December 20, 2018 at 8:30 pm PST | by Christopher Kane
The ugly history of LGBT discrimination

Frank Kameny in uniform. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

“The theme of the Trump Administration with regard to LGBT people is erasure. And in this time of erasure, it is vital that gay, lesbian, and trans Americans understand their history and the roots of this terrible discrimination in the military,” Charles Francis, President of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., told the Los Angeles Blade.

Francis, an archival activist, knows LGBT history as keeper of the Frank Kameny flame. Kameny’s “Gay is Good” picket signs “were placed on the platform. The Smithsonian curator laid them alongside the writing table where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence; the inkwell used by Lincoln when signing the Emancipation Proclamation; and the pin worn by Alice Paul who went to jail picketing the White House for women’s suffrage. ‘Frank, this is where the pickets fit into American history, the Smithsonian curator said,” Francis wrote in an Oct. 2011 essay for the Washington Blade describing the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. founder’s artifacts in the Library of Congress’ “Creating the United States” exhibit.

Kameny famously picketed because he had been fired by the US government for being gay. During the Red Scare of the 1950s, right wing Cold War hawks like Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy and his closeted gay sidekick, attorney Roy Cohen, intertwined communism and homosexuality as national security threats. Gays were hunted down, outed and force to resign on charges of “immoral conduct.”

Congress held hearings on the “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts” in government in 1950. Three years later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower—whose trusted post-wartime staffer WAC Sgt. Johnny Phelps identified as a lesbian—issued executive order 10450 banning homosexuals from government employment—including in the military—as a threat to national security.

The “lavender scare” caught up with Kameny in 1957 and he was fired from his job in the Army Map Service. “The military was finding gay people in their ranks and they didn’t know whether to kick them out and criminalize it or kick them out and force them into psychiatric treatment” in a mental hospital,” Francis said. “Progressive voices at the time said homosexuals certainly need to be kicked out of the military, but homosexuality should be treated as a psychiatric problem,” which often meant being “cured” through lobotomies, electrical shock treatments and powerful drugs.   

Kameny filed an unsuccessful appeal with the US Civil Service Commission—the first ever civil rights claim in a US court based on sexual orientation—and then appealed to the Supreme Court. His petition was denied in 1957, but it marked a turning point for him and the nascent movement.

“In World War II, petitioner did not hesitate to fight the Germans, with bullets, in order to help preserve his rights and freedoms and liberties, and those of others,” Kameny wrote in his petition. “In 1960, it is ironically necessary that he fight the Americans, with words, in order to preserve, against a tyrannical government, some of those same rights, freedoms and liberties, for himself and others.”

In fact, World War II changed everything.  With the war came defense factories, including in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco where gay people found each other, developed community, and laid the groundwork for the civil rights and liberation movements of the 1950s and 1960s.

At the same time, the military targeted homosexuals, who were considered criminals in states where sodomy was a felony. “The war mobilization laid the groundwork for a national effort to eliminate homosexuals from public life,” David Hurewitz wrote in his 2007 work, “Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics.”

But, Francis told reporter Michael Isikoff for “Uniquely Nasty,” a Yahoo documentary, “They fired the wrong guy.” Kameny wore his homosexuality as “a badge of pride,” leading to his organized picket protests in 1965. He demanded that the US government “cease noting that they are homosexuals and ignoring that they are also American citizens,” Francis told Library of Congress historian Ryan Reft in Nov. 2015.  

Last year, Francis obtained the “truly shocking” transcript of a closed Executive Session hearing in 1950 chaired by infamous North Carolina Sen. Clyde Hoey, who chaired the Senate Investigations Subcommittee. 

“The Hoey hearings are quite famous as they began the Congressional assault on homosexuals in government,” Francis told the Los Angeles Blade. “What is less well known is the toxic Executive Session interviewing government experts on the homosexual threat to American institutions such as the military.”

The most vile and hostile witness was Admiral Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, the first Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, whose testimony went “FAR beyond the canard of blackmail,” Francis says. “The testimony documented in that transcript is unvarnished in its ignorance and bigotry.”

“It is a fact,” the Executive Session transcript reads, “that homosexuality frequently is accompanied by other exploitable weaknesses, such as psychopathic tendencies which affect the soundness of their judgment, physical cowardice, susceptibility to pressure, and general instability.”

Hoey asks Hillenkoetter what effects homosexuality might have “on the will power and moral fiber of the individual.” The CIA Director responded, “It would be a weakening in the moral fiber because we consider it wrong.” 

Francis hears echoes of such bigotry today. “The old discrimination and the old ignorance and bigotry are finding their way back into public policy with regard to the trans service ban,” Francis says.  

This is perhaps not surprising since Donald Trump was mentored by Roy Cohen. – Karen Ocamb contributed to this story.

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