Uniquely Nasty: J. Edgar Hoover's war on gays

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
1953: US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) Director J Edgar Hoover sits at a table, speaking into several microphones. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

1953: FBI Director J Edgar Hoover. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The directive was stern and uncompromising. In the depths of the Cold War, then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered his agents to undertake a new mission: Identify every gay and suspected gay working for the federal government.

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.

“In terms of FBI abuses, this ranks near the top,” says Doug Charles, a Penn State historian who is the author of the forthcoming book “Hoover’s War on Gays: Exposing the FBI’s ‘Sex Deviates’ Program.” “It was an effort to silence [gays], it was an effort to ruin their lives. Because if you were exposed as gay in the 1950s or 1960s, your life as you knew it was over.”

The June 20, 1951, Hoover memo is part of a cache of long-secret government documents detailing the persecution of gays and lesbians by federal agencies that are being published in their entirety by Yahoo News for the first time.

The material accompanies a new Yahoo News documentary, “Uniquely Nasty: The U.S. Government’s War on Gays.”

What these files show “is a degree of animus [toward gays] over decades that is astounding to behold — animus embedded in the federal government,” says Charles Francis, president of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. (Francis’ crusade to force the release of government files dealing with gays and lesbians is the subject of the Yahoo film.)

A veteran public relations consultant and once a close friend of former President George W. Bush, Francis obtained the Hoover memo two years ago through a Freedom of Information Act request. When he first saw it, “it was an aha moment — that we’ve got J. Edgar Hoover in our sights, and we’re seeing him provide his brand of sick, obsessive focus on gay America,” Francis says in the film.

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.

Eisenhower had tapped the younger Vandenberg to be his appointments secretary, one of the most senior White House positions in his new administration. But after he met with Hoover at the Waldorf Astoria in December 1952, Eisenhower’s transition team announced that Vandenberg Jr. would not be taking the high-level post due to “health reasons.”

Hoover’s efforts to destroy Vandenberg’s career didn’t stop there. Francis’ Freedom of Information Act requests uncovered correspondence showing that Hoover’s top public affairs official, Lou Nichols Jr., maintained a close working relationship with Howard Rushmore, the editor of Confidential magazine, a notorious Hollywood scandal sheet that made its reputation on exposing gays in the film industry as well as other avenues of public life.

And in 1956, after Vandenberg Jr. had begun a new career as a lecturer on foreign policy at the University of Miami, Confidential dropped a bombshell with details that appeared to come directly from the FBI files: “The Fairy Tale the White House Never Told!” screamed the headline accompanied by a photograph of Vandenberg Jr. “Once upon a time there was a famous senator’s son who had a limp wrist,” it continued.

Hoover’s efforts targeting gays didn’t take place in a vacuum, of course. There was pressure from Congress: Amid Cold War alarm about communists in government, a Senate investigations subcommittee report in 1950 — titled “Employment of Homosexuals and other Sex Perverts in Government Service” — also demanded that gays be purged. (“In the opinion of this subcommittee, homosexuals and other sex perverts are not proper persons to be employed in government … first, they are generally unsuitable, and second, they constitute security risks.”)

Ironically, Hoover’s zeal for fulfilling Congress’ wishes came amid persistent rumors about his own sexuality. One of the documents Francis uncovered 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.)

The rumors about Hoover, a lifelong bachelor, stemmed from his unusually close relationship with Tolson, his longtime deputy. Hoover and Tolson “had lunch every day together, they drove into work every day together, they took vacations together, had dinners together,” said Charles, the Penn State historian. “When Hoover died, he willed most of his estate to Tolson. So it’s all very suggestive.”

But contrary to film lore, such as in the 2011 movie “J. Edgar” (starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Clint Eastwood), Charles concludes that there is no definitive proof, one way or another, about the precise nature of their relationship — and that it ultimately doesn’t matter. “Was it gay or were they just really good friends?” he says. “Did they have a bizarre relationship that we can’t explain? We simply don’t know.”

Hoover and Toulson

FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover, left,and his assistant Clyde Toulson enjoy a rolling chair ride on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J. on Sept. 8, 1938. (AP Photo)

But what we do know now, says Charles, is that the FBI’s “sex deviates” program continued for years and had a real-life impact on tens of thousands of federal workers. His book documents how 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.

After serving as FBI director for 37 years, under six presidents, Hoover died in May 1972. It was not until December 1977, after a series of post-Watergate reforms that included an expanded Freedom of Information Act, that the bureau sought permission from the National Archives to destroy its “sex deviates” files.

“[These records] contain massive amounts of material that relate to matters of individual sexual conduct and thus seem to infringe on personal privacy,” wrote a bureau official in the Records Disposition Division in amemo describing the cache of material to be destroyed. “In addition, portions of this material involve unsubstantiated accusations and allegations.”

Since then, the FBI — along with the rest of the country — has changed substantially on all matters relating to sexual orientation. The FBI now has an LGBT program and sponsors LGBT Pride Month events. Director Jim Comey recently added “diversity” to the list of FBI “core values” and, in a recent email, made it clear he meant that to include accepting gays and lesbians.

When one FBI employee raised questions about the extent of the bureau’s LGBT outreach and expressed his discomfort, Comey wrote back a lengthy response defending the bureau’s efforts as an important “signal” to “gay and lesbian colleagues.”

“The goal should be to show current and potential employees that we are a welcoming family that cares about all our folks, regardless of who they love,” Comey wrote.

The email went out to all FBI employees from Comey’s office — at the J. Edgar Hoover Building.