Interview by Christopher Michael Elias
For nearly four decades, the Federal Bureau of Investigation used the so-called Sex Deviates Program to investigate and badger gay men and women in the United States. That harassment was justified by the belief that homosexuals posed a security risk in two ways: their behavior was thought to be an indication of immorality and it supposedly made them susceptible to blackmail. Douglas Charles’s Hoover’s War on Gays (University Press of Kansas, 2015) is the first monograph to trace the history of that program. In it, Charles demonstrates that the Bureau was driven by “an overarching and intense fear and loathing of gays.”
Part of what makes Charles’s study noteworthy is the level and type of research it involved. The Bureau’s Sex Deviates File once included nearly 350,000 pages of information, but most of it was intentionally destroyed in the late 1970s. Writing on the topic necessitated an imaginative approach to the remaining source material, and as a result, Hoover’s War on Gays contains not only a compelling narrative, but also a record of innovative scholarship.
I began by asking Professor Charles about the connection between the Sex Deviates Program and the development of the national security state.
Christopher Elias: Why did the FBI regard homosexuals – or, in their language, “sex deviates” – as such a danger to the security and well-being of the United States? What does their interest tell us about the composition of the American security state?
Douglas Charles: The FBI was/is a product of its time. As such, it viewed gays and lesbians the same way that a majority of Americans did at mid-century. Those perceptions, moreover, were a function of changing times. Prior to the Great Depression, homosexuality was, of course, regarded as a sinful act, but nothing that was considered an overarching threat. But with the advent of the Great Depression, Americans dramatically altered how they thought about gender and sexuality. During that economic calamity, with mass unemployment and social dislocation, Americans’ very perception of society shifted. Millions were left unemployed, men were unable to support their families, they lost their homes, they sent their children away to live with relatives, jobless men became transients. In a patriarchal, heterosexually dominant culture this could only be viewed as a mass failure of masculinity. If heterosexual men were regarded as failing, homosexuals (men, in particular) were seen in an even worse light, and even as a threat. First, it started as a perceived threat to children, given public biases that gays targeted children while popular child kidnappings/murders headlined the news during the Depression. Gays were routinely targeted, and the FBI pushed an educational campaign to warn Americans about them. Second, during the mid-1930s, the federal government worked intimately with ordinary Americans for the first time to effect Depression relief via the New Deal. FDR’s programs always held a family focus, and in short order, the federal government came to realize that gays were present in society and, even more importantly, a threat to the family values of the New Deal itself. The federal government, including the FBI, quickly found itself regulating homosexuality by purging gays from New Deal programs.
It was only a small step (and a short period of time) from these perceptions to the belief that gays were a national security threat. By the late 1930s, the United States was edging closer to fighting in the Second World War. If gay men had been regarded as a threat to masculinity, children, and society during the Great Depression, it was easy for them to be seen as a security threat during wartime. The idea was that given widespread and popular disgust with homosexuality, Nazi agents could leverage gays to betray their country in wartime. This occurred simultaneously to the emergence of popular fears that a fascist Fifth Column operated covertly in the United States, as it had during the Spanish Civil War. Thus gays were ferreted out of military ranks, and the FBI began investigating prominent government officials accused of being gay. But the belief that homosexuality was a threat and popular target of blackmail skyrocketed with the Cold War, intensifying fears that covert Communist subversives were infiltrating America. Hence, the emergence of the Lavender Scare, congressional hearings and reports on the threat of gays, the FBI’s creation of its Sex Deviates Program, and the like. With the FBI tasked with protecting America from subversive forces, it played a central role in targeting gays in the National Security State. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.
CE: The title of the book – Hoover’s War on Gays – suggests that Hoover himself masterminded the FBI’s anti-gay policies during the twentieth century. To what degree can we ascribe the creation and growth of the Sex Deviates Program and related anti-gay initiatives during the Cold War to Hoover’s personal agenda? How did Hoover’s hostility toward homosexuality connect to the Red Scare and what historian David K. Johnson has called the Lavender Scare?
DC: J. Edgar Hoover was FBI director for nearly 50 years. Being in that position for such a long time meant that the FBI was J. Edgar Hoover. His FBI operated, basically, as a cult of personality centered on the interests, whims, and priorities of Hoover himself. So when the FBI began monitoring gays and lesbians it was, in large part, a function of Hoover’s “personal agenda.” The question is, what was that agenda? Popular notions suggested that Hoover targeted gays because he was compensating for his own homosexuality in some ways, and thus was a hypocrite. This notion — which existed even during Hoover’s own lifetime — is based only on stereotype and supposition. There is no proof of Hoover’s sexuality one way or the other, so as a causal factor in helping us to understand what his FBI did regarding gays for over 40 years, it isn’t very helpful.
Nevertheless, Hoover did have an agenda when it came to gays. His agenda was based on bureaucratic politics and was influenced by contemporary events and other forces. In 1937, when the FBI first began systematically collecting information about gays, it was responding to a child kidnapping/murder case that captured the attention of the American public. Because the child was sexually abused and murdered, authorities automatically assumed a gay man was responsible; this happened during the Great Depression when, as I discussed above, Americans had reassessed gender roles and began regarding gays as a danger and threat to society. This was then compounded by President Franklin Roosevelt publicly commenting on the murder case, promising that the FBI would not stop until the killer was captured. Hoover, a conservative hold-over bureaucrat in the liberal Roosevelt administration, had an interest in satisfying Roosevelt’s wishes to retain his position and expand his FBI’s authority and jurisdiction. Put it all together: a change in American perceptions of gender and sexuality, public pressure and interest, political pressure and bureaucratic interests, of course Hoover responded with a systematic collection of information on “sex offenders” — which meant, really, a focus on gays.
Hoover’s FBI failed to solve this kidnap/murder case, but to satisfy bureaucratic and political interests that his FBI was doing something about the threat of “sex offenders,” Hoover’s FBI published articles warning and educating the public about the threat of “sex offenders,” which only contributed to widespread homophobia and the targeting of gays and lesbians.
Hoover’s hostility towards gays and lesbians was a central part of what David Johnson rightly termed the Lavender Scare. I’ve never believed that the Lavender Scare was part and parcel to the Red Scare, or McCarthyism. Rather, the Lavender Scare, which paralleled the Red Scare and was even energized by it, was a unique phenomenon that, as Johnson points out, started before McCarthyism and long outlasted it. Hoover’s FBI systematically collected information about gays since 1937, but when in 1950-1951, Hoover decided to create his Sex Deviates Program and file, he placed his bureau at the forefront in combating the Lavender Scare. It was Hoover’s FBI that increased its collection and maintenance of information about gays, both fact and rumor, maintained a central index of gays, and widely distributed that information across (and even beyond) the government to ensure that gays were fired from their jobs, and even to influence bureaucratic appointments. While many people and groups played important roles in the Lavender Scare, none did so in such a central and far-reaching way as Hoover’s FBI. Moreover, historical evidence indicates Hoover did all of this on his own authority; no one in either the Truman or Eisenhower administrations directed Hoover to undertake these activities.
CE: You devote much of your first chapter to the question of whether J. Edgar Hoover was homosexual, noting that while the question seems to fascinate cultural commentators it is of limited use to historians. Why do you think Hoover’s sexuality is “not particularly helpful in advancing our understanding of what Hoover’s FBI did when investigating or monitoring gays”? Did your research uncover any evidence suggesting that questions about Hoover’s own sexuality influenced the complexion of the Sex Deviates Program?
DC: The academic study of history is premised on reconstructing human events based on accessible, verifiable evidence. When it comes to J. Edgar Hoover and his sexuality, what is popularly believed about him is not based on verifiable evidence. Instead, the stories about Hoover’s supposed homosexuality are based on gossip, innuendo, stereotype, and stories chock full of red flags and from sources whose credibility are questionable, at best. I cover all of this in detail in the book. Given the lack of evidence, we cannot say that Hoover was gay. On the other hand, we also cannot prove he was heterosexual. But what we can say, and it’s significant, is that he didn’t conform to what was socially and culturally expected of a man in the mid-20th century: he didn’t marry, he didn’t have children, he lived with his mother until he was in his 40s. So pointing to Hoover’s sexuality as somehow explaining his FBI’s actions towards gays is simply not satisfying, nor does it advance our understanding of the FBI.
Questions about Hoover’s sexuality, which existed during his own lifetime, did not apparently influence the development of the Sex Deviates Program. There were larger forces at work in 1937, when the FBI began its systematic collection of information about “sex offenders,” and in 1950-1951, when the FBI’s Sex Deviates Program and file were created. Nothing in the documentary record whatsoever suggests Hoover decided to create the program and file to cover up his own sexual interests. This is not to say Hoover didn’t respond when people claimed he was gay. He did. But this doesn’t mean he was homosexual. Hoover was the man responsible for protecting the domestic United States from subversive influences. Stories that he was gay, and therefore a threat to national security given the biases of the time, threatened his tenure as FBI director. It isn’t surprising that he responded by intimidating anyone making such claims. Probably most anyone in his position would have done so. These recriminations, though, were not part of the Sex Deviates Program.
CE: As you note in the book, this project faced a particular obstacle because the majority of the FBI’s Sex Deviates File was incinerated in the late 1970s. I wonder if you might reflect on your sources and discuss the specific obstacles you faced when searching for information related to sexuality in the archives of the FBI and elsewhere. To which sources do you most wish you had access? Can you describe the process of locating and attaining those materials? What was your experience like using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to gain access to closed or redacted files? Do you have any suggestions for historians of sexuality who might wish to work with FBI files?
DC: I’ve always wanted to research the FBI’s targeting of gays, something that had received minimal attention from historians. As an FBI historian, I knew there was a monumental research problem: the FBI destroyed its Sex Deviates file in 1977-78 and we knew very little about it. We generally knew its purpose from documents indirectly alluding to its existence and purpose; and we knew approximately how large it was from National Archives documents authorizing the FBI to incinerate it (it was 330,000 pages long). So the question was: how to research this?
Despite the Sex Deviates file no longer existing, we do know its content was composed of documents copied into the file. So a researcher can access the individual FBI files of targets that still exist. We also know the FBI file numbers associated with the Sex Deviates file, so that seeing them handwritten in the margins of an FBI document meant that the particular document was copied into the Sex Deviates file. We can never know everyone targeted through the Sex Deviates Program as its index was destroyed, but we can identify and describe some.
Another major obstacle to researching the FBI and gays was dealing with sometimes significant redactions in FBI files. There are, however, ways of getting around these. One is simply knowing as much as possible about your research topic to identify a redacted name given surrounding contextual information. Additionally, sometimes the FBI’s FOIA processors, when working with voluminous files, forget to redact a name just once, allowing a researcher to deduce the rest and fill in the blanks. Still another method of getting around a heavily redacted FBI document is to locate alternate copies of that document. FBI files are duplicative and often redacted differently, or unredacted copies of FBI documents can be found in presidential libraries or the National Archives. Even if a presidential library has FBI reports but still lists them as classified, employing federal law — mandatory review requests — a researcher can force archivists to declassify all or part of a particular document. In all of these ways, I was able to uncover much about FBI efforts targeting gays.
My advice for historians of sexuality who might want to work with FBI files is this. For organizations that might not have a surviving archive, FBI files can sometimes be that archive or a supplement to them. Because the FBI collected and compiled everything it could find when investigating targets, particularly organizations, FBI files often became quite valuable collections of primary and original documents. For example, the FBI’s file on the Gay Liberation Front contains multiple copies of GLF newsletters and publications, offered to FBI agents by informants. I can think of no other location where these would be so readily available to researchers.
CE: A significant part of Hoover’s War on Gays concerns organizations that actively opposed the FBI’s criminalization of homosexuality, including ONE, Inc., the Mattachine Society, and the Gay Liberation Front. Can you explain to our readers how approaching the story from the perspective of gay rights activists influences how historians like yourself narrate the history of what Margot Canaday has dubbed “the straight state”?
DC: Because the history of the FBI’s targeting of gays had received only sporadic and limited treatment prior to my book, one of my goals was to merge FBI and gay and lesbian history scholarship. I thought this was necessary because the two are inextricably linked. I could not tell the history of one without telling the history of the other, from ordinary gay and lesbian activists to prominent targets in government; nor do I think it was possible to tell the history of Hoover’s War on Gays without first having the background of an FBI historian given the intricate and specialized nature of the FBI’s history.
Hoover’s War on Gays, I think, nicely compliments Canaday’s groundbreaking book. Because the FBI targeted gays starting in 1937 (in ways perfectly fitting the Canaday thesis), ended its Sex Deviates Program in 1977, and ended its anti-gay employment discrimination in 1993, the FBI reflects and embodies the “straight state.”
Douglas M. Charles is associate professor of history at Penn State University-Greater Allegheny. In addition to Hoover’s War on Gays: Exposing the FBI’s “Sex Deviates” Program, he is the author of J. Edgar Hoover and the Anti-Interventionists: FBI Political Surveillance and the Rise of the Domestic Security State, 1939-1945 and The FBI’s Obscene File: J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau’s Crusade against Smut.
Christopher Michael Elias is a doctoral candidate in the Department of American Studies at Brown University. He is currently at work on his dissertation, which explores the role of masculinity in shaping the national security state by examining the lives and careers of J. Edgar Hoover, Joseph McCarthy, and Roy Cohn.
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