The Fall of Walter Jenkins: Sexuality, Policing, and Politics in the 1960s

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 1:30 PM
Williford A (Hilton Chicago)
Timothy Stewart-Winter, Rutgers University at Newark
Three weeks before the 1964 presidential election, wire services broke the story that Walter Jenkins, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s longest-serving aide, had been arrested while having sex with another man in a YMCA men’s room. This paper will use the episode as a window onto the trajectory of antigay policing in the 1960s. At the scandal’s height, a Gallup poll found that 88 percent of Americans were familiar with the story, which was at once a personal tragedy, a crystallization of Cold War homophobia, and the most shocking twist of an iconic presidential campaign—the original October surprise. Occurring early in a long and uneven process of decriminalizing homosexuality in the U.S. and other Western countries, the Jenkins scandal brought in the short term renewed efforts to surveil and root out gay people in government, but also ultimately helped discredit the notion that gay people were presumptively unacceptable government workers. But it also made the policing of “tearooms,” as gay men called public restrooms where they sought sexual encounters with other men, the subject of extensive public debate for the first time. Though Jenkins’s high position made his downfall infamous, it also generated powerful articulations of sympathy and compassion on the part of a crucial group of elite commentators, and contributed to legal reforms that curtailed specific forms of antigay policing.
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