Hoover's War on Gays
Exposing the FBI's "Sex Deviates" Program
Douglas M. Charles
At the FBI, the “Sex Deviates” program covered a lot of ground, literally; at its peak, J. Edgar Hoovers notorious “Sex Deviates” file encompassed nearly 99 cubic feet or more than 330,000 pages of information. In 1977–1978 these files were destroyed—and it would seem that four decades of the FBIs dirty secrets went up in smoke. But in a remarkable feat of investigative research, synthesis, and scholarly detective work, Douglas M. Charles manages to fill in the yawning blanks in the bureaus history of systematic (some would say obsessive) interest in the lives of gay and lesbian Americans in the twentieth century. His book, Hoover’s War on Gays, is the first to fully expose the extraordinary invasion of US citizens privacy perpetrated on a historic scale by an institution tasked with protecting American life.
For much of the twentieth century, when exposure might mean nothing short of ruin, gay American men and women had much to fear from law enforcement of every kind—but none so much as the FBI, with its inexhaustible federal resources, connections, and its carefully crafted reputation for ethical, by-the-book operations. What Hoover’s War on Gays reveals, rather, is the FBI’s distinctly unethical, off-the-books long-term targeting of gay men and women and their organizations under cover of official rationale—such as suspicion of criminal activity or vulnerability to blackmail and influence. The book offers a wide-scale view of this policy and practice, from a notorious child kidnapping and murder of the 1930s (ostensibly by a sexual predator with homosexual tendencies), educating the public about the threat of deviates, through WWIIs security concerns about homosexuals who might be compromised by the enemy, to the Cold Wars Lavender Scare when any and all gays working for the US government shared the fate of suspected Communist sympathizers. Charless work also details paradoxical ways in which these incursions conjured counterefforts—like the Mattachine Society; ONE, Inc.; and the Daughters of Bilitis—aimed at protecting and serving the interests of postwar gay culture.
“An excellent and much-needed contribution to our knowledge on twentieth-century surveillance and harassment of a sexual minority, which intensified as that minority became more self-confident and public in its demands. Charles has demonstrated amply how intricate documentary histories based on deep and hidden bureaucratic paper trails provide uniquely illuminating details of key episodes of state power and grassroots resistance to it.”
“This well-researched book draws heavily on primary sources from presidential libraries, FBI records, oral histories, and government reports. One unique source that Charles taps is the Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Historical Society, located in San Francisco, California.”
—American Historical ReviewSee all reviews...
“Fills an important gap in the history of the gay rights movement by providing a comprehensive account of the five-decade campaign of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to intimidate and harass gay men, lesbians, and organizations that sought to advance their rights.”
—Journal of American History
“Charles has unquestionably compiled the most comprehensive account of his subject.”
“By throwing out the sensationalism, Hollywood and otherwise, Charles makes possible his cool but devastating chronicle of what can be known about FBI covert investigation of homosexuals in the 20th century and Hoover’s role in the design and implementation of the programs to undertake it. It’s a far more gripping story than any conjecture about the director’s intimate relationship with his second-in-command, Clyde Tolson, could be.”
—The Bay Area Reporter
“Charles’s book is an excellent example of how to write about a dark chapter in the Bureau’s past without venting. The author is remarkably objective about a time when a prude, and possible hypocrite, lumped gays in with authentic traitors. In Hoover’s warped view, “deviates” destroyed society’s moral foundations and were therefore as destructive as Americans who bolstered the Soviets' nuclear capability.”
“A significant contribution to the literature on the gay and lesbian movements, on the history of the FBI, and on the political and cultural changes shaping twentieth century US.”
—Athan Theoharis, author of The FBI and American Democracy: A Brief Critical History
“A brilliant and fascinating look at the FBI’s decades-long interest in gays, one of the best things I have read about the FBI in years. Charles managed to obtain related files and follow the threads in those accounts which, in turn, led him to others. A groundbreaking book, covering a topic in FBI history that has not been previously explored in any significant way.”
—Matthew Cecil, author of Hoover’s FBI and the Fourth Estate: The Campaign to Control the Press and the Bureau's ImageSee fewer reviews...
With its painstaking recovery of a dark chapter in American history and its new insights into seemingly familiar episodes of that story—involving noted journalists, politicians, and celebrities—this thorough and deeply engaging book reveals the perils of authority run amok and stands as a reminder of damage done in the name of decency.