Hoover’s War on Gays: Exposing the FBI’s Sex Deviates Program
Hoover’s War on Gays: Exposing the FBI’s “Sex Deviates” Program
By Douglas M. Charles
University of Kansas Press
I confess to a degree of skepticism when I began reading Douglas M. Charles’s new tome, Hoover’s War on Gays: Exposing the FBI’s “Sex Deviates” Program. The activities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and J. Edgar Hoover, its insufferable longtime director, would seem by this point to be well-worn scholarly territory.
The field is both broad and deep. To name just a relevant few, FBI historian Athan Theoharis (a mentor to Charles) has written extensively about the FBI’s role in civil liberties abuses, Cold War-era red-baiting, and failed counterintelligence, and even addressed the longstanding rumors about Hoover’s own sexuality in J. Edgar Hoover, Sex, and Crime. Betty Medsger’s recent The Burglary detailed the rise and fall of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program that illegally surveilled and attacked a variety of civil rights, New Left, and countercultural groups. Meanwhile, Douglas Charles himself has surveyed the FBI’s role in “the rise of the domestic security state.” In his brief and brilliant exposé, The FBI’s Obscene File, he also described the bureau’s classification of alleged obscene materials, including how it used such classification to attempt to destroy the organized gay and lesbian movement.
But as is often the case, a thorough scholarly explication of the role and importance of gays and lesbians to any particular historical moment has been the last to arrive. Fortunately, though, Hoover’s War on Gays is that necessary book. It takes its place beside such works as Kenneth O’Reilly’s Racial Matters, about the FBI’s attack on black civil rights organizations, in exhaustively detailing the effects of Hoover’s policies on specific social movements.
Charles dates Hoover and the FBI’s obsession with gays and lesbians to the 1930s, particularly the 1937 kidnapping and murder of a young boy named Charles Mattson. This particular case previewed features of decades of Hoover’s future actions: attacking marginalized groups for political gain and currying favor with the politically powerful. Despite there being no evidence that Mattson was sexually assaulted, the press reported that the FBI was seeking “sexual pervert[s]” in the case, and the public made mental associations between homosexuality and sexual degeneracy. Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt also made public statements regarding the case; this forced Hoover, a Republican appointee who was obsessed with maintaining his job and the FBI’s status, into prioritizing solving Mattson’s murder.
Although the Mattson case was never solved, it was one prominent piece in a late 1930s sex crimes panic that played a role in Hoover’s beginning to collect information about gays as part of a larger drive against “sex offenders.” The FBI’s collecting of such information was intensive, building up to a formal Sex Deviates Program and File beginning in 1950. Although it was not confined to federal government employees, this program frequently used information gathered about such employees to have them fired. For Hoover, information collecting was in no way a passive activity; what he learned was used to destroy lives and to solidify his own power and influence.
The creation of the Sex Deviates File in 1950 displays links to what historian David K. Johnson has dubbed “the Lavender Scare”–the long-term attack on federal employees that had its roots in the same era as McCarthyism. What Johnson showed and Charles more extensively documents here, though, is that the attack on gays in government predates the McCarthy era. The FBI had its hand in helping to oust Sumner Welles, FDR’s undersecretary of state, when Republicans receive evidence of Welles’ repeated drunken solicitations of African American train employees. This was just one of repeated FBI investigations into rumors surrounding the sexual lives of the prominent, among them Senator David I. Walsh, General Philip Faymonville, Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas, and Illinois governor and two-time Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson (whose index card from the Sex Deviates File is the only one to escape the file’s late 1970s destruction by the FBI). Some of these rumors were true, some not. What Charles makes clear is that Hoover ultimately did not care. These rumors’ truth or falsity was secondary to how useful they might be to Hoover in his relationships with the presidents and lawmakers whose favor he sought.
Of course, as time went on, there were increasing numbers of openly gay men and women for Hoover to harass and attack. The FBI’s investigations into, and surveillance and harassment of, among many others, Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay; Mattachine member and ONE, Inc. founder W. Dorr Legg; original Mattachine Society-DC leader Buell Dwight Huggins; the Daughters of Bilitis; Mattachine Society of Washington co-founder Jack Nichols (whose father, an FBI agent, was demoted and cut off all contact with his son after the FBI uncovered the connection), and, later, the Gay Liberation Front, show Hoover’s desire to crush subversion. That these men and women, who could easily have submitted to fear of the FBI’s power, continued to fight for social and legal changes forms an inspiring counter-narrative in what could have been (and sometimes is) a litany of sad tales. Although Hoover won many battles, the war continued well beyond his death in 1972, and the forces he supported are losing.
And what of Hoover’s own sexuality? His relationship with right-hand man Clyde Tolson has certainly been cause for speculation, and that speculation was firmly in place during Hoover’s lifetime. But as Charles points out at the very beginning of Hoover’s War on Gays, comment on Hoover’s personal sexuality remains speculative. (Certainly anyone who believes the accounts of Hoover appearing in public in drag or at orgies — even without knowing the dubious sources of those claims–has very little understanding of the era in which Hoover lived or the social and political position he was attempting to maintain.) Still, Charles’s further assertion, that Hoover’s sexuality simply does not matter, may be surprising to many. He makes a compelling case, though: Hoover’s relentless assault on gays makes perfect sense even if he were straight. Gays and lesbians were an easy target in the culture wars, and rumors of the prominent’s homosexuality were politically advantageous to Hoover’s continued reign. While it may be psychologically satisfying to assume Hoover acted out of self-hatred, that prism is unnecessary; as Charles says, even if Hoover “was, as they say, straight as an arrow…[his] treatment and targeting of gays would still make sense to us given the era and the larger historical, political, social, and cultural forces at play.” For a thorough treatment of those forces, Hoover’s War on Gays will likely remain unsurpassed.