Purging the gays,
McCarthy style

Purging the gays,
            McCarthy style

Republicans are scapegoating gay Americans again. Though
their outrage over former congressman Mark Foley is recent,
it employs tactics they honed in the dark days of the
Cold War during the McCarthy-led “purge of the

Only a few days
after Foley resigned in disgrace and news spread of a
possible high-level congressional cover-up, Gloria Borger of
CBS News reported that some Republicans blamed
“a network of gay staffers and gay members who
protect each other and did the speaker a disservice.”
Though Borger initially said it was a story that
“rank and file Republicans [would] only talk
about privately,” they quickly grew bold.

Before long,
Family Research Council president Tony Perkins was asking,
“Has the social agenda of the GOP been stalled by
homosexual members and/or staffers? When we look over
events of this Congress, we have to wonder.”

Even The New
York Times
ran a front-page article revealing
that “the presence of homosexuals, particularly gay
men, in crucial staff positions has been an enduring if
largely hidden staple of Republican life for decades,
and particularly in recent years.” Underscoring
their alleged power and influence, the Times noted
how gay Republicans “have played decisive roles in
passing legislation, running campaigns, and advancing
careers.” Members of this “Velvet
Mafia,” the Times noted ominously, were
“holding their breath” in anticipation
of more fallout from the Foley scandal.

The resignation
of Kirk Fordham, openly gay former chief of staff to
Foley and current chief of staff to New York Republican
congressman Thomas Reynolds, seemed only to whet
conservatives’ appetites to boot out the gays.
Labeling them “operatives” who had managed to
“infiltrate and manipulate the party
apparatus,” right-wing author Cliff Kincaid demanded
that “the secret Capitol Hill homosexual network must
be exposed and dismantled.”

Calling them
“subversives” thwarting the will of the
people, the American Family Association’s Don
Wildmon told The Nation, “they ought to
fire every one of them.” The Traditional Values
Coalition issued an ultimatum to their party:
“Republicans need to make a simple choice
between the innocent children and radical homosexuals
who prey on them.”

Charges of a
powerful gay network, a subversive fifth column that has
“infiltrated” the party, are nothing new. In
1950 Senator Joseph McCarthy charged that Harry
Truman’s State Department had been
“infiltrated” by subversives, a category
that initially included both communists and gays.
However, McCarthy quickly discovered that the charges of
homosexual infiltration were more effective at
stirring up indignation among voters.

advisors warned that “the country is really much more
disturbed over the picture which has been presented so
far of the government being loaded with homosexuals
than it is over the clamor about communists in the
government,” and the State Department’s
admission that it had fired 91 homosexuals seemed to
substantiate McCarthy’s charges. With a midterm
election approaching, Republicans attacked the Democrats for
“harboring” homosexuals. They followed
the advice of New York Daily News editors who wrote,
“If we were writing Republican campaign
speeches, we’d use the word ‘queer’ at
every opportunity.”

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

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