Purging the gays, McCarthy style

The scapegoating of gay people in light of the scandal surrounding disgraced former congressman Mark Foley is nothing new. It is a tactic honed in the dark days of the Cold War during the McCarthy-led “purge of the perverts.”



Though histories
of the McCarthy era rarely mention it, a “Lavender
Scare” accompanied and abetted the better-known
“Red Scare.” 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 gay person 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

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 activist, a 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 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 member of congress, 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
author 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 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

Tags: Politics