“Homosexuality is Stalin’s Atom Bomb To Destory America”
March 8, 2018 10:15 AM   Subscribe

“Information has come to our attention that you are homosexual. What comment do you care to make?” During the Lavender Scare, LGBTQ+ military and government personnel were targeted en masse — especially women, Airman Second Class Helen James was one of them. Navy recruit and Drag King Rusty Brown gives an oral history of the panic and paranoia at the time. (PDF) MAKING GAY HISTORY podcast and transcript on the founders of Daughters of Bilitis, the first advocacy organization for lesbians in 1955. posted by The Whelk (20 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Making Gay History's episode on Frank Kameny is also worth listening to for background:

He was fired from his federal government job in 1957 because he was gay. He didn’t just go home and pull the covers over his head. He fought a successful eighteen-year-battle with the government to change the law so the same thing didn’t happen to other gay people.

Along the way Frank founded a militant gay rights group in 1961 in Washington, DC, and in 1965 organized the first public protests by gay people in front of the White House, among other places.

posted by ryanshepard at 10:21 AM on March 8 [5 favorites]

From that transcript...

Phyllis: Something like that. This organization was so fragile that Del and I were like peer counselors to every member, and we stopped and pick ‘em up to bring them to the meetings. If anybody had a problem we ran over to pat their heads.

Eric: What made it so fragile?

Phyllis: There was a few of us, and it was so scary.

Del: And the times. There was nothing but fear out there.

Eric: What were people fearful of?

Phyllis: Of losing their jobs. Of losing their jobs, losing their families, losing their minds.

posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:34 AM on March 8 [3 favorites]

And we can be pretty sure Uncle Joe wasn't interested in gay-bombing anyone. I was listening to this interview with the author, Dan Healey, this morning, and it's quite related: Russian Homophobia from Stalin to Sochi.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:35 AM on March 8 [2 favorites]

on a related note, I just learned about the court case High Tech Gays vs. DISCO
posted by idiopath at 10:42 AM on March 8 [1 favorite]

One of the contexts in which this occurred was the awareness, immediately post-WWII, that quite a lot of the military, and in particular the Women's Army Corps, was LGBT. Johnnie Phelps' response when Dwight Eisenhower told her to "ferret out" the lesbians is legendary. Guess that Ike forgot about that by 1953.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:46 AM on March 8 [4 favorites]

High Tech Gays vs. DISCO
I have that album!
posted by neroli at 11:12 AM on March 8 [8 favorites]

One of the contexts in which this occurred was the awareness, immediately post-WWII, that quite a lot of the military, and in particular the Women's Army Corps, was LGBT. Johnnie Phelps' response when Dwight Eisenhower told her to "ferret out" the lesbians is legendary. Guess that Ike forgot about that by 1953.

It's legendary both in the sense that it's an heroic story and also in the sense that it's untrue. A comprehensive disproval is discussed by Donna Knaff in Donna Knaff (2009) The “Ferret Out the Lesbians” Legend: Johnnie Phelps, General Eisenhower, and the Power and Politics of Myth, Journal of Lesbian Studies, 13:4, 415-430, DOI: 10.1080/10894160903048155. The primary points:

1. Phelps claimed that Eisenhower was responding to an Executive Order from President Truman. Truman gave no such order during his presidency. Eisenhower did when he was president, though (Executive Order 10450, which addressed “sexual perversion” among government employees).
2. By the time Phelps was in Europe, Eisenhower had left Germany and was in Washington, DC. It is unlikely that they ever crossed paths, much less in this capacity.
3. Phelps's story contains numerous other factual errors. Phelps claimed she was a medic, served in the Pacific, and was a sergeant. In fact, Wacs were not assigned as medics in WWII, Phelps's military records show she never served in the Pacific, and her highest rank was corporal.

Phelps was an unreliable narrator in many other ways. As Knaff notes
It is important to explore how such usually trustworthy sources came to believe and disseminate this false story. Lillian Faderman, whose scholarly work is not only widely respected and published but also usually very reliable, speaks to this: “I do think now,” she observes in retrospect, “...that Phelps was given to fabrication. I learned as I was doing [later] research that she’d had a serious drug problem, and as she admitted in an interview, her memory was often ‘faulty.’” The transcript of the original Phelps interview with Bunny MacCulloch confirms this; in the paragraph just before her story of Eisenhower, Phelps discusses her opium and heroin use. After her statement about serving with Eisenhower for 16 months, she says, non sequitur, “Sometimes I feel like I have been living simultaneously about 5 different lifetimes,” then notes, “Sometimes I think I need to go see [someone professionally] about the multiple personalities because I think they’re there! They’ve never manifested themselves but they must be there” (Phelps, 1982, 44).
All that said, as Knaff goes on to discuss, there is value in myth, legend, and heroic stories. And Phelps was genuinely quite accomplished in other ways, and her military service was honorable:
Phelps had quite a number of later accomplishments, as head of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women and as an addictions counselor. She used her fame for activism, aiding queer servicemembers opposing lesbian and gay “witch-hunts” on at least two American Navy ships (Wilson, 2008). As Pat Jernigan observes, even in WWII, Phelps “answered her country’s call for help. She served honorably in two separate enlistments; she reached the grade of corporal. These accomplishments are honorable” (Jernigan, 1999). Margaret Salm is right, however: lesbians and gays do need a hero, and for many years, Johnnie Phelps provided one.
posted by jedicus at 11:24 AM on March 8 [9 favorites]

Thanks for posting this. I've been working on a piece about this for a while, and I'm so glad to see this getting the attention it deserves.
posted by mynameisluka at 11:49 AM on March 8

Huh. Thanks for the update, jedicus. I don't edit Wikipedia, but it seems like the kind of thing that should be added to her article.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:04 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]

My aunt was targeted (with great enthusiasm) by the Army in 1975. I still haven't forgiven them and I'm not sure I ever will.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:24 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]

Funny, I always thought the atom bomb was Stalin's atom bomb to destroy America.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:20 PM on March 8 [6 favorites]

I remember reading a book by one of women who founded the Daughters of Bilitis. Apparently she was filling out a form and it asked for her birthday as "DOB" and read it as "Daughters of Bilitis" and thought "HOW DID THEY KNOW."
posted by rmd1023 at 2:39 PM on March 8 [2 favorites]

Just a nitpick, but is the title really supposed to say "destory" instead of "destroy"?
posted by J.K. Seazer at 4:01 PM on March 8

Wherever did the idea that sex is binary rather than a spectrum come from?
posted by emf at 6:37 PM on March 8

In brief: 19th century German sexologists and the middle classes.
posted by The Whelk at 12:27 AM on March 9 [2 favorites]

Great post!

There's also a pretty lengthy article about the Lavender Scare in the National Archives' quarterly Prologue. Some of the documents included in the article are pretty shocking, even just the list of people who have been fired.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 2:05 AM on March 9

Is “destory” a technical term in queer theory? If not, perhaps it should be.
posted by acb at 2:29 AM on March 9 [1 favorite]

Yeah I’m always encouraging people to read THE LAVANDER SCARE cause it paints such a vivid picture of the time and how, if you look at what people where telling thier senators or writing in newspapers ...the Red Scare was a fig leaf for this huge moral masculinity in crisis panic attack. The threat of spies or “drunkards” (there’s a strong midcentury corruption in middle class fiction between homosexuality and drunkenness) as security risks was used to get rid of “sex deviants”, and the reports where like “she has a mannish nature and I’m uncomfortable around her.”

Like the op-Ed’s and such at the time where so blunt - the vastly expanded federal government has created a culture of office work that will emasculate men and make them happy doing women’s work. Women working for this new government will be paid good wages and won’t need a man to set up house. This will cause a change in traditional family forming and must be stopped and is probably a commie plot anyway to make us weak. (Also the right wing wanted to destroy the new government and one way of doing that is mass firings, commentators called the Fair Deal the Fairy Deal, designed to employ thousands of deviants who couldn’t get real, manly work)

Like at one point men’s in the State Department where afraid to be seen talking to each other or having lunch together, a huge change from the war-period DC’s reputation of being a fairly easy town to be quietly gay in.
posted by The Whelk at 10:14 AM on March 9 [1 favorite]

Also, the huge impact Kinsey had- 48 was the release of Sexual Behavor In The Human Male, which was partly an attempt to show the natural spectrum of human sexual behaviors but instead blew open a topic that could t be discussed in polite company. The shield of taboo was lifted and it became a crisis talking point. Could it be your child? Your husband? Your friend! Who are these people leading seemingly normal lives and then meeting in sinister cabals to perform thier deviant acts? Are they recruiting? Have they ALLREADY TAKEN POWER?!?

Sound familiar?

Anyway the literature of the post war era started with a boom in books about men anxious about thier sexuality and or suffering PTSD as we would now know it - so much so that I believe the NYT critic moaned about all these “Fairy tales” and the whole degenerate fad.
posted by The Whelk at 10:25 AM on March 9 [2 favorites]

and the reports where like “she has a mannish nature and I’m uncomfortable around her.”

"Well, yes- she's a Marine."
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:45 AM on March 9

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