Sexuality, Surveillance, and Bureaucracy in Cold War America

AHA Session 68
Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History 4
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Murray Hill West (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Sarah E. Igo, Vanderbilt University
Sarah E. Igo, Vanderbilt University

Session Abstract

In the post-World War II United States, state agencies and private companies pursued the gendered political imperatives of the Cold War through new surveillance technologies and policing strategies. In identifying gay men and lesbians as perverts and security risks unfit for employment, they produced an unprecedented regime of sexual regulation that generated unintended consequences and unexpected resistance. These papers investigate the interface between local, state, and federal law enforcement, courts, and the private sector in conducting surveillance and producing bureaucratic knowledge about homosexuality, and explore how targeted individuals and communities responded. Timothy Stewart-Winter complicates the concept of the Cold War “security risk” embodied by gay men through nuanced case studies of homosexual scandals in the political realm during the 1950s and 1960s, revealing the uneven impact of bureaucracy, local discretion, public indifference, and conflicting impulses to shield or persecute powerful men. Anna Lvovsky examines the institutional and epistemic politics of municipal vice campaigns against gay communities in the 1950s and 1960s, focusing on how knowledge gaps between the police and the courts shaped gay men’s rights and freedoms. Dan Ewert discusses how the unique nature of paper records and overlapping state authority transformed arrests of suspected homosexuals into an ambiguous, entrenched criminal status that followed them into a growing array of civil bureaucratic transactions in an era of widespread criminal background checks. Nikita Shepard contextualizes the emergence of the gay liberation movement’s political response to police and private investigation firms, focusing on a 1972 platform plank demanding a ban on the collection of data on sexual orientation that was adopted by the McGovern presidential campaign, and reflecting on shifts in queer conceptions of privacy versus visibility and the relationship between social movements and the state. Building on David Johnson’s exploration of the Lavender Scare and Sarah Igo’s discussion of privacy and bureaucratized surveillance, this panel engages historiographies of LGBTQ communities, the carceral state, and the Cold War to open new avenues in understanding sexuality, policing, bureaucracy, and social change in the twentieth century United States.
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