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In 1950, the U.S. State Department fired 91 employees because they were homosexual or suspected of being homosexual. In the next two years, nearly 200 more state employees were dismissed for the same reason. The man who oversaw the purge was Undersecretary of State James E. Webb. Later, as administrator of NASA, Webb enlisted the assistance of the Nazi war criminal Wernher von Braun to help put Americans on the moon. A soon-to-be-launched space telescope named in honor of Webb is reviving memories of his controversial role in what’s become known as the Lavender Scare, which paralleled the more familiar McCarthy-era Red Scare.

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The historian Naoko Shibusawa, writing in the journal Diplomatic History, explores the anti-gay politics of the Cold War in an international context. This larger context was the belief that Western civilization was predicated on an imperialist containment of “effeminate” races. These non-western peoples—including Russia, which was considered Asiatic—were decayed, degenerate, despotic, and cowardly, a threat to civilization at large. (As late as 1972, Richard Nixon, who cut his political teeth in the Red Scare, was recorded blaming “homos” for the fall of Greece and Rome.)

Homosexuality, which was declared a mental illness by the American Psychological Association in 1952, was merged into the larger gendering of global relations. It was perceived as a threat not just to the family, but to the state and to civilization itself. In this understanding, “perversion” and “communism” were two sides of the same coin.

And yet, before the Cold War, there was little panic about closeted gays and lesbians in the federal workforce, at least outside of the military. The New Deal had been relatively unconcerned about what consenting adults did outside the office. And President Truman’s 1947 loyalty order made no mention of sexuality. But by early 1950, when Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy made his sensational (and false) charges that dozens of communists were working in the State Department, the Department already had two investigators working to expose and purge homosexuals from the bureaucratic ranks.

The stated reasoning was that homosexuals were security risks because they were subject to blackmail. This reasoning was circular: they were subject to blackmail because they were in the closet. No actual breaches in security could be traced to any homosexual employee before, or after, the State Department began its purges.

Truman’s effort to defuse McCarthyism with sacrificial homosexuals only stoked the flames. The paranoid conspiracy theorists took off: the 1930s homosexual in-joke “homintern” (playing on “Comintern” or Communist International) suddenly became a shadowy international cabal of “fairies” who plotted to control the world, either for their masters in Moscow or as dupes of the Reds. Shibusawa quotes one influential “exposé” of the “Homosexual International:”

Members of one conspiracy are prone to join another conspiracy. This is why so many homosexuals, from being enemies of society in general, become enemies of capitalism in particular.

The revisions of Truman’s loyalty program under President Eisenhower took it up a notch. For federal service, job applicants (and existing employees) had to furnish information about “any criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct, habitual use of intoxicants to excess, drug addiction, or perversion.” Cigarettes, martinis, and coffee, presumably, were not included.

Shibusawa is most interested in how homosexuals were “othered.” It wasn’t just as “deviants” or “perverts.” The discourse of the era included what she describes as a kind of “Orientalizing” of homosexuals. They were, in the eyes of Webb and his allies on the right, akin to aliens from East. Shibusawa quotes a U.S. Representative from Nebraska who introduced an amendment to ban gays from federal employment in 1950 because, he said, “homosexuality goes back to the Orientals […] the Russians are strong believers in homosexuality.”

As a matter of fact, homosexuality was a crime in Stalin’s USSR, as it had been under the Tsars. In Mao’s China, homosexuality was illegal, labeled a “bourgeois decadence.” And Castro would criminalize homosexuality in Cuba when he came to power. In the 1950s, these facts were irrelevant to those devoted to a reactionary politics.


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Diplomatic History, Vol. 36, No. 4 (SEPTEMBER 2012), pp. 723-752
Oxford University Press