Davison on Charles, 'Hoover's War on Gays: Exposing the FBI's "Sex Deviates" Program'

Author: 
Douglas M. Charles
Reviewer: 
Kate Davison

Douglas M. Charles. Hoover's War on Gays: Exposing the FBI's "Sex Deviates" Program. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015. xv + 453 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2119-4.

Reviewed by Kate Davison (University of Melbourne) Published on H-Histsex (July, 2018) Commissioned by Philippa L. Hetherington (University College London)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=47421

Building on previous work on the FBI’s “Obscene File,” this latest book by Douglas M. Charles offers a forensic dissection and autopsy of paper trails relating to the FBI’s “Sex Deviates File,” formally created in 1951 and active up to the late 1970s. This is a risky endeavor, as the file no longer exists. 

A crucial contribution of the history of sexuality has been to demonstrate how so much of queer history is based on reading between the lines: we are forced to speculate and surmise about subjects that have continually been silenced and erased. Charles’s book represents a veritable sleuthing project to recover not only a figurative notion of erased queer history, but evidence of documentation that did once actually exist. 

Initially taking shape in the 1930s, FBI interest in sexual minorities greatly intensified in the three decades following the Second World War, manifesting in the surveillance and harassment of individuals and groups by agents, and even in lobbying and interference in political processes. Charles’s main objective is to reconstruct what he believes to have been a vast archive of material. Given his prior familiarity with the rabbit warrens of FBI archival and filing systems, it is hard to imagine it being handled so well by anyone else. His examination (chapter 4) of FBI correspondence with the National Archives in 1977 requesting that records be destroyed supports the assertion that before their destruction the files were of considerable volume, beyond what has been previously thought, or feared. Charles estimates that the Sex Deviates and associated files together amounted to 330,000 pages. From there he deduces that the number of individuals and state employees subjected to information-gathering across all levels of the command structure must have run into the thousands. Not all of these targets were necessarily homosexual, but their conduct or associations were enough in the eyes of Hoover’s team to warrant surveillance. 

The detailed description Charles provides of the minutiae of memos, communication, boxes, file numbers, phone calls, and timelines is at times dizzying, bordering on tedious. However, it is precisely through such pedantry that he is able to establish and confirm significant facts. His observation that Hoover actively resolved to expand and formalize the Sex Deviates Program in June 1951 (p. 107), for example, is indicative of a high level of autonomy in the FBI’s homophobic agenda: by that stage, much of the most dramatic action of the so-called Lavender Scare (elucidated in detail by David K. Johnson in 2001) had already taken place via the Hoey Committee and the Wherry Report before it. This shows the extent to which the FBI director struck out on his own accord. 

This fine-toothed approach also allows Charles to draw more tentative but helpful conclusions of significance to the history of the homophile movement. For example, his examination of likely police informants and their documented attendance at meetings of the Mattachine Society, filed together with their investigations of ONE magazine under the codename “COMINFIL” (chapter 5), provides empirical substance to our understandings of calculated and deliberate police surveillance tactics, even of such unobtrusive, moderate organizations as the Mattachine, and even prior to the emergence of radical social movements in the 1960s. These included tailing targets, taking covert photographs of them, recording changes in their residential addresses, paying uninvited visits to offices and homes, submitting detailed reports of friendship networks, and collecting literature.

But if Charles’s dogged attention to even the smallest scrap of scribbled note is in any way tedious, it pales in comparison to the tedium of the persistent popular assertion that Hoover himself was gay. This myth is typically deployed as a shorthand explanation for the director’s decades-long persecution of homosexual and queer men. Echoing David K. Johnson’s similar debunking of the myth that Joseph McCarthy was either a figurehead or solely responsible for the lavender scare witch hunt, it is gratifying that Charles devotes the opening of the book (chapter 1) to laying the Hoover myth to waste on the basis of definitive evidence. The point, Charles persuasively shows, is that there is none. Tracing the cultural, journalistic, and scholarly versions of the myth, he directly poses the more important challenge to readers: “Does it matter?” His persuasive overall argument is that, although the FBI pursued an antihomosexual agenda for over sixty years, there is “no single explanation” for it (p. 358).

Another significant myth-busting revelation concerns the FBI’s interest in women and lesbians. It is generally assumed that state intelligence and security organizations had little interest in lesbian political activity. Charles shows that this is absolutely not true, devoting a whole section to FBI surveillance of the lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis.

Though the core project of the book rests upon a meticulous reconstruction of an elusive paper trail, ambiguities and contradictions arise. For example, the evidence Charles uses to assert that the expulsion of Bob Hull from the Communist Party in 1950 was based on his sexuality seems ambiguous, despite Charles confidently arguing the case (p. 174; Bob Hull should not be confused with Cordell Hull, secretary of state in the Roosevelt administration, who in 1943 forced the resignation of Undersecretary Sumner Welles due to his homosexuality, discussed in chapter 3). Even less convincing is Charles’s reasoning for the disproportionate focus on men in the paper trail: he appears to uncritically accept and even advocate the idea that male homosexuality is more threatening to the state than women’s sexuality and activism (p. 358), yet this is not proven by the book’s content.

At other times the evidence is thinner and the historical connections more conjectural. The assertion that, in early to mid-twentieth-century America, a nexus was constructed in public discourse linking the figures of the sex deviate, the pedophile, the kidnapper, and the transient job-seeker and/or hobo, rests upon two cases only (chapter 2). Much is made of the year 1937, when a high-profile kidnapping of a young boy by two men took place, and Hoover published his first polemic intimating the need for a special surveillance program targeting sexually suspect individuals. The primary focus is on what happened, yet Charles falls short of offering the reader a clear outline of why certain historical events hang together. 

Some of the evidence cited, while certainly compelling, seems to contradict the book’s overall pitch. Charles convincingly shows that the FBI became aware of the Mattachine Society initially through their routine surveillance of its founding members for communist activity prior to 1949/1950 (chapter 5). Only in November 1950 did the FBI learn of Harry Hay, Chuck Rowland and Bob Hull’s sexual orientation. Once agents concluded that the group bore no meaningful sign of communist infiltration they ceased actively investigating and merely continued to collect issues of ONE magazine for the COMINFIL file. By 1954, both Mattachine and the ONE offices were deemed to be of “no internal security interest” (p. 176), and requests for further postal surveillance were rejected. FBI interest in Hay continued, but this was unrelated to his Mattachine activities. In 1956, Hay’s sexual orientation was still of zero interest to FBI agents, and in 1961 the FBI even approached him with a view to recruiting him as an informant. While the FBI wanted to root out homosexuals from federal employment, Charles shows that Hoover and his team were in fact ambivalent about civil society activities relating to homosexual rights or interest groups. Despite the book’s title, this does not sound much like a “war on gays” at all.

One of the effects of calling it a “war on gays” is that the figure of the gay is automatically cast as a sad, forlorn, and downtrodden victim. But several anecdotes from FBI files give the lie to this image. When FBI agents came knocking at ONE magazine offices in January 1956 they were met with noncooperation, deliberate obfuscation of identity, talking back, and ridicule. In their report, agents described ONE’s William Lambert (a.k.a. W. Dorr Legg) as “sarcastic” (p. 187). When intimidation did not work, the FBI was forced to pursue other avenues, often shelved due to legal considerations. The Mattachine Review partially resisted such intimidatory tactics by printing articles on “searches and seizures” and “citizens’ rights in arrest situations” (p. 188).

The FBI files also reveal the extent to which politicians, senators, and Congress members intervened and spurred FBI investigations throughout the 1950s (e.g., pp. 180, 189), even when Hoover was less insistent. A directive to investigate everyone “from me right on down” for signs of homosexuality was issued to Hoover in 1964 by none other than President Lyndon B. Johnson himself (p. 277), sparked by the scandal over the arrest of his close aide Walter Jenkins for engaging in a homosexual sex act in a YMCA basement men’s room not far from the White House. What is striking about Charles’s evidence here is that this knee-jerk reaction had little to do with security concerns and very much to do with what LBJ called “possible sources of embarrassment” (p. 278) in the lead-up to an election.

Throughout the book, in other words, the archival evidence presented by Charles seems to present not so much a uniform war “on” gays, but numerous strategic mobilizations of homophobia to meet diverse interests by various arms of the state, not all of which reacted in the same way or had consistent levels of gung-ho. The surveillance carried out against the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) during the Nixon years, for example (chapter 8), occurred in the context of significant setbacks for the FBI following the exposure of COINTELPRO—the FBI’s chief concern was whether the GLF was influenced by communism, not its pro-gay message.

There are a few irritations, many of which could have been avoided with more attentive editing. Charles insists on retroactively using the substantive noun “gay” and “gays” despite the fact that this term was not in use for most of the period covered by the book. The word “Byzantine” should be used sparingly at most, but appears at least ten times as an adjective to mean clunky or old-fashioned; this is heavy-handed. The text is written in linked or intertwined episodes, but these are not often enough drawn together in an analytical framework. The narrative often shifts back and forth in time with insufficient signposting, and new references to previously used sources are sometimes phrased to give the impression that it is their first mention. Descriptions of FBI and political intrigues often seem to be suspended in a vacuum, as though the world of Washington, DC existed in a bubble. Only the briefest nods are given to the international context; greater elucidation of this and the domestic political context would have assisted the reader immensely. 

These criticisms notwithstanding, Hoover’s War on Gays is an excellent and much-needed empirical contribution to our knowledge on twentieth-century surveillance and harassment of a sexual minority, which intensified as that minority became more self-confident and public in its demands. Douglas M. Charles has demonstrated amply how intricate documentary histories based on deep and hidden bureaucratic paper trails provide uniquely illuminating details of key episodes of state power and grassroots resistance to it. 

Citation: Kate Davison. Review of Charles, Douglas M., Hoover's War on Gays: Exposing the FBI's "Sex Deviates" Program. H-Histsex, H-Net Reviews. July, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=47421

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