Secrets & Lies & Biden’s Gut Reaction

This post involves a period of U.S. history that’s been dubbed The Lavender Scare. A new documentary film by that name opened yesterday in New York and Los Angeles. Alas, I’m in Denver…

While I was writing my last post, on Morrissey, and specifically about a line from the Smiths’ song “The Queen is Dead,” I reviewed newspaper accounts of how Elizabeth II was visited in her Buckingham Palace bedroom in 1982 by a drunken Michael Fagan, whose wife had just left him. As I wrote in a footnote, “The incident prompted a male sex worker, ‘hoping to capitalize on the publicity,’ to reveal he’d had a years-long affair with the head of royal security.” What I didn’t include was the fact that there was to be a “separate inquiry” into the “grave questions” of these oh-so-dangerous liaisons, such as “how Cmdr. Michael Trestrail […] was able to carry on a homosexual affair with a male prostitute for a number of years without the knowledge of the authorities, despite background checks.”1 My reply: presumably the same way he would have been able to, had the prostitute been female. And I say this because I researched this general subject years ago, about which more below. Nevertheless, Trestrail resigned.

Streetlaughter screenshot
The above post by “ukjarry” discusses the resignation of Michael Trestrail as well as offering many cartoons created in the wake of the scandal.

Joe Biden’s Gut Reaction

The royal security story prompted me to do a new web search on keywords “homosexual security risk.” It returned a curiosity: “Joe Biden Viewed Gays in Government as ‘Security Risks’,” dated April 23, 2019. Reporters digging for dirt in Biden’s past…

If Donald Trump is viewed as being underinformed about many matters, Biden was too. As a freshman Senator from Delaware (his only other service had been a two-year city council stint) he met with his neighbors in September 1973 at a local elementary school. He had a couple of items on his agenda: public campaign financing and a response to Nixon’s energy program. But it was an attendee at that meeting who raised an issue that caused a reporter for Wilmington’s Morning News to promote the topic to the headline—“Gay Activist Gets Biden’s ‘Gut Reaction’.”

Biden […] agreed to answer by mail a series of questions on U.S. Civil Service and military job discrimination which Robert Vane, a gay activist, presented him.

Joe Biden in Morning News 1973According to the article, Biden was “startled” by Vane’s questions, which “sent at least three persons storming from the room when he identified his cause.” Again, this was 1973. When homosexuality still was understood to be communicable…

“My gut reaction,” Biden told Vane, “is that they (homosexuals) are security risks but I must admit I haven’t given this much thought… I’ll be darned!”2

Even if Biden had given it some thought it’s likely he’d have accepted his initial conclusion. It’s only common sense that homosexuals could be blackmailed in the course of their work for the federal government. Right?

Secrets & Lies: Exposure leads to firing

As mentioned above I did my own digging into this issue years ago. The notion of a homosexual security threat was investigated by the U.S. Senate in 1950, and neatly summarized in 1953 by journalist Peter Edson whose “Washington Column” was widely syndicated.3 Before Edson launched into his story, pains were taken by his syndicator’s editors: “The facts have been carefully checked with competent authority […].” After all, the subject of Edson’s column was delicate. Nevertheless as he himself prefaced the meat of the matter:

The danger in this situation, as has been explained many times before, is that a pervert is vulnerable to blackmail. Anyone discovered in those practices can be coerced—into, say, spying for an enemy country or disclosing U.S. government secret information—under threat of exposure. Exposure, of course, leads to firing. [emphasis mine]

Again, it’s only common sense, hardly worth mentioning. And so Edson’s recitation of the following statistics would have been reassuring to many of his readers in 1953.

Late in 1950 a senate investigating committee under Sen. Clyde R. Hoey of North Carolina, made a secret hearing investigation of perversion among government employes. It disclosed that from January, 1947, to October, 1950, the U.S. armed services had separated 4380 individuals for homosexuality.

In the same period, 574 cases were reported in the civilian agencies of government. Of these, 207 were dismissed from government service, 213 resigned, 85 were cleared and 69 cases were pending at the time the report was made.4

Yikes! It’s not a pinko under every bed (or cot), but rather a pervert.

Hoey Report Title Page
This image of Sen. Hoey’s (declassified) report title page is from an article by Judith Adkins published in the Summer 2016 edition of Prologue Magazine, available via the National Archives.

No There There

Absent from Edson’s column—and eluding his fact-checking editors—is an inconvenient datum: Sen. Hoey’s committee unearthed not a single case of a civil servant who engaged in “those practices” actually being “coerced” to spy for the enemy or disclose U.S. secrets. The same committee, nevertheless, stated in its 1950 report that all of the government’s intelligence agencies were “in complete agreement that sex perverts in Government constitute security risks.” Three years later—and barely three months after his inauguration as president—Dwight D. Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450, tasking government department heads with rooting out security risks, using criteria such as “sexual perversion.” But, as Edson points out, such an order hardly had been necessary because the practice had been in place for years.

Lavender Scare: The Movie

This subject was covered in 2004 by David K. Johnson, a professor at the University of South Florida, in his book The Lavender Scare, the film adaptation of which opened yesterday in New York and Los Angeles.5 An interview with director Josh Howard follows:

But 2004 was eons ago in the realm of historical revisionism. When I read the April 2019 article about Biden last week I braced myself for newly dug-up declassified documentation of heretofore unidentified slews of poof-spooks who’d betrayed our Republic—who’d Attacked. Our. Democracy.

I was pleasantly surprised that Swarthmore academic Rick Valelly currently is working on a book that covers this subject and, regarding the aforementioned commonsense notion, the good professor, mm…, minces no words:

It was a view that activists fighting for civil rights were trying to vaporize, because there was never an instance of homosexual blackmail.

I’ll be darned!

Compare and Contrast

As Josh Howard mentions in the interview above, 10,000 persons were purged for the gay taint. This isn’t far behind the number stained by the government’s loyalty program, ordered by Truman in 1947, as explained by University of Iowa professor Landon Storrs:

During the [loyalty] program’s peak between 1947 and 1956, more than five million federal workers underwent loyalty screening, resulting in an estimated 2,700 dismissals and 12,000 resignations. Those numbers exclude job applicants who were rejected on loyalty grounds. More importantly, those numbers exclude the tens of thousands of civil servants who eventually were cleared after one or more rounds of investigation, which could include replying to written interrogatories, hearings, appeals, and months of waiting, sometimes without pay, for a decision.6

Today the Democratic presidential frontrunner, Joe Biden, is confronted by two, mm…, security risks: the nominal socialist Bernie Sanders who, back when, would have had his loyalty challenged, and militarist Pete Buttigieg who, had he acted upon any latent same-sex proclivity, would have been “separated” from the service.

Header image:
colorized still from
Spione (Spies), Fritz Lang, 1928

  1. “Police Lapses Cited in Palace Intrusion,” New York Times, 22 Jul 1982, A10.
  2. Morning News, 25 Sep 1973, 13.
  3. According to an obituary, Edson’s “revelations touched off Richard Nixon’s famous ‘Checkers’ speech,” after Edson wrote “a 1952 story about the $20,000 fund that businessmen set up to defray office and travel expenses for then Sen. Nixon.” See “Peter Edson, 81, News Columnist Noted for Scoop on Nixon Fund,” Washington Post, 16 Jul 1977, B8.
  4. Peter Edson, “Washington Column,” Defiance, Ohio, Crescent-News, 07 Jul 1953, 4.
  5. David K. Johnson. 2004. The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, Chicago and London: University of Chicago.
  6. Landon R. Y. Storrs. 2012. The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 292 (program statistics). Cited in Landon R. Y. Storrs. Jul 2015. McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare, in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.013.6, accessed 09 Jun 2019.

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