If you've ever taken a U.S. history course, you're bound to have spent some classes on the Cold War and McCarthyism. It was a paranoid time. Having just defeated fascist powers in Europe and Asia, U.S. leaders grew fearful of an imagined communist threat. The very phrase 'cold war' suggested that peace was an illusion, that the country always had to be ready for war. For the first time, the U.S. built a large permanent military. Militarism became so powerful that even a former general like President Eisenhower told Americans to beware of 'the military-industrial complex.'
To many politicians and journalists, the communist menace was much closer than the Soviet Union. Joseph McCarthy, a senator from Wisconsin, built his career around accusing government employees of being disloyal. But McCarthy was not alone in this. Lots of public figures together helped make the hunt for communists and their sympathizers a national campaign. In the process, precious freedoms of speech and association were compromised, and lives were ruined.
What most history courses don't tell you, however, is this: During the McCarthy era, the witch hunters ousted a lot more gay men, lesbians and bisexuals from government jobs and the military than they did political radicals.
David Johnson, a historian who studied at Northwestern University and now teaches at the University of South Florida, has written a very gripping book titled The Lavender Scare. He offers a close look at life in Washington DC in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, when the purges of 'sex perverts'—as gays, lesbians and bisexuals were labeled—were at their height and the persecutions most intense. He paints a terrifying portrait of government investigations, secret surveillance and police abuse. Women and men lived in fear. Co-workers and neighbors spied on one another and became informants. FBI and military investigators engaged in chilling interrogations of suspects. Thousands and thousands of folks lost jobs or were expelled from the military. Many others were cut off from prospective employment. Some packed up and left town; others took their own lives.
While Johnson naturally focused his story on Washington, D.C., reading his book made me curious as to whether there was a Chicago angle to the Lavender Scare. Of course, many federal employees lived in the city, from postal workers to those who staffed various federal offices, and they were subject to the ban on the employment of lesbians, gays and bisexuals. But I wondered how, or even whether, the investigations and purges were covered by the local press. Even if most of the action was in the nation's capital, did local news coverage bring the story into Chicago's homes? Did queers in Chicago know about what was happening? What impressions about gay men and lesbians did the press perpetuate?
Sure enough, the Chicago Tribune gave prominent coverage to the issue. The story broke early in 1950 when a State Department official mentioned in passing that a number of fired security risks were homosexuals. Over the next three years, the basic outline of the Tribune's articles remained the same: A lax Truman administration allowed 'moral misfits' to remain on the government payroll. Although homosexuals could be found in every agency, they especially seemed to concentrate in the State Department. Because they were desperate to escape exposure, they easily fell prey to communists who blackmailed them into betraying government risks. Hence, they were all security risks. Only when Eisenhower became president in 1953 did the government take an aggressive stance, and the topic finally faded from view.
As I read through all these stories, a number of things stood out. Above all, the language dripped with contempt. It seemed designed to arouse outrage among straight readers and shame and terror among anyone who wasn't. Reporters routinely used words like perverts, degenerates, and misfits. They wrote of 'unnatural tendencies,' 'sordid practices' and 'moral depravity.' Stories described the 'shocked outcries' coming from 'horrified legislators' who, the paper claimed, 'recoiled' at what they heard in closed committee hearings.
The Tribune portrayed the nation's capital as a moral cesspool. Washington was overrun by unmarried females starved for love; Communist agents then 'entice women into a life of eroticism.' The city, it reported, was 'infested' with 'nests of perverts.' Investigators testified about wild parties and sex orgies for lesbians and for male homosexuals.
The Tribune made the dangers seem immense and the risks very great. Senate investigators, it informed its readers, found that 'one homosexual can pollute an entire government office.' It described how, throughout history, moral weakness had been responsible for 'the death of nations.' In the midst of the Korean War, it told about sex perverts found in the American foreign service in both Korea and Hong Kong. These 'moral degenerates' could be found in the most sensitive places. It reported that Russia kept lists of sex perverts in enemy countries like the United States.
Then there was the matter of evidence—or, rather, the absence of it. Over and over, members of Congress like McCarthy and his allies made the claim that gay men and lesbians were susceptible to blackmail. The Tribune dutifully repeated this in virtually every story. But there were no examples, no instances, no hint of proof. The closest reporters came to a concrete example was a reference to a scandal in Germany 50 years earlier.
Most infuriating of all is the blatant partisanship that drove the Tribune's reporting. If you read its coverage closely, you'll notice that the paper is using the story as a way to attack Truman and the Democrats. The staunchly Republican paper of Colonel McCormick, as its conservative owner was known, employed the popular dislike of gays and lesbians to mobilize opinion against Democratic control of the federal government. McCormick despised President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. He hated the expansion of the federal government created by Depression-era programs like social security, unemployment compensation, and subsidies for farmers. His paper used every opportunity that came its way to attack Democrats. Consider this headline: 'Move to Oust Perverts in U.S. Jobs Defeated—Democrats Vote as Unit to Reject Proposal.' Or this one: 'Sex Perverts' Files Vanish, Probers Told; Insured Promotion in Truman Regime.'
Compare the Tribune's coverage with that of the Democratic-leaning Chicago Sun-Times and the partisan motivations become even clearer. The Tribune went out of its way to exaggerate the dimensions of the problem. It used figures ranging from 4 to 8 percent to describe the size of the homosexual population; that would mean thousands of federal employees in Washington, and as many as 100,000 across the country. By contrast, the Sun-Times wrote in terms of 'two ten-thousands of one per cent,' a proportion so small as to be of no concern at all.
The McCarthy era was a scary time for anyone who didn't follow the sexual straight and narrow. Even those who didn't work for the federal government had to be aware that the witch hunters were on the offensive. In the early 1950s, the Tribune didn't have any counterbalancing news stories about the gay and lesbian community. 'Perverts' and 'degenerates' were all we were during the years of the Lavender Scare.
Copyright 2008 John D'Emilio