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.
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
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."
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)
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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."
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.
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."
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."
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
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
And was there resistance? Oh, yes.
state terror predated McCcarthyism.
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