Original publish date: April 7, 2016
The Joe McCarthy Red Scare era of political repression stands curiously at odds with most Americans memories of the 1950s Ike years where Roy Rogers ruled the range and every kid wore a Davy Crockett coonskin cap. Last week’s article explored the anti-communist fervor that led to the name change of the Cincinnati Reds to the Cincinnati Red legs. This article will attempt to tell the story of another aspect of those terrible days that has been mostly forgotten and long neglected by the history books.
From 1950 to 1954, the question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” resonated thru the halls of Congress and struck fear in the hearts of even the most hearty of American Heroes. Walt Disney, Humphrey Bogart, Gene Kelly and Ronald Reagan were among those called to testify. The hearings succeeded in destroying the careers of many employed in governmental, motion picture, literary and fine arts communities.
However, there was another question asked more in hushed whispers echoing in the back conference rooms away from the glare of the cameras. While those cacophonous communist accusations grabbed all the headlines out front, security officials posed this question at least as frequently but much more discreetly: “Information has come to the attention of the Civil Service Commission that you are a homosexual. What comment do you care to make?”
During the Cold War, homosexuals were considered to be as potentially dangerous a threat to national security as were the Communists. Rumors abound that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were havens for homosexuals. Such Scandalous talked proved a perfect addendum to the fervor of the moment and sparked a “Lavender Scare” more vehement and long-lasting than McCarthy’s Red Scare.
During an Era when Lucy loved Desi, Elvis was headed towards an Army haircut and everybody liked Ike, Americans were being secretly questioned about their sex lives in the hallowed halls of Congress. On April 27, 1953 (63 years ago this month) President Dwight Ike Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450 into law. Its language was broad: “Any criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct, habitual use of intoxicants to excess, drug addiction, or sexual perversion.” Without explicitly referring to homosexuality, the executive order determined that the presence of homosexual employees in the State Department posed blackmail risks and should not be employed.
Over the next few months, approximately 5,000 homosexuals were fired from federal jobs including private contractors and military personnel. Not only did the victims lose their jobs but they were also forced out of the closet and thrust into the public eye as homosexuals. Many more government employees were dismissed because of their homosexual orientation than because of their left-leaning or communist beliefs. These homosexual purges ended promising careers, ruined lives, and pushed many to suicide.
The Red Scare witch hunt, which began as a movement to crush any opposition to the Cold War, also led to the firing, red-listing and public outing of people who didn’t fit the straight-laced classification of main stream America. Quite literally, anyone considered queer were rounded up and branded as subversive, anti-American communist sympathizers. The Lavender Scare’s legacy is that it harmed far more people and continued for a much longer period of time. But most have never even heard of it.
The term for this persecution drew its title from the phrase “lavender lads” used repeatedly by powerful Illinois GOP Senator Everett Dirksen as a synonym for homosexual males. In 1952, Dirksen said that a Republican victory in the November elections would mean the removal of “the lavender lads” from the State Department. The phrase was also used back in the day by Confidential magazine, a National Enquirer style gossip rag known for gossiping about the sexuality of politicians and Hollywood stars.
In 1950, the same year that Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed 205 communists were working in the State Department, Truman Undersecretary of State John Peurifoy said that the State Department had allowed 91 homosexuals to resign. On April 19, 1950, Republican National Chairman Guy George Gabrielson said that “Perhaps as dangerous as the actual Communists are the sexual perverts who have infiltrated our Government in recent years.” Gabrielson charged that the media was not doing enough to alert the population to the “homosexual menace.”
The media knew a controversy when they saw it and soon newspapers and magazines helped whip the frenzy into a fevered pitch. The New York Times took the lead, running at least seven stories promoting this anti-homosexual campaign in May of 1950. A month later, the Senate authorized an official investigation, the first of its kind in U.S. history. It was popularly dubbed the “pervert inquiry.”
The politically motivated results of these hearings, issued in December, charged the Truman administration with indifference toward the danger of homosexuals in government. The official “justification” for this witch hunt against gay and lesbian employees was cited as “lack of emotional stability” and “weakness of … moral fiber” that allegedly made them susceptible to Soviet propaganda and recruitment.
Nebraska GOP Senator Kenneth Wherry concluded in December, “You can’t hardly separate homosexuals from subversives… Mind you, I don’t say that every homosexual is a subversive, and I don’t say every subversive is a homosexual. But [people] of low morality are a menace in the government, whatever [they are], and they are all tied up together.” In 1950, a Senate investigation chaired by Clyde R. Hoey noted in a report, “It is generally believed that those who engage in overt acts of perversion lack the emotional stability of normal persons.”, and said all of the government’s intelligence agencies “are in complete agreement that sex perverts in Government constitute security risks.”
Between 1947 and 1950, 1,700 federal job applications were denied, 4,380 people were discharged from the military, and 420 were fired from their government jobs for being suspected homosexuals. In the State Department alone, security officials bragged about firing one homosexual per day, more than twice the rate of those charged with political disloyalty to capitalism.
Strangely absent in voice or written opinion on the homosexual debate is the man the movement was named for; Senator Joe McCarthy. While the domestic witch hunt of lesbian, gay men and gender-variant people became an integral component of McCarthyism, Joe McCarthy himself was not the main power behind the anti-homosexual frenzy. True, the senator from Wisconsin did pepper his tirades with references to “Communists and queers.” But as the political crusade took off, McCarthy was nowhere to be seen.
Though he was a member of the congressional committee that spent several months examining the homosexuals-in-government issue, McCarthy mysteriously recused himself from those hearings. Websters defines recuse as a challenge by a judge, prosecutor, or juror as unqualified to perform legal duties because of a possible conflict of interest or lack of impartiality. So was Joe McCarthy excusing himself from the issue because he was biased or was he excusing himself because he was gay?
McCarthy, the middle-aged, confirmed bachelor, may have considered himself vulnerable to questions about his own sexuality that were sure to circulate soon. After all, it was McCarthy who hired Roy Cohn–who died of AIDS in 1986 and is widely believed to have been a closeted homosexual–as chief counsel of his Congressional subcommittee. Together, McCarthy and Cohn, with the enthusiastic support of the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (also believed by many to have been a closeted homosexual),
vigorously prosecuted any and all accused homosexuals who came before them.
McCarthy did get married in 1953, but it was late in his career and his bride was his longtime secretary. Many viewed the union as a ruse designed to deflect rumors about his sexuality that were beginning to surface. No credible evidence has ever surfaced to confirm (or deny) that Joe McCarthy was gay, but the 1940-50s Era Milwaukee underground (where Joe was from) are filled with stories of the Senator’s escapades in the gay clubs and bars of that Era. Rumors must not be confused with history and should be relegated to files of speculation, gossip and innuendo.
Until the election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as President, no other politician of Irish descent had achieved a national impact comparable with McCarthy’s in twentieth century America. McCarthy took a serious issue, undermined it through reckless behavior and destroyed the lives of many people in the process. McCarthy’s Red Scare didn’t come to an end until he dared to attack the Army with his accusations. A very bad idea when the Oval office is occupied by the most famous General of his generation.
One of the victims of McCarthyism was sexologist Alfred Kinsey of Indiana University. The McCarthy hearings investigated links between non-profit organizations and the Communist Party, but Kinsey and his principal funding source, the Rockefeller Foundation, were clearly the primary targets. The Committee sought testimony criticizing Kinsey’s work and publicized exaggerated tales of his alleged sexual depravity and links to communism, while barring witnesses who might defend Kinsey or the Institute. The Committee ferociously condemned his work and made headlines across America. The Rockefeller Foundation soon withdrew its financial support, which crippled and effectively ended Kinsey’s work. Dr. Kinsey died a short time later in August of 1956 followed by Joe McCarthy some 9 months later in May of 1957.
Most Americans view Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare as a forgotten relic of the Cold War Era. But the Lavender Scare lived on into the Bill Clinton administration. Ike’s Executive Order 10450 baring gays from entering the military was not rescinded until 1995.