexuals in the government than of communists. Your history seems to point to today, at how U.S. Senate Majority Leader Frist as well as Senators Allard (R-Colorado), Brownsback (R-Kansas) and Sessions (R.-Alabama) are all now-50 years later-planning to try to use homosexuality as a wedge issue in the upcoming presidential campaign. Like the Republican demagogues in your history book, they’re hoping to divert voters from thinking about more important matters, this time by introducing an anti-gay amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Do you agree?

David K. Johnson: Certainly there is a long history of Republicans questioning the morality and sexuality of Democratic candidates and administrations. In the 1952 presidential election, Republican campaign rhetoric portrayed Eisenhower and Nixon as “God-fearing men” who were “for morality.” They promised to clean up the mess in Washington, including the immorality in the State Department. Their Democratic opponent, Adlai Stevenson, was portrayed as an intellectual egghead with a “fruity” voice. The rumors that Stevenson was a homosexual were so widespread that the tabloid magazine Confidential ran a cover story about “How that Stevenson rumor started.” Because of the innuendo that permeated the campaign, some gay men at the time considered Stevenson the first gay presidential candidate.

Raj Ayyar: You’ve discredited certain widely-believed rumors about FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, especially that he was seen dressed in drag by a mob moll. Could you say a few words about Hoover and about those rumors that swirled around him?

David K. Johnson: As I travel around the country researching and now promoting this book, the most common question I get asked is “So what about J. Edgar Hoover?” since it was Hoover’s FBI that did most of the security investigations of government officials. It’s amazing how the claim of Anthony Summer’s book Official and Confidential-that Hoover was not only gay but wore a black negligee at Plaza Hotel orgies-has become part of American popular culture. We will probably never know how Hoover self-identified sexually, but certainly the claims that Summer makes are preposterous. The woman who claims to have seen Hoover at the Plaza hotel was paid for her story and went to jail for perjury in another matter. The only reason that these rumors seem plausible is that we have forgotten the vehemence of the Lavender Scare-how obsessed 1950s Washington was with the threat homosexuals allegedly posed to national security. Even someone as powerful as Hoover could not have kept his job if he had been as blatant as writers like Summer claim.

Raj Ayyar: Your book indicates that the Truman Administration was not particularly eager to go chasing after homosexuals in government and that the Republicans had hoped to use “homosexual security risk” threats to discredit Truman and his State Department. In fact, although the Republicans insisted that that homosexuals were subject to blackmail, not one such case -in which a gay man or a lesbian gave away secrets to our enemies-has ever been documented. Isn’t that so?

David K. Johnson: That’s right. Though a congressional committee spent several months in 1950 studying the threat homosexuals allegedly posed to national security, they could not find a single example of a gay or lesbian civil servant who was blackmailed into revealing state secrets-not one. Subsequent studies have confirmed this. But the myth of the homosexual as vulnerable to blackmail and therefore a security risk endured for decades.

In 1960 two employees of the super-secret National Security Agency defected to the Soviet Union for political reasons. Yet because Martin and Mitchell were two single men, and one of them had revealed aberrant sexual behavior in his youth (including experimentation with a chicken), they were dubbed a “homosexual love team” that had been blackmailed into defecting. It is a testament to the power of myth over empirical reality.

Raj Ayyar: Since communists were nigh-impossible to find in U.S. government service, the term “security risk” was used by persecutors to go on their witch hunts. What types of people-other than homosexuals, were considered such risks?

David K. Johnson: A “security risk” was someone who was considered likely to reveal state secrets, either through carelessness or coercion. Alcoholics and blabbermouths were therefore considered prime examples of security risks. Someone who had relatives behind the “Iron Curtain” was also considered vulnerable to blackmail. But none of these other categories elicited the kind of special concern-congressional hearings, security briefing books, specialized security personnel-as did homosexuals. So although the term “security risk” encompassed a variety of behaviors, it often functioned as a code for “homosexual.”

Raj Ayyar: The federal government’s purges went beyond the Washington, D.C. border and extended, even, to the United Nations. Why was this and what happened?

David K. Johnson: Security officials were concerned that many gay men and lesbians who were fired from the State Department were finding employment in the United Nations and other international organizations. They were afraid that McCarthy and his allies might expose this situation and so put extreme pressure on these organizations to copy the anti-gay employment policies of the U.S. government. They also pressured America’s NATO allies to exclude homosexuals from sensitive positions within their governments.

Raj Ayyar: How long did persecution—The Lavender Scare—last after the ignominious departure of Senator McCarthy from the political scene?

David K. Johnson: The Lavender Scare long outlived McCarthy. The system of ferreting out and removing gays and lesbians became institutionalized within the federal loyalty/security system. It remained standard government policy until 1975. By then a number fired gay employees had successfully sued the Civil Service Commission, and these favorable court decisions forced the government to change its policy.

Raj Ayyar: Among the more interesting points you’ve documented in The Lavender Scare is how the federal government’s persecution of gays and lesbians during the Cold War Era sparked the development of our gay and lesbian civil rights movement. This was true not only in Los Angeles but a bit later in Washington, D.C. where a tiny group of persecuted gays organized and developed strategies to fight back. What you seem to be saying, apparently, is that our movement’s roots are more correctly found in the gay struggle against the U.S. government’s firings and mistreatments instead of in the rebellion against corrupt police at the Stonewall bar, a revolt that happened a decade later.

David K. Johnson: Harry Hay, the founder of the Mattachine Society in California, knew of the homosexual purges going on in Washington as early as 1948. He feared that as the Cold War with the Soviet Union escalated and American society took on a wartime footing, the purges would spread to the private sector and gays and lesbians would find it impossible to find employment. It was this sense of an “encroaching American fascism” that inspired him to found the Mattachine Society in 1950-1951. Working in a defense industry plant in Los Angeles, Hay understood the power of the federal government in setting employment policies.

But no community experienced the discriminatory policies of the federal government quite as acutely as Washington, D.C. In the 1950s, the gay and lesbian community there was a community under siege. Government workers who lost their jobs usually had to leave town in order to find employment elsewhere. So it’s no accident that Washington, D.C. became the center for a new militancy in the gay movement by the early 1960s. It was there, as gay men and lesbians began to organize and challenge the federal government’s discriminatory policies, that they developed much of the rhetoric and tactics of the gay rights movement. By the time the Stonewall Riots occurred in June 1969, gay men had already successfully challenged the government’s anti-gay policies in the courts and won several significant legal victories.

Raj Ayyar: Since your history credits Dr. Franklin Kameny and the Mattachine Society of Washington for initiating a long but successful struggle against government persecution, what are some of the ways in which the Society’s strategies were to became seminal steps leading to our movement’s many successes?

David K. Johnson: Kameny was one of the first people to use the language of civil rights when referring to the problems confronting gays and lesbians. He saw the treatment of gays and lesbians as analogous to that of racial and religious minorities-a notion we now take for granted but which was quite novel in the 1950s and 1960s. He was also one of the first gay men to “come out” publicly. Most early members of the homophile movement met in private and used pseudonyms in their publications. Kameny made public appearances on behalf of gays and lesbians using his own name. Having already lost his government job, he had little left to lose.

Perhaps the two most important tactics the Mattachine Society of Washington initiated were the use of public demonstrations and court suits. Public demonstrations like the 1965 picket in front of the White House were an effective way of garnering publicity for their cause. And legal challenges ultimately proved the most effective means of dismantling the government’s anti-gay policies. Courageous men like Bruce Scott and Clifford Norton challenged their dismissals and won-suggesting that the courts were the best means of protecting the civil liberties of gay men and lesbians.

Raj Ayyar: In the early 1960s, you tell how a conservative Texas Democrat, Congressman John Dowdy, attempted to put a stop to any fund raising by the Mattachine Society of Washington, an effort which led to a controversial Congressional hearing. This shows, I suppose, that there’ve been dowdy Democrats who’ve served as big pimples on the derriere of progress. Nevertheless, I’ve always felt that these little-known hearings provoked a drama comparable to the 1925 trial about evolution in Tennessee, a trial whereon was based the twice-produced film, Inherit the Wind. Do you think too that Dowdy’s Congressional hearing is also such a drama waiting to become a film?

David K. Johnson: That is an interesting analogy. Though the Scopes trial in the 1920s received much more publicity than the Dowdy hearing did in the 1960s, they both illustrate monumental ideological clashes between traditional and “modern” ways of approaching the world. Dowdy expressed the traditional notion that homosexuality was immoral, criminal, and possibly treasonous-a threat to the nation’s survival. Kameny deployed a new civil rights rhetoric. Kameny saw homosexuals as an oppressed minority group deserving full citizenship rights. Though this clash of ideas is unfortunately still with us, the Dowdy hearings were one of first public forums in which it played out.

Kameny’s whole life would make a good dramatic film. He comes in at the end of the story I tell leading the cavalry in a frontal assault on prejudice and homophobia. So yes, shall we start thinking about casting for the film? How about Anthony Hopkins playing the evil congressman Dowdy?

Raj Ayyar: You’ve written a stellar work, one of the most important published gay histories there is and we at GayToday want to thank you heartily for agreeing to talk with us about it.

David K. Johnson: Thank you very much. And thanks to Gay Today for being such a big supporter and promoter of glbt history.

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