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1950s witch hunt:: Even McCarthy was gay baited

Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series part 28

Published Mar 2, 2005 10:45 AM

In the 1950s, more bombshells were to detonate in the overall offensive against the "Lavender Menace," which had become a foil for the right-wing in the domestic Cold War.

In 1951, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, two gay double-agents working in British intelligence, fled to the Soviet Union. This was grist for the mill, linking homosexuality with communist "treason."

In 1952, worldwide publicity accompanied the entrapment and arrest of British mathematician and computer innovator Alan Turing. He was one of 1,686 men rounded up and charged with "gross indecency with males." Turing had risen to fame during World War II after he deciphered a Nazi secret code.

Turing was sentenced to a year of hormonal treatments, which reportedly caused impotence and breast development, and became the target of British government scrutiny as a potential "subversive." He killed himself two years later, at the age of 41.

In the U.S., transphobia also took center stage in 1952. When Christine Jorgensen's plane touched down carrying her home from Denmark, where she'd sought hormonal and surgical help with sex reassignment, 300 reporters surged forward, shouting questions as flash bulbs popped.

She became the brunt of a dehumanizing and degrading campaign from the bully pulpits of radio, newspaper and television.

And that same year, even cold warrior Sen. Joseph McCarthy was publicly baited as a homosexual.

Hoisted by their own petard

After the 1952 election, in which the Republicans won back Senate control, McCarthy took over as chair of the Investigations Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations. He hired 25-year-old attorney Roy Cohn as his chief counsel. Cohn in turn recruited David Schine, later rumored to be his lover, to become chief consultant.

Cohn had close contacts within the FBI. That was important for McCarthy, who reportedly worked hand-in-glove with J. Edgar Hoover's bureau between 1950 and 1953.

One of Hoover's agents, William Sullivan, later conceded, "We were the ones who made the McCarthy hearings possible. We fed McCarthy all the material he was using."

This information sharing was covert and quite illegal. Although bound by law to share information only with the executive branch, the bureau had also reportedly leaked background checks to Congress.

Hoover was said to have recommended Roy Cohn for the post with McCarthy because he was impressed by the young attorney's railroading of Communist Party members Ethel Rosenberg and Julius Rosenberg to the electric chair on charges of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Hoover himself has been rumored to have had a long-term affair with an assistant, Clyde Tolson.

"As McCarthy's henchman and chief counsel he [Cohn--LF] was responsible for grilling suspected communists on their own sexual tendencies and on whether other people had 'homosexual tendencies.' Cohn and McCarthy subpoenaed gay men in the arts and threatened to out them if they did not produce a list of 'suspected Communists.' (wikipedia.com)

McCarthy had made a name for himself as point man for a far right-wing current that attacked the Truman administration for the "loss" of China from imperialist exploitation after the monumental Communist-led revolution there.

But when McCarthy leveled his guns at the Eisenhower administration for not being "tough enough" on communism, he got his comeuppance. That was when he found himself in the cross-hairs of the anti-homosexual witch hunt.

In 1952, journalist Hank Greenspun wrote a column about the ambitious senator which could not have found its way into print without powerful support. It said that "Joe McCarthy is a bachelor of 43 years. ... He seldom dates girls and if he does he laughingly describes it as window dressing. It is common talk among homosexuals in Milwaukee who rendezvous in the White Horse Inn that Senator Joe McCarthy has often engaged in homosexual activities." (Las Vegas Sun, Oct. 25, 1952)

While McCarthy was said to have briefly threatened to sue Greenspun for libel, he later declined to do so, reportedly after lawyers told him it meant he'd have to testify about his sexuality. Less than a year later, McCarthy married his secretary, Jeannie Kerr.

In March 1953, McCarthy tried to defeat Eisenhower's appointment of Charles Bohlen as ambassador to Russia. Bohlen was a shrewd imperialist diplomat who had participated in the February 1945 Yalta Conference at which Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin had negotiated over the shape of post-war Europe. McCarthy tried to enlist Hoover's help. But although Hoover allegedly said that Bohlen had "associated" with homosexuals and that an FBI investigation had found him weak from "the security and morals angle," Hoover said he couldn't provide evidence. Bohlen was confirmed.

McCarthy also tried to cast aspersions on Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens. But when the senator from Wisconsin attempted to probe the echelons of the Army brass for subversives, at the height of the Korean War, he had crossed the line. His self-promoting witch hunt was now being extended to anyone who stood in his way, including seasoned members of the imperialist military-political establishment itself.

Eisenhower, a former Army general and in many ways the architect of the modern military-industrial complex, allowed the hearings to be televised to publicly expose McCarthy's tyrannical bullying. This was a tactic to arouse public anger at his intimidation tactics, and it provided the basis for the Senate to censure McCarthy in December 1954 by a vote of 67 to 22.

Whether McCarthy, Hoover, Cohn and other Cold Warriors in their circles thought of themselves as homosexuals, and whether or not they had sex with other men, is not really the issue.

Seen from the standpoint of sexuality, it seems inexplicable, like when Ernst Roehm and other gay Nazis helped to violently smash the German Homosexual Emancipation Movement.

However, McCarthy, like Roehm, hated the grass-roots, working-class movement that challenged capitalist rule from below. And like so many other right-wingers, he was willing to use every prejudice and reactionary attitude in this struggle.

McCarthy had made crystal clear on his very first day in the Senate which side of the class barricade he was on. He called together the media to publicize his "solution" to a coal strike then underway. He demanded that miners' union leader John L. Lewis and the striking workers be conscripted into the Army. If miners in uniform still refused to dig coal, McCarthy proposed they be court-martialed for insubordination and shot to death.

Full fury of state fist

The media fanfare over the federal anti-homosexual witch hunt died down after 1950. Historian David K. Johnson stres ses, however, that the lessening of publicity was "not a testament to the lack of antigay efforts but to their routinization and institutionalization in the aftermath of the national security state." ("The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Perse cut ion of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government")

The Democratic Truman administration had caved in to the right wing, ramping up firings of federal employees accused of being homosexuals, after the Senate issued the results of its "investigation" into gays and lesbians in government employ in December 1950. Firings in the State Department, for example, climbed from 54 in 1950, to 119 in 1951, to 134 in 1952.

Within three months of being sworn in at his inauguration in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450. This act empowered all federal agencies to investigate and fire workers on the grounds of "sexual perversion." Johnson adds, government shared police and military records with private employers, resulting in the dismissal of hundreds."

He emphasizes that this overall repressive campaign must be understood as much broader than the work of Joseph McCarthy, alone. "To attribute the purges to McCarthy serves to marginalize them historically. It suggests that they were the product of a uniquely unscrupulous demagogue, did not enjoy widespread support, and were not part of mainstream conservatism or the Republican Party."

And he concludes, "It ignores how the purges predated McCarthy, became institutionalized within the federal loyalty/ security system, and continued to be standard government policy until the 1970s."

In his book, "The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution," David Carter offers a detailed and important overview of the iron-fisted state repression during the Cold War.

"The Civil Service Commission and the FBI complied by initiating an intense campaign to ferret out homosexuals by, for instance, correlating morals arrests across the United States with lists of government employees and checking fingerprints of job applicants against the FBI's fingerprint files."

He recalls how states wrote new, more repressive laws or beefed up sentencing. "For example, California governor Earl Warren thought the sex offender problem so serious that in 1949 he convened a special session of the state legislature to deal with the issue. That session passed laws that increased the penalties for sodomy and invented a new crime: loitering in a public toilet." The names of everyone convicted of lingering in a toilet were added to a state register.

"Twenty-nine states enacted new sexual psychopath laws and/or revised existing ones, and homosexuals were commonly the laws' primary targets. In almost all states, professional licenses could be revoked or denied on the basis of homosexuality, so that professionals could lose their livelihoods."

And conviction brought with it terrible suffering. Carter emphasizes that by 1961, "An adult convicted of a crime of having sex with another consenting adult in the privacy of his or her home could get anywhere from a light fine to five, 10, or 20 yearseven life--in prison. In 1971 20 states had 'sex psychopath' laws that permitted the detaining of homosexuals for that reason alone. In Pennsylvania and California sex offenders could be locked in a mental institution for life, and in seven states they could be castrated."

Carter adds, "At California's Atascadero State Hospital, known soon after its opening as 'Dachau for Queers,' men convicted of consensual sodomy were, as authorized by a 1941 law, given electrical and pharmacological shock therapy, castrated and lobotomized."

The state machinery--police, courts, prisons, military--had already been used as a weapon to besiege gay/lesbian/trans and bisexual people in the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s. What changed in the ensuing two decades to unleash the state in such a ferocious, cruel and widespread effort to control sexuality?

And was there resistance? Oh, yes.

Next: Resisting state terror predated McCcarthyism.