Hoover’s War on Gays: A Review

Hoover in 1963

Doug Charles

Hoover’s War on Gays: Exposing the FBI’s “Sex Deviates” Program

University Press of Kansas, 2015

It is difficult to recall in our era of celebrating gay rights that once upon a time homosexuals were considered as much a security risk as Communist spies. The case of Whittaker Chambers, the chief witness against his fellow spy Alger Hiss, illustrated that era’s deep assumption of an overlap between spying and homosexuality. In a confession to carefully selected FBI men, Chambers admitted to homosexual cruising while committing espionage for the Soviets. Many suspected this already, with several newspapermen, many of whom originally supported Hiss but saw evidence mount that he knew Chambers, believing that they were lovers. Richard Nixon, in many ways the man who, as a California congressman, “got” Hiss, later told his White House inner circle that Hiss and Chambers were lovers; when he brought them together into the same hotel room, he recalled, Hiss demanded to see Chambers’s dental work in order to ascertain whether he knew him. This indicated, Nixon concluded, that they had engaged in oral sex together.

Given the homophobia in the culture of the day, the parallels between the spy and the homosexual should not be surprising. Both used “signals,” met in alleys and obscure hotel rooms, lied under oath to protect their secret lives, and were vulnerable to prosecution if they didn’t “name” others.

For J. Edgar Hoover, homosexuals — or, in his lexicon, “sex deviates” — who worked in the federal government were as much a threat to the republic as any embedded Soviet spies. But none knew the extent of Hoover’s “sweeps” until Charles Francis, a veteran public-relations man and friend to George W. Bush, obtained a memo, dated June 20, 1951, and addressed to 40 top FBI officials, that was released two years ago under the Freedom of Information Act: “Each supervisor will be held personally responsible to underline in green pencil the names of individuals . . . who are alleged to be sex deviates,” Hoover wrote.

For J. Edgar Hoover, homosexuals — or, in his lexicon, “sex deviates” — who worked in the federal government were as much a threat to the republic as any embedded Soviet spies.

According to Penn State historian Doug Charles in his book Hoover’s War on Gays: Exposing the FBI “Sex Deviates” Program, this initiative was the launch of a massive campaign against homosexuals by the Bureau. By the 1970s, the FBI had collected 360,000 files on gays and lesbians in the federal government. Dates and places of their “acts” were included in the files. From police reports and “individual complaints,” agents collected names of these “unsuitable,” “unstable” “security risks.”

Hoover collected dirt on presidents, of course, but also on their circle of aides and advisers. He wielded considerable power in quashing federal appointments. A case in point was Arthur Vandenburg Jr. President Dwight Eisenhower had hired him to be his appointments secretary but changed his mind on meeting with Hoover and viewing the files.

But Hoover wasn’t the only one to employ the gay smear. Journalists for years believed that Hoover and his No. 2 man, Clyde Tolson, were lovers. (Neither man ever married, and they lived together.) But to speculate aloud or in print often invited the wrath of the Bureau director. Charles chillingly recounts how a federal employee who was overheard in a Washington bakery wondering aloud whether “the director is a queer” was immediately investigated. Hoover reacted quickly, authorizing a full-scale interrogation. The interrogation was so harsh that the employee, “badly frightened,” agreed never to repeat the remark. 

Charles’s book is an excellent example of how to write about a dark chapter in the Bureau’s past without venting. The author is remarkably objective about a time when a prude, and possible hypocrite, lumped gays in with authentic traitors. In Hoover’s warped view, “deviates” destroyed society’s moral foundations and were therefore as destructive as Americans who bolstered the Soviets’ nuclear capability.

— Ron Capshaw writes from Midlothian, Va.

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