SANTA BARBARA, December 19, 2005 –
The recent revelation that the U.S. military is spying on gay rights
groups, say historians, evokes the Cold War crackdowns on gays during the
McCarthy era, academics say.
Then, as now, the government
compiled lists of American citizens who were suspected of subversive
activity by virtue of their association with critics of government policy.
Targets included gays and members of gay or gay-friendly groups.
Last week, NBC News reported it had
obtained sections of a secret Pentagon database with information about
individuals linked to peaceful activist and protest groups that opposed
certain U.S. military actions.
According to the
the military has been monitoring meetings and events it deems “suspicious,”
including gatherings of several student groups at the University of
California, New York University and William Patterson College. Students
were meeting to discuss and oppose the military’s policy excluding openly
gay Americans from serving in uniform. At least one protest was classified
as “possibly violent.”
A spokesman for the Defense
Department said the Pentagon has “a legitimate interest” in using personal
information about private citizens to “protect its installations and
But according to David K. Johnson,
a historian at University of South Florida and author of The Lavender
Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal
Government, the banner of “national security” has long been used as a
pretext to crack down on gay rights and even to spark moral crusades against
homosexuality under the guise of national defense.
His book explains that “security
risk” was used throughout the Cold War to invoke “the specter of
homosexuality,” which was cast as a threat to national security, and as
something that “needed to be systematically removed” from the government and
minimized in the culture at large.
As far as is known, the current
surveillance does not target homosexuality itself, but rather gay groups
which have voiced opposition to the “don't ask, don't tell” policy barring
openly gay service.
But as described in Johnson’s book,
the historical pattern for thwarting gay freedom has been “guilt by
Joseph McCarthy singled out
Americans who read Communist literature, and took aim at gays because they
“had extremely close connections with other individuals with the same
tendencies.” The McCarthy era was also known for keeping lists of
individuals deemed “security risks” because they had a history of
alcoholism, Liberalism, disloyalty and even “loquaciousness.”
Dr. Johnson said the Pentagon’s
spying is the latest in a long history of targeting gays and lesbians as
subversives, despite lacking any evidence for such a charge.
“It's no surprise,” he said. “The
federal government began spying on those who challenged its discriminatory
policies from the very earliest days of such activism.”
He said the FBI investigated the
first organizational meeting in 1961 of what became the Mattachine Society,
one of the earliest gay rights groups. Government agents took photographs
in 1965 at the first gay and lesbian public demonstration in front of the
White House against the military’s exclusionary policies.
“What is surprising,” he continued,
“is that in nearly a half century of undercover intelligence gathering, they
haven’t yet figured out that these are always peaceful, lawful protests.”
Nathaniel Frank, a historian and
Senior Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in
the Military, a research institute at the University of California, Santa
Barbara, said there have been important advances made in the rights of gays
and lesbians since the McCarthy era.
“The witch hunts in the military
have diminished,” he said, referring to the process of identifying gay and
lesbian service members through invasive and degrading methods.
“We don't see the ‘queer
stockades’, the deliberate humiliation and sanctioned physical abuse that
used to characterized military life for gays who served their country."
But he expressed concern that what
the Pentagon defends as routine security measures has too often been used to
vilify, thwart or even harm gay people.
“While tolerance and treatment of
gay Americans has generally improved since the Cold War,” said Dr. Frank,
“both our government and the popular imagination have frequently used
‘national security’ to run roughshod over the rights of gay patriots.
The line between legitimate defence
needs and abuse or exploitation of minorities in this country is easily
blurred. What needs to be vigilantly monitored right now is not peaceful
gay groups but our national commitment to keeping this line in sharp focus.
■ The Lavender Scare: The Cold
War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government by David
K. Johnson is published by
Of Chicago Press (January 1, 2004). ISBN: 0226404811; 312pp; list price $30
USA price is $19.80 –
Amazon UK £15.51
Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the
Military website. The Center is governed by a distinguished board of
advisors including the Honorable Lawrence J. Korb of the Center for American
Progress, Honorable Coit Blacker of Stanford University and Professor Janet
Halley of Harvard Law School. Its mission is to promote the study of gays,
lesbians, and other sexual minorities in the armed forces