Known Homosexuals: Surveillance and Scandals in the Early Cold War

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 8:30 AM
Murray Hill West (New York Hilton)
Timothy Stewart-Winter, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
This paper reexamines the post-World War II lavender scare by closely examining a series of cases—some kept secret, some publicized—in which men employed in the service of the federal national security state were revealed as possibly homosexual. Despite the ostensibly blanket nature of antigay policies enacted in the 1950s, the definition of a “security risk” was in practice often highly contested. The very severity of antigay stigma produced not only a zeal to round up and punish homosexuals, but also at times a presumption of innocence or inclination to let well-connected men wriggle out of charges.

Drawing on the emerging historiography on bureaucratized surveillance and the carceral state, this paper will revisit a series of relatively well-known cases involving men in high positions, especially in the White House, whose homosexuality brought them under a cloud. These include Arthur H. Vandenberg Jr., briefly named in 1953 as Dwight Eisenhower’s appointments secretary; Senator Lester Hunt, who killed himself in 1954 after his son’s morals arrest; Bobby Cutler, an Eisenhower NSC chief whose gay circle feared discovery in the late 1950s; longtime LBJ aide Walter Jenkins, who was arrested in a YMCA men’s room in 1964; and various cases involving the morals arrests of politically active men such as Bayard Rustin and Joseph Alsop that generated intense FBI scrutiny.

These relatively well documented cases reveal several interlinked dynamics. First, local and federal officials not only cooperated but also clashed over how best to surveil gay sex. Second, bureaucracies sorting information about sexual behavior also weighed men’s gender conformity and domestic lives. Finally, antigay persecution in this era was in some ways draconian, yet also unevenly and irregularly meted out—a history of discretion and puzzlement as well as punishment.

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