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How the FBI Investigated Suspected Lesbians in Nuclear Weapons Project

How the FBI Investigated Suspected Lesbians in Nuclear Weapons Project

Manhattan Project site

Robert Oppenheimer's story isn't the only one to come out about workers at the Manhattan Project.

As Oppenheimer, the biopic about atomic bomb creator Robert Oppenheimer, continues to draw huge audiences into theaters, another story about the bomb project is coming to light: Eight women who worked on it were subjected to a federal government investigation because they were believed to be lesbians, and some of them lost their jobs amid the homophobic hysteria of the time.

The project that developed the bomb was known as the Manhattan Project, and the women have been dubbed the Manhattan Eight by the Seattle Times, which conducted an extensive review of records related to them through the website. Five of them worked at Los Alamos in New Mexico, three at a site called Hanford in Washington State.

“During the early years of the weapons program, from 1943 to 1953, homosexuality was regarded as a less-than-ideal trait in Manhattan Project employees but not a disqualifying factor, providing some grace for lesbian and gay employees,” the Times reports. A group of lesbians, all wearing red hats, often socialized at the La Fonda hotel in Santa Fe, near Los Alamos.

But in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an executive order denying security clearances for people who were suspected of “sexual perversion,” supposedly because it would make them easy targets for blackmailers who could weed out government secrets. The order’s effects were weakened by a Supreme Court decision in 1973, automatic denial of security clearances ended under President Bill Clinton in 1995, and the order was completely lifted under President Barack Obama in 2017.

But while it was in force, queer federal government employees were investigated by the FBI, and many of them lost their security clearances and their jobs in what’s become known as the Lavender Scare. (Oppenheimer himself eventually lost his clearance because of a previous association with the Communist Party.) The FBI had been investigating government employees for suspected homosexuality even before the order was issued, but as noted, being queer didn’t automatically prevent a person from receiving the security clearance needed for employment in sensitive areas.

Three members of the Manhattan Eight, identified by the Times as Annie, Betty, and Fran, obtained jobs at Los Alamos even though the FBI had already uncovered “contained derogatory information indicating possible homosexual tendencies,” according to an Atomic Energy Commission memo quoted by the paper. The records identified all eight women only by letters, and the Times assigned them first names beginning with those letters.

“Based on the extent of the FBI’s focus on her, Annie may have been America’s most wanted lesbian,” the Times reports. She started work at Los Alamos in 1943, then a couple of years later transferred a military installation in Okinawa, joining the woman who was believed to be her lover. In 1949, she began working at Hanford. The FBI was following her every move. She was denied a security clearance in 1953 and was fired from Hanford.

The woman known as Betty left the project in 1953 and “wouldn’t be considered for reinstatement based on the FBI’s findings,” the Times notes. Another one, Claire, who worked at Hanford, ran up against “a serious question of eligibility for continued security clearance,” according to a document quoted by the Times. The government wanted her to cooperate with another investigation, but she apparently did not. At least one other of the eight, Helen, a nurse at the Los Alamos Medical Center, resigned voluntarily. The fate of the others is unknown. The information may be in records that are sealed until 2030, the Times reports.

“The [Atomic Energy Commission], in saying these people are going to be security risks, they’re damning them. You’re also lumping them in with groups that might wish the U.S. and its allies harm,” Robert Franklin, assistant professor of history at Washington State University, Tri-Cities, and assistant director of the Hanford History Project, told the paper. “They’re not enemies, but the fact is they could be compromised just because of who they are.”

“It’s deeply unsettling and really should be a cautionary tale,” he added. “They wouldn’t have been a risk if we had been able to accept people for who they are.”

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