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.

—H-Net Reviews

“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 Review
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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.

About the Author

Douglas M. Charles is associate professor of history at Penn State University–Greater Allegheny. He is the author of J. Edgar Hoover and the Anti-Interventionists: FBI Political Surveillance and the Rise of the Domestic Security State, 1939–1945 and The FBIs Obscene File: J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureaus Crusade against Smut.