The Undead Anti-Gay Past
Unearthing the lost history of government persecution.
The attention paid to the daily controversies surrounding the occupant of the Oval Office, while legitimate and necessary, provides cover for Republican efforts to reverse decades of progress on a host of issues and to undermine our representative democracy. These threats require multitasking and division of labor among those resisting the slide toward authoritarianism.
An instructive lesson is found in the often lost and buried history of anti-gay discrimination in America. The animus behind that discrimination is alive and well, like the racial, gender, and religious biases which are its cousins. The strategy that has gained momentum in state legislatures since the landmark 2015 marriage equality victory in Obergefell goes by the false monicker of “religious freedom.” It is no more about freedom than it was when restauranteurs refused service to people whose skin color they didn’t like.
If your concept of freedom is exclusive to one group, then you are defending not freedom but supremacy. The social contract on which our republic is based requires mutual respect. This “inescapable network of mutuality,” as Dr. King put it, is both inseparable from the American project and targeted by equality’s enemies in each generation.
The documentary Uniquely Nasty: The U.S. Government’s War on Gays, produced by Yahoo News and reported by Michael Isikoff, received an Edward R. Murrow Award in the News Documentary category in 2016. It portrays efforts by the Mattachine Society of Washington, originally founded by the late Frank Kameny but with a new mission of archive activism under the leadership of Charles Francis and Pate Felts. With help from pro bono attorneys at McDermott, Will & Emery, Mattachine has combed through archives and newly declassified documents “to educate and motivate a new generation of thought leaders, the legal community, and the media.”
The deadly consequences of anti-gay persecution are illustrated in Uniquely Nasty by the story of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt, who was blackmailed by henchmen of Sen. Joe McCarthy over the arrest of Hunt’s son for soliciting sex with a male undercover officer in Lafayette Park, and shot himself to death in his Senate office in 1954. Few people know that story today, though it inspired the bestselling novel and movie Advise and Consent.
Another forgotten bit of history unearthed by Mattachine after Uniquely Nasty was a report by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission in 1964 that was used to scuttle voter registration and civil rights work at Rust College, an HBCU in Holly Springs, MS, by smearing its president, faculty, and students as “oddballs and homos.” One Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist at Rust who stirred the wrath of state officials that year was Frank Smith, who decades later served four terms on the D.C. Council and founded the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum.
Francis, who moderated a July 17 panel discussion on the Rust episode as part of the March on Washington Film Festival, calls it “a classic example of homophobia in service to racism.” Can you say intersectionality?
One of the treats in Uniquely Nasty is listening to actor George Takei read from long-hidden memos by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, the closet case who persecuted generations of “homos.” Another is watching the 2015 seaside gay wedding of Charlie Baker, who fought back with help from Kameny after being fired by the National Bureau of Standards in 1971.
The official justifications for the persecution explored in Isikoff’s documentary went from the old “security risk” canard (the evidence-free claim that gays posed such a risk was akin to the current “voter fraud” pretext for vote suppression), to the citation of popular revulsion toward homosexuality. My own 32-year federal career, from 1979 to 2011, was made possible by the struggles of brave people like Kameny and Baker.
In connection with Uniquely Nasty, Yahoo News published a cache of long-secret government memos uncovered by Mattachine. Persistent anti-LGBT persecution efforts like Mississippi’s HB 1523 teach us the importance of preserving and studying our history. As Mississippi novelist William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. Email Richard