Issue:  Vol. 45 / No. 40 / 1 October 2015

FBI vs. gays


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In his absorbing new book Hoover's War on Gays: Exposing the FBI's "Sex Deviates" Program (University Press of Kansas), historian Douglas M. Charles gets down to business with his title of Chapter 1: "Was J. Edgar Hoover Gay? Does It Matter?" Its one-sentence first paragraph answers, "We do not, and cannot, know; and no."

By throwing out the sensationalism, Hollywood and otherwise, Charles makes possible his cool but devastating chronicle of what can be known about FBI covert investigation of homosexuals in the 20th century and Hoover's role in the design and implementation of the programs to undertake it. It's a far more gripping story than any conjecture about the director's intimate relationship with his second-in-command, Clyde Tolson, could be. And ultimately it allows Hoover to damn himself. Having been the man behind the curtain at Oz for the bulk of the book, Hoover's choice of animal imagery – "skunks," "jackals," "vultures" and "rat[s] of the worst type" – to characterize the members of the Fourth Estate who brought him down renders his vileness in his own, low language.

This is not the Penn State historian's first book critical of the FBI, but it's as probing a book about its stated topic as we're ever likely to see. Many of its core findings derive from the author's painstaking primary research: piecing together fragments of files the FBI sought to destroy completely; determining identities of the players – officials, informants and their prey – by finding names that, in error, were not, or were not fully, redacted in surviving documents; matching files with file numbers. The writing is tight and academic; it dots its i's and crosses its t's – and it's plainspoken about what it does not know.

But if the prose is not always of the kind that rappels up and down the spine of the book, its ability to make the reader's spine tingle is demonstrated time and again with salient, carefully prepared observations. Midway through his powerful narrative of the decline and fall of Frank Kameny (among other things, coiner of the line "Gay is good") – an astronomer turned out gay activist who took his dismissal from his position with the Army Map Service all the way to the Supreme Court – Charles observes, "It would seem, in the end, [Kameny's] scrupulous honesty did him in."

The defining thread in Charles' intricate history is the FBI's cumulative creation of what became known as its "Sexual Deviates" file, begun in the 1930s, assiduously maintained and expanded (and cunningly disseminated) thereafter – and deliberately destroyed by the Bureau in 1977-78, at which time its 330,000 pages of information required 99 cubic feet of storage. (This book holds chills for the 2015 reader, who can easily contemplate the vault's present-day double as an infinitely copyable NSA flash drive.)

But what becomes apparent over the book's 400 pages is that it is, in addition, an invaluable, concise history of the gay liberation and rights movement in the United States. Deliberate or not, the author lets the FBI insinuate itself into the larger story of gay oppression and its discontents in an eerie replication of the way the Bureau actually did exactly just that.

Along the way, we're given a substantive account of the "Lavender Scare" and the homophile institutions, such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, it helped engender. Even better are the portraits of the prominent figures the Bureau monitored, some of whom became instrumental in the political struggle to free LGBT people from these very mechanisms of surveillance and, ironically, blackmail. Among them are victims, from LBJ's chief aide, Walter Jenkins, to celebrity sacrificial lambs as diverse as Rock Hudson and Andy Warhol; informants and infiltrators, gay and straight and, more often, individuals whose "cases" and files made them, reluctantly and not, major players in the larger story.

In addition to Hoover and the succession of US Presidents he "served," Charles offers profiles (often enough, profiles of courage) of Mattachine founder Harry Hay, Hay's lesbian counterparts Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, and numerous others. Especially compelling is gay FBI agent Frank Buttino, whose sterling record at the Bureau, coupled with his openness under questioning about his homosexuality, caused one of the FBI agents investigating him to say, "You're our worst nightmare." Charles' eight chapters marshal their stories toward what he rightly calls the "watershed" moments of the campaign to expose, stop, or at any rate, pause the FBI's often criminal tactics in its determined efforts to keep America safe from the queers.

My heart beat loudest in the final chapter, "'I'm Ready to Die for the Cause!': The FBI Confronts Gay Liberation." It nails that period in the early 1970s when, fired by the examples from the civil-rights, women's-liberation and student-power movements, gays and lesbians moved from homophile, assimilation-oriented enclaves to more politicized, activist organizations, exemplified at first by the Gay Liberation Front.

When I arrived in Berkeley in the fall of 1970, fresh from a Midwestern college progressive enough that students had shut it down before the end of term, my hair was "on fire" with anti-war student power. I was packing as porn the paperback script of I Am Curious Yellow with its black-and-white photos of naked actors of both sexes that I could have hid behind, despite being fully aware that only the uncut guy had my attention. My first day of class was disrupted by a chanting throng of fellow seminarians celebrating one of our number who was publically coming out, and I knew in that moment, terrifyingly and exhilaratingly, what was next for me. Charles captures the milieu perfectly.

San Francisco makes regular appearances throughout the chronicle, never flatteringly from the FBI's point of view. But no one, not even Hoover, comes off worse than President Nixon. Charles finds him railing against the homosexuals "in the ratty part" of San Francisco, adding, "I mean I don't even want to shake hands with anyone from San Francisco."

It's not only gay millennials who are ignorant of, or don't remember clearly, the universe of societal opprobrium and personal self-loathing – and the secrecy and surveillance they occasioned – that were the lot of LGBT people in the not-too-distant past. Even for people who lived through it, it can be hard to believe the extent of the darkness – a pall that still casts its shadow.

History of the caliber of Charles' incalculably important book is as necessary as the efforts of the straight Snowdens and the testimony of the gay Greenwalds in preventing it all from happening again. A man named Trump could appoint the next FBI director.

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