The more jaded among us may think it doesn’t matter who’s president, but on Presidents’ Day it's worth remembering that the person in that most powerful office in the land really does affect the lives of ordinary people. Here we look at the 11 presidents who have had the most significant impact, for good or ill — and sometimes unwittingly — on LGBT Americans.
FDR has a claim to being one of America’s greatest presidents (some conservatives will disagree), having helped the nation emerge from the Great Depression and win World War II (with his successor, Harry Truman, finishing the job after FDR’s death). But Roosevelt’s record has a few blemishes, one of which had a direct impact on gay Americans. J. Edgar Hoover, who had been the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for nine years when FDR became president in 1933, became significantly more powerful under Roosevelt.
FDR was “the most important president in Hoover’s career,” Beverly Gage wrote in The Nation in 2011, when the film J. Edgar was released. “Beginning in the mid-’30s, Roosevelt quietly encouraged Hoover to conduct surveillance of domestic fascists and communists. In 1939, with the outbreak of World War II in Europe, the president expanded the FBI’s jurisdiction to include all cases of domestic sabotage, espionage and subversion.” Roosevelt “recognized Hoover’s talents and popularity,” Gage continued. “The century’s greatest liberal president deliberately empowered one of its most influential conservatives.”
Hoover thought many left-leaning Americans posed a threat to the nation, and he thought the same of gay people — even though there’s reason to believe Hoover was gay himself and in a long-term relationship with aide Clyde Tolson. Hoover engaged in “a pattern of persecution that would destroy thousands of lives and careers,” Dudley Clendinen wrote in a 2011 piece for The New York Times. One of them was Clendinen’s godfather, Arthur H. Vandenberg Jr., who lost a job in President Eisenhower’s administration when Hoover told Eisenhower that Vandenberg was gay. Vandenberg’s later career in academia was ruined by an exposé in Confidential magazine, which likely received its information from the FBI, according to Clendinen. Vandenberg died in 1968, reportedly by suicide. Hoover continued as FBI director until his death in 1972.
In 1953, shortly after Arthur Vandenberg resigned at Eisenhower’s request, one of the new president’s first acts was to issue Executive Order 10450, which denied federal government employment to anyone found to engage in “sexual perversion.” That definition included, inevitably, homosexuality. The rationale was that gay people were likely to be blackmailed and therefore posed a threat to national security. “Many loyal Americans, by reason of instability, alcoholism, homosexuality, or previous tendencies to associate with Communist-front groups, are unintentionally security risks,” Ike himself wrote, although he also admitted feeling guilty over his treatment of Vandenberg. The order also applied to people who worked for private companies that held government contracts. More than 10,000 people lost their jobs as a result of the order. One of them was Frank Kameny, who became an activist and fought his firing all the way to the Supreme Court, without success. The U.S. Civil Service Commission lifted the order in 1975, and the Department of Defense, which had used it to deny security clearances to gays and lesbians, gradually ceased its “intensive questioning of gays ... in investigative interviews as to the detail of their sexual activities,” Kameny recalled in 2008. President Bill Clinton put a kibosh on the denial of security clearances once and for all in 1995; more about him later.
Kennedy and Johnson may have never thought their civil rights law would be interpreted as protecting LGBT people, but Kennedy, at least, would probably approve — his best friend was a gay man, Lem Billings. Kennedy, pushed to action by black activists, proposed a sweeping federal civil rights bill in 1963. Ascending to the presidency after JFK’s assassination, Johnson shepherded the legislation through Congress and signed it into law as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII of the act prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. “Sex” was added at the last minute; whether this was intended to derail the bill or truly to fight sex discrimination has been debated, but it stayed in. In recent years, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice have determined that sex discrimination includes discrimination based on transgender status. This means trans people can sue over such discrimination, and also that the DOJ, although it has no authority over private employers, can file such discrimination claims against state and local governments. Also, the EEOC has held that Title VII’s protections extend to discrimination against gay, lesbian, and bisexual employees, if the discrimination arises out of gender stereotypes.