Everyone has heard the rumors that long-time FBI director J. Edgar Hoover liked to dress up in women’s clothing and participate in homosexual orgies. (Right?) But this information derives from a single questionable source paid for a recollection of something that supposedly occurred three decades earlier—a source with good reason to despise Hoover. Scholar Claire Bond Potter notes that whatever the truth of this supposed incident, “Transvestite Hoover” has become a character of American myth. And therein lies a tale of what Potter calls “sex, lies, and political history.”
J. Edgar Hoover was appointed head of the Bureau of Investigation (BOI), the FBI’s predecessor agency, in 1924. When that agency was reorganized as the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935, he became its first director. His agenda shaped federal law enforcement for half a century until his death in 1972. From the Teapot Dome Scandal to Watergate, Hoover was enmeshed in some of the nation’s most notorious scandals. Meanwhile, he played down investigations of civil rights violations and dismissed the existence of organized crime.
Hoover’s definitions of crime, dissent, and subversion dominated the FBI’s work. Potter calls his politics “far more shameful than his sex life,” writing that he used the FBI “as a mechanism for perpetuating unethical or illegal political acts.”
But was he a “cross-dresser”? Potter argues that the cross-dressing rumor was most significant for what it reveals about the nature of gossip. Hoover was a man feared and loathed by many for his abuses of power. Homophobia became a powerful tool for attacking him. After his death, the witch-hunter became the hunted; “because perverted sex is a constant theme bordering on obsession in Hoover’s own writing about criminals, Communists, and social equality movements.” He was obsessed with preventing interracial sex; he culled pornography from investigations for his own files; he used sexual innuendo and evidence to attack political rivals. Hoover manifested a “visceral, public hatred” for notable women, like gangster Ma Barker, radical Emma Goldman, and convicted spy Ethel Rosenberg.
Historian Douglas M. Charles details the Bureau’s investigation of gay groups. Hoover spread “gay stories” about Adlai Stevenson, among others, and had pre-Stonewall homophile organizations like the Mattachine Society investigated.
This weaponizing of sexuality was not unique to Hoover. Liberals used homosexual gossip to help bring down Senator Joe McCarthy because of the scandals of his gay aide Roy Cohn. According to Potter, this was part of a long-used strategy of outing, deploying “gossip about sexual identity as a political weapon that shamed the powerful but closeted.”
We don’t and probably can’t know what Hoover’s sexuality was—”failed heterosexual,” “unsexed homosexual,” “life-long bachelor,” Clyde Tolson’s “spouse,” and/or “married to the FBI” are some of the phrases Potter uses or quotes—but we can certainly look at the history of the gossip about him. “Gossip is not true or false,” states Potter. “Its function is to ‘fix’ identities that refuse to stabilize themselves. Gossip should open rather than close historical investigation…Whether J. Edgar Hoover was a homosexual or not is not the point.”