Gay History – September 25, 1984: J. Edgar Hoover’s Personal Papers on the War On Gay “Sex Deviate” Released
On September 25. 1985 an ACLU lawsuit filed on behalf of the International Gay and Lesbian Archives (now the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives) for an important cache of J. Edgar Hoovers’s personal cache of papers were released on this day under the Freedom of Information Act. The release consisted of more than 5,800 papers, Most documents focused on the Mattachine Society and ONE Magazine, the first openly gay magazine in America.
One interesting set of papers revealed J. Edgar Hoover’s interest in the gay movement. According to a memo dated January 26, 1956, the Los Angeles field office had been asked to check on the November 1955 issue of ONE, which talked about gay people who worked for Time and The New Yorker. The LA field office concluded that the articles statement was “baseless” and recommended that “no reply be made.”
Scrawled in handwriting below the typewritten recommendation was the sentence, “I think we should take this crowd and make them ‘put up or shut up’.” Markings indicated that the handwritten statement was made by Hoover’s chief aide and lifelong special “friend” Clyde Tolson. Hoover and Tolson worked closely together in the day, ate all their meals together in the evening, were seen socializing in nightclubs, and took vacations together. When Hoover died in 1971, Tolson inherited Hoover’s estate, and accepted the flag that draped Hoover’s coffin. Tolson’s grave is just a few discrete yards away from Hoover’s in Congressional Cemetery.
Hoover also weighed in on the 1956 memo. Next to Tolson’s recommendation to keep the case files open and continue investigating was another inscription. “I concur,” it read, with the single letter “H” underneath. The next day, a telegram went to the Los Angeles office. “You are instructed to have two mature and experienced agents contact Freeman (the pseudonym for the article’s author), in the immediate future and tell him the bureau will not countenance such baseless charges appearing in this magazine, and for him to either ‘put up or shut up’.” It was signed, simply, “Hoover.”
The Los Angeles field office followed up on Hoover’s instructions and paid a visit to ONE magazine where they found ONE’s chairman, Dorr Legg who flatly refused to answer their questions. Nevertheless, the FBI file on ONE grew to more than a hundred pages over the next several months while Hoover and Tolson complained about the lack of incriminating evidence from the investigation.
In 2013 more released papers and memos , detailed the persecution of gays and lesbians by Hoover, the FBI and other federal agencies. In the depths of the Cold War, then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered his agents to undertake the mission: Identify every gay and suspected gay working for the federal government in 1951.
Only Hoover didn’t describe his targets as gays. He called them “sex deviates.”
“Each supervisor will be held personally responsible to underline in green pencil the names of individuals … who are alleged to be sex deviates,” the FBI director wrote in a June 20, 1951, memo to more than 40 of the bureau’s top officials.
The Hoover memo effectively launched one of the FBI’s most extraordinary, and least known, programs: a massive effort to secretly collect the names of thousands of gay and lesbian Americans.
As part of this effort, Hoover instructed his supervisors to disseminate the names of each of the suspected gays — in some cases, anonymously (or by “blind memorandum,” the memo states) — to the federal agencies that employed them so they could be fired.
The newly discovered files reveal that the FBI’s “sex deviates” program was far more methodical — and sweeping — than previously known. More than 360,000 files on gays and lesbians were collected well into the 1970s, occupying nearly 100 cubic feet in FBI headquarters. Many of them were filed under the category “Sex Perverts in Government Service.”
Field agents were instructed to cull the names from police records, individual complainants or “any other source” — and then file reports to FBI headquarters with “the name of the alleged sex deviate as well as any other alleged deviates with whom he associated,” Hoover wrote in a Sept. 7, 1951, memo. (These reports were also to include “the date and place that the alleged act of sexual perversion occurred,” Hoover ordered.)
This information was then used to force government officials, including high-level political appointees, out of their jobs.
In one especially poignant case, Hoover informed President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower shortly before he was sworn in that a top campaign aide, Arthur Vandenberg Jr., son of longtime Michigan Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, was gay.
Ironically, Hoover’s zeal for fulfilling Congress’ wishes came amid persistent rumors about his own sexuality. One document released is an internal FBI memo to Hoover detailing a March 1952 investigation into a federal employee who was reported to have made a comment at a Washington, D.C., bakery: “Have you heard that the director is a queer?”
The remark prompted Hoover to order a full-scale probe of the federal worker, a budget analyst at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The worker was “vigorously interrogated” by FBI agents and warned of his “criminal and civil liability for the making of such statements,” the memo states. The budget analyst “appeared to be badly frightened” by the questioning and promised to never repeat the remark; the bureau’s No. 2 official, Clyde Tolson, recommended only that the analyst’s “activities” be reported to the “proper officials” at the NLRB. (“Yes,” scribbled Hoover in concurrence.)
Hoover’s “sex deviates” program continued for years and had a real-life impact on tens of thousands of federal workers. The FBI recruited informants to spy on the first gay activist groups in the 1960s. The bureau also expanded its efforts to collect and disseminate the names of gays beyond those employed in the U.S. government to also include academics at universities and officers in local police departments.