In March 1953, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover prepared a secret report for Sherman Adams, President Dwight Eisenhower’s chief of staff. The document concerned Charles “Chip” Bohlen, whom Eisenhower had nominated to succeed George F. Kennan as ambassador to the Soviet Union. A career diplomat, Bohlen had served as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s interpreter at the 1945 Yalta Conference, where the Allied powers ceded control of postwar Eastern Europe to Soviet Premier Josef Stalin. Bohlen’s involvement at Yalta made him suspect in the eyes of some Republicans, led by Senator Joe McCarthy, who tried to paint him as not only soft on the Soviets but also gay.
Washington at the time was in the grips not only of the Red Scare, but a more destructive (and less-remembered) “Lavender Scare.” In the popular imagination, communist disloyalty was intertwined with sexual immorality; communists were more likely to be “sexual deviants” and vice-versa. “I don’t say every homosexual is a subversive and I don’t say every subversive is a homosexual,” Nebraska Senator Kenneth Wherry had warned in 1950. “But a man of low morality is a menace in the government, whatever he is, and they are all tied up together.”
Hoover’s report on Bohlen was a farrago of gossip and innuendo. “There is a definite shading in his conversation and in his manner of speech which indicates effeminacy,” one source claimed of Bohlen, who also had a “habit of running his tongue over his lip in the manner utilized by a woman” and was “quite girlish.” While another source admitted to having no relationship with Bohlen, he nonetheless volunteered to the FBI that, “Bohlen walks, acts and talks like a homosexual.” Bohlen, (who was, in fact, straight) was eventually confirmed as ambassador to the Soviet Union, and went on to have a long and distinguished Foreign Service career. He was later immortalized as one of the postwar “Wise Men” of American diplomacy.
Moral disgust was not the only consideration that made being gay a disqualifying trait for government service at the time; gays, it was widely believed, were also uniquely vulnerable to blackmail. So reprehensible was being gay, the thinking went, that a gay person would rather betray his country than risk exposure of his shameful secret. The month after Hoover composed his report on Bohlen, Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which permitted the federal government to fire those suspected of “sexual perversion,” a euphemism for being gay. Over the ensuing decades, far more people (estimates range into the thousands) would lose their jobs over (real or alleged) homosexuality than suspected communist sympathies; many thousands more were denied jobs in the first place.
Fast-forward over six decades to the present, and the same smear tactics are being employed, again in service of a dubious narrative involving supposed corruption of presumed gay people by a hostile foreign power. Except this time, the inquisitionists are not reactionary Republicans, but supposedly enlightened progressives.
Last month, newly elected Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar posted a tweet about Lindsey Graham in which she shared a 2015 video of the South Carolina Senator denouncing then-candidate Donald Trump. “They got to him, he is compromised!” she wrote, emphasizing the degree to which Graham’s public posture towards Trump has changed since the latter became president. Two days earlier, Jon Cooper, chairman of a Democratic Super PAC which purports to be “the nation’s largest grassroots Resistance organization,” tweeted that “a Republican” had told him “he doubts [Graham] is kowtowing to Trump (and indirectly Putin) because he’s being blackmailed over his sexual orientation (an open secret) or even financial corruption. Rather, he thinks it probably involves some pretty serious sexual kink.” And that same day, MSNBC host Stephanie Ruhle speculated, “It could be that Donald Trump or somebody knows something pretty extreme about Lindsey Graham.”
It’s not hard to see what comments like these are insinuating, although Omar later denied she was referring to Graham’s sexual orientation. (MSNBC declined to comment on the record about Ruhle’s intended meaning.) Wholly unsubstantiated speculation about Graham‘s sexual orientation—based on nothing more than his bachelor status—have circulated for years. In 2012, for instance, author John Heilemann referred to Graham as a “woman” on Morning Joe. Others have been even less subtle. Last January, after Graham had positive words for Trump following a meeting with senators at the White House, comedian Chelsea Handler tweeted the following missive to her 8.3 million followers: “Hey, @LindseyGrahamSC what kind of #$%&-sucking video do they have on you for you 2 be acting like this? Wouldn’t coming out be more honorable?” She followed that up in October with, “If you’re wondering why Republicans took a sick day today, it’s probably because it’s #NationalComingOutDay. Looking at you @LindseyGrahamSC.” And this week, the Washington Blade, the capital’s LGBT newspaper, put Graham’s smiling mug on the cover of its “50 Most Eligible Bachelors” issue.
Graham, who declined to comment for this story, has denied he’s gay. But that’s not the point. Even if he secretly were, the accusation that he is therefore susceptible to blackmail is historically groundless, predicated upon the same flawed assumption most people held about gays at the height of the Cold War: that they would commit treason in order to avoid being outed.
But of all the Americans who did betray their country by committing espionage for a foreign power, there is not a single example of a gay person blackmailed into doing so. A 1991 study found that in the 117 spy cases discovered since World War II, only six involved gays, and in none of these was sexual orientation a deciding factor. That same year, asked about the impending outing of his spokesman, then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney referred to the blackmail rationale as “an old chestnut” used to bar gay people unfairly from serving in sensitive government positions. To claim today, baselessly, that a closeted gay person is being blackmailed into working against his country, retroactively validates the Cold War persecution of gays, who could be denied security clearances until a 1995 Executive Order by Bill Clinton reversed Eisenhower’s mandate.
The sad irony is that the only informing some gay men and women did during this time was under duress from their own government, which pressured them into identifying fellow gay people so that they, too, could be purged. One of the sources in Hoover’s secret report on Bohlen was a gay man who, thanks to a “sixth sense,” claimed he could “separate the ‘queer’ from the men.” Another such informant, a former Department of Commerce employee named Thomas Tattersall, identified dozens of men and women as “homosexuals” to federal investigators. As reported by historian David K. Johnson in his book The Lavender Scare, government agents once forced Tattersall to phone a friend at the Department of Commerce so they could monitor the conversation. “Various homosexual terms were used,” they later reported, and the “tone of the conversation and the tone of voice” of the Interior employee were “definitely homosexual.” Like those who gay-bait Lindsey Graham today, assertions about an individual’s sexual deviancy in the 1950s and 60s were often based upon little more than stereotypes and conjecture.
In one of the few cases where the Soviets did try to blackmail a closeted gay man, their plans backfired. When the virulently anti-communist newspaper columnist Joe Alsop visited Moscow on a reporting trip in 1957, the KGB lured him into a honey trap with an attractive young agent and took photographs of the ensuing sexual encounter. Confronting Alsop with the dirty pictures, the KGB men demanded that he work on their behalf back in Washington. Yet rather than cower and do the Soviets’ bidding, Alsop archly asked for copies of the photos depicting him in flagrante delicto, hurried straight to the U.S. Embassy and revealed everything that had happened, including his history of gay experiences. Over the rest of his long career, despite knowing that the Soviets could have exposed him at any moment (and they tried), Alsop not only never softened his strident anti-communist views, he became even more assertive in espousing them.
It seems never to have entered the fevered imaginations of Graham’s antagonists that the reason he has changed his tune about Trump is not to protect the secret of his scandalous peccadilloes, but because of something even grubbier: politics. Graham is, after all, a Republican from a deep red state where Trump is popular with the people Graham needs to win re-election. But such quotidian explanations do not suit our increasingly conspiratorial times. Two years into Trump’s presidency, a large segment of the American left has become utterly unhinged about Russia. Initially expressing justified suspicions about a president with an unseemly fondness for Vladimir Putin, some now indiscriminately charge anyone who does not share their hostility to the president, or buy into their increasingly deranged theories, with being a Russian agent. By stooping to gay baiting, the McCarthyism of the “Resistance” has come full circle.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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The Article Was Written/Published By: James Kirchick