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Commies and Queers

Joseph McCarthy is chiefly remembered for his attempts to expel Communists and Soviet Operatives from positions in the U.S. Government. Less well remembered is his attempt to expel homosexuals. Homosexuals, like Communists, were seen as a subversive presence in the 1950’s. In The Lavender Scare, David K. Johnson writes at great length about the way that fear of Communists and fear of homosexuals became part of the same attempt to root insidious, corruptive people out of the nation’s government. Gays were not just sex perverts and deviates, they were security risks as well:

For much of 1950, the issue of homosexuals in government threatened to overtake that of Communists in government within public political discourse. What made the homosexual issue even more of a liability for the administration was how many Americans began to conflate the homosexuals and the communists. The constant pairing of “Communists and queers” led many to see them as indistinguishable threats. Evidence that one group had infiltrated the government was seen as confirmation of charges that the other had as well. McCarthy had helped ensure this confusion by embellishing the details of the few homosexual cases he had raised during his presentation to the Senate.

The public linking of Communists and Queers is rather ironic, because the actual Communist party in the United States did not particularly welcome homosexual members, and the feeling was mutual; the pioneering gay activist, Harry Hay, had once been a member of the Communist Party, but was kicked out of it because of his sexuality. Similarly, the early gay-rights organization, The Mattachine Society, revoked Harry Hay’s membership because of his past Communist ties.

The intermural bickering of these groups, however, was not an issue which most Americans followed. They just wanted the subversives eliminated. It became common throughout the decade for citizens nationwide, including New Orleans, to read the morning paper and see articles conflating homosexuality with Communism and other perceived threats to the government. In March of 1954, for example, The Times-Picayune ran an article titled “Subversive Data Had on 355 Fired: Total of 1782 Separations as Security Risks.” The term “separation” is an obvious euphemism for being terminated from a job. As David K. Johnson notes in The Lavender Scare, anyone considered a “sex pervert” (as homosexuals would have been), was automatically a security risk because of the perceived susceptibility to blackmail, and other people who were deemed “security risks,” such as alcoholics or loose talkers, were often suspected of being homosexual as well.

Government security officers routinely characterized homosexuals as so gregarious that they were unable to keep secrets. Their great desire to talk, officials asserted, meant they were quick to confess and name names…. Even closer was the link between drinking and homosexual activity. Both psychiatric literature and popular fiction of the period portrayed the alcoholic as a repressed homosexual who acted on his same sex desires only while intoxicated.

In the Picayune article noted above, readers were told that of those 1,782 “separations,” 355 people were fired because officials had found information about them “of a subversive nature,” 190 were fired because they were found to be “Sex perverts,” 504 were guilty of “Felonies or misdemeanors” and 959 were fired for “Other unspecified causes.” These categories raise as many questions as they answer: what information of a “subversive nature” did investigators find? Exactly what felonies or misdemeanors? What were these “unspecified causes”? Where did the alcoholics and the loose-lipped fall into this ranking? And since as many as 256 of the 1,782 “separated” individuals fell into more than one category (resulting in the number of 2,008 security findings), exactly what combination of character flaws—real or imagined—would result in separation?

The criteria, to say the least, are vague and slippery, and were perhaps that way by design. This fits into a part of the zeitgeist of a period when there was a barely concealed societal fear that nobody was what people believed them to be. The fears surface in the novel-turned-film, The Manchurian Candidate, in which the Chinese Communist government brainwashes and controls a puppet of a man whom they intend to install as president of the United States. In more symbolic form, the fear of alien infiltration surfaces in another novel-turned-film, from the same period: Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This film features extra-terrestrial invaders who kill humans and replace them with identical replicas, which take over their lives. The threat is all the more terrible because there are thousands—perhaps millions of them—and there is no way to determine who might be an enemy because the invaders all look just like us! As do Communists. And Queers.

Most historians now agree that McCarthy was largely unsuccessful in identifying and rooting out Communists who represented any actual Soviet threat. Historian Harvey Klehr, who has written extensively about McCarthy, spies, and the KGB, states that McCarthy’s accusations were based on “errors of fact, misjudgments of organizations, and innuendoes disguised as evidence.” Although evidence surfaced after McCarthy’s death showing that he was right about some degree of Soviet threat, Klehr affirms that, “virtually none of the people McCarthy claimed or alleged were Soviet Agents” were later shown to be so.

But even after he had been censured by the senate, both the Red Scare and the Lavender Scare continued in force. New Orleans residents would have seen this when the Times-Picayune provided coverage of a row that took place when Democratic Senator Matthew Neely of West Virginia attacked the Eisenhower administration for being insufficiently vigilant about rooting Communists and “other subversives” out of government. Responding to the charge was Philip Young, Chairman of the Civil Service Commission under Eisenhower. Young had stated that 9,310 federal employees had quit or been fired as part of the Commission’s security actions. When Neely asked how many had been tried and convicted of being Communists or having Communist leanings, Young was forced to admit that none had been; instead, he said that of the over 9,000 people no longer working for the government, three thousand had actually been fired, and 5,696 resigned when their files, “were known to contain unfavorable information under the security criteria, “ which included, “people with membership in subversive organizations, alcoholics, people with unsatisfactory associations, persons subject to blackmail, and those who were simply overly loquacious.” Later, an administration official said that “a substantial number” of the 3,000 fired were “drunks and sex perverts.”

It’s interesting to note what while McCarthy frequently conflated Communists and homosexuals in his rhetoric, he was usually absent when hearings with suspected homosexuals took place. There is speculation that McCarthy, a middle-aged bachelor, wanted to keep himself out of the spotlight at such times, lest questions be raised about his own personal life. His chief counsel, Roy Cohn, was homosexual (though he denied he was gay until the day of his death, of AIDS, in 1986). He was still willing to assist McCarthy in rooting homosexuals out of government, perhaps as a means of advancing his own career interests, and perhaps as a means of hiding in plain sight. Cohn himself was assisted by G. David Schine, the handsome heir to a hotel fortune, rumored even at the time to be Cohn’s lover.

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