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Maureen Gill

Views & Voices

LGBT Rights: What have we learned from history?

Sunday, August 5, 2012
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Between 1930 and the close of World War II, homosexuals found Washington, D.C. to be a safe environment to live and work.

Roosevelt’s New Deal provided opportunities for thousands of young people and many homosexuals were in this number and when World War II brought thousands of servicemen and women to Washington the city became well known for its tolerant “anything goes” attitude ­ an attitude that was also mirrored in the policies and practices of federal agencies that did not make judgments ­ or even inquire ­ about employees’ private lives.

(David K. Johnson brilliantly documents this history in his excellent book, “The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government.”

This climate of sexual freedom didn¹t last long.

The end of the war ushered in a period of international and national stress and gave rise to fear mongers who insisted morality was in rapid decline.

Historically, discussions about the decline of morality have almost always been subsumed into fears about national security, and the rise of McCarthyism was no different. Senator Joseph McCarthy charged that both communists and homosexuals had infiltrated the federal government and this, of course, was going to lead to the total destruction of America.

American historians do a fairly good job documenting and analyzing McCarthyism, but David Johnson¹s book demonstrates how the hysteria about communism went hand-in-glove with a cultural war on homosexuals.

Johnson shows how communists and homosexuals were viewed as pernicious subcultures that had secret meetings, subversive/perverted literature, unique cultural memes, and pathological loyalty. Communists and homosexuals were seen as able to insidiously corrupt and recruit those who were psychologically weak and disturbed and they were, of course, also seen as godless.

David Johnson writes that McCarthy¹s Republican colleagues asked him to drop claims that the State Department sheltered communists; they suggested he focus on the problem of homosexual infiltration instead. Republicans weren¹t alone in this; President Truman’s aides also thought homosexuals were a threat to national security.

Why was the emphasis shifted from communists to homosexuals?

Perhaps proving what a person does with the junk between his or her legs is easier than trying to figure out the junk buried between the ears but the most significant driving force behind the rise of the Lavender Scare was the belief homosexuals were susceptible to blackmail by enemy agents and easily coerced into revealing government secrets.

This is incredibly important so let¹s repeat it: the official rationale was that homosexuals could be used by communists because the shame associated with being outed was so catastrophic that a homosexual would choose to sell out the nation rather than face exposure.

A Senate subcommittee spent months investigating whether this was true and found no evidence that this was a reasonable assumption or that any homosexual had been blackmailed into revealing state secrets. The best the Senators could come up with was the well-known case of a WWI Austrian double-agent.

Undeterred, the Senate subcommittee issued a report stating that homosexuals posed a threat to national security. The report called for the firing of homosexuals from all federal offices.

Government records suggest several thousand gay men and lesbians lost government jobs but researchers like David Johnson believe the real number is much higher because many government workers voluntarily resigned rather than endure brutal, humiliating interrogations.

Also, thousands of private-sector employees whose jobs required them to hold a federal security clearance were also fired or resigned.

Although the government didn¹t disclose why a person was denied a security clearance, any denial had a chilling effect because many private companies fired or refused to promote anyone who couldn¹t obtain a government security clearance.

How can we use this history to advantage today?

Clearly, just as history has proven that homosexuals have marched with every major army in history and done so heroically, we now know that American homosexuals have no record of ever having sold out their country for fear of being exposed as a homosexual and if not then, certainly not now.

To me this seems to give more reason for a broad national acceptance of LGBT rights and one that we can perhaps justify as a national security measure.

© Maureen Gill.
For more by Maureen Gill, click here, and visit her blog Windy City Author.
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