This brief post launches a new series on NOTCHES that will periodically call attention to newly discovered archival sources in the history of sexuality.
The rise of the Homophile Movement in the U.S. during the 1950s, which emerged at the height of government harassment of gay men and lesbians during the Cold War “Lavender Scare,” sparked a wave of federal surveillance. The FBI compiled materials on homophile groups such the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society. The FBI destroyed these notorious “Sex Deviates” files between 1977 and 1978. Some documents, however, escaped the purge. These surviving pages form the source base for Douglas M. Charles’s recent book, Hoover’s War on Gays: Exposing the FBI’s “Sex Deviates” Program (Lawrence, 2015).
Charles, an Associate Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University’s Greater Allegheny Campus, acquired the documents through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. He has now made these documents available on his website. As a result, students and researchers can access these files without having to pursue their own FOIA requests or to travel to distant archives. This is the first time that the FBI files have been made publicly available all together.
Limited access is not the only challenge that arises when researching the FBI’s “Sex Deviates” files. Much of the information in the surviving documents has been redacted. In the example of the Daughters of Bilitis files, the redactions to Charles’s copies do not match the redactions to previous copies released to the ONE Archives Foundation and to the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco. Researchers are advised to compare all three copies (made available on Charles’s website). The FBI’s ongoing destruction of previously released files presents another challenge to researchers and makes Charles’s digitization of these sources especially valuable. Since the uploaded files include materials produced by the organizations (such as newsletters and magazines), as well as evidence of their surveillance, the files are an invaluable primary source for understanding the origins of the Gay Rights Movement. Guaranteed to work well in the classroom, and to inform countless future research projects, these documents make a vital contribution to our understanding of the history of sexuality and recent political history.
Rachel Hope Cleves is a Professor of History at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. She specializes in early American history and has written about the history of same-sex marriage and about American reactions to the French Revolution. Her most recent book is Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (Oxford University Press, 2014). She is presently at work on a book project titled “Good Food, Bad Sex.” You can follow her on twitter @RachelCleves.
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