Last month, President Trump named Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, acting director of national intelligence. The move immediately sparked criticism as the latest example of Trump choosing a political loyalist for a nonpolitical job. But amid the controversy concerning the prudence of the appointment, its historical import has been obscured. For the first time in American history, an openly LGBT person will lead the intelligence community, a remarkable development considering that, until relatively recently, it not only denied employment to gay and lesbian Americans but thoroughly purged them from its ranks.
Beginning in 1953, when President Dwight Eisenhower signed an executive order denying work to those suspected of “sexual perversion,” thousands of gay men and women were forced out of the federal bureaucracy. While the exact number of victims claimed by this “lavender scare” is difficult to quantify, one scholar estimates that 5,000 to 10,000 people were affected, far exceeding those expelled in the simultaneous (not to mention much more extensively documented and remembered) red scare.
Many gay and lesbian workers quietly resigned rather than face humiliating security interrogations, others committed suicide without leaving an explanation, and untold numbers never even applied for jobs due to the prohibition on their employment. It was not until 1995, when President Bill Clinton signed an executive order reversing the Eisenhower measure, that sexual orientation was removed from the list of conditions justifying the denial of a security clearance.
The rationale for barring employment to gay people in the intelligence field at the height of the Cold War was twofold. The first, and ostensibly more justifiable one for liberal-minded individuals, was the potential for blackmail. Because homosexuality was legally proscribed in most states until the 1970s and socially anathema, gays were considered more susceptible targets for recruitment by hostile foreign intelligence services than heterosexuals. So shameful was the homosexual’s secret, so ruinous to his reputation and livelihood were it exposed, he would presumably do anything, including betray his country, to keep it concealed.
The genesis for this belief lay in the career of Col. Alfred Redl. A gay man and senior counterintelligence official in the Austro-Hungarian army, Redl was caught selling secrets for a hefty sum to Russia in 1913. Redl’s motivation was pure greed; his homosexuality was not even known to his Russian handler, nor would its exposure necessarily have ruined a military career in late Belle Époque Vienna. However, hoping to downplay the embarrassment of a mole at the very top of its counterintelligence apparatus, the military leaked that Redl was gay and had been blackmailed by the Russians over it.
The revelation of Redl’s treason just before the outbreak of World War I inflated the case’s significance in the public imagination. Over time, the tale of the traitorous, gay spy became lore, especially among intelligence professionals, dramatized onstage and in film. Five decades after Redl was handed a pistol and instructed to take his own life as punishment for treason, Central Intelligence Agency Director Allen Dulles included an account of the legend in an anthology he edited and wrote elsewhere that the Austrian colonel suffered from “two weaknesses — homosexuality and overwhelming venality.”
Indicative of how damaging homosexuality was considered to be at the time was the best-selling 1959 novel of Washington politics “Advise and Consent,” later made into a hit film directed by Otto Preminger. The book’s plot centered around a patriotic senator who committed suicide after one of his unscrupulous colleagues threatened to expose a fleeting, gay wartime affair. Although “Advise and Consent” was unusual for its sympathetic portrayal of a gay character, it nevertheless presented the homosexual’s plight as so drastic that death was considered preferable to having his secret disclosed.
Fears about gay Americans being susceptible to blackmail hardened significantly during the Cold War. Previously, the intelligence community’s homophobic attitude had been leavened by pragmatism. In 1950 testimony before a closed congressional committee investigating gay people in federal employment, Roscoe Hillenkoetter, the first director of the Central Intelligence Agency, categorically declared that his agency “will never employ a homosexual on its rolls.” Nonetheless, Hillenkoetter admitted it might be necessary, and had been “valuable” in the past, to use “known homosexual agents in the field.” Hillenkoetter assumed this tactic would be acceptable to members of Congress, because espionage, like homosexuality, was “at best an extremely dirty business.”
Hillenkoetter alluded to a case that year involving a “Soviet intelligence operation” wherein “our task will be made considerably easier by the appearance in the area of a known homosexual who we think will be extremely helpful in this particular case.”
This openness to the potential recruitment of gay people in intelligence work was ultimately cast aside as the Cold War inspired a second, more insidious, rationale for denying security clearances to gays: that subversive sexuality inclined one to subversive politics. The specter of a “Homosexual International,” “sinister, mysterious, efficient,” was conjured to accompany the all-powerful Communist one. A series of high-profile cases involving homosexuality and communist espionage bolstered this prejudice.
In 1948, Time magazine journalist Whittaker Chambers testified that he had been a courier for the communist underground in the 1930s and that Alger Hiss, a former State Department official, was a member of his cell. While Chambers’s sexuality was not explicitly raised at the time, Hiss’s allies strongly insinuated that the ex-communist’s allegations were motivated by a desire to seek revenge against the man who had spurned his romantic overtures.
Likewise, when British diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean defected to the Soviet Union in 1951, and two National Security Agency cryptologists, William Martin and Bernon Mitchell, fled to Moscow in 1960, many attributed their defections to deviant sexualities.
Although Burgess was openly gay and Mitchell had once admitted to bestiality in his youth, there was no indication that either’s sexuality played a role in their treachery. Nonetheless, pressure from the FBI over the Burgess affair led the British government to adopt a policy aimed at “eliminating homosexuals from the Foreign Service,” and media portrayed Martin and Mitchell as lovers.
The sad irony of these fears is that neither reason for keeping gay Americans from working in intelligence was based in reality. Never in American history was there a recorded case of a gay person compromised by a foreign power due to fears of his or her sexual orientation being exposed. The more realistic scenario was that exemplified by anti-communist newspaper columnist Joe Alsop in 1957. When the KGB entrapped him having sex with another man in a Moscow hotel room, Alsop marched straight to the American Embassy and composed a statement acknowledging the incident and his homosexuality. Years later, when incriminating photographs of the encounter were mailed anonymously across Washington, Alsop refused to desist in his harsh criticisms of the Soviet regime.
Moreover, it never seemed to cross the minds of intelligence professionals like Roscoe Hillenkoetter or the senators questioning him that a gay person was by necessity someone skilled at keeping secrets in a homophobic society and therefore might actually be predisposed for espionage work.
The 1969 Stonewall uprising against police harassment at a Greenwich Village bar is widely cited as the catalyst for the gay rights movement. But a proper understanding of the struggle for equality must include the activism that began a decade earlier in Washington, D.C., where the federal government’s discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans compelled a small number of heroic men and women to organize and lobby for their rights.
While Trump’s appointment of Grenell can be criticized on other grounds, the appointment of an openly gay man to head an institution once closed to gays and lesbians is a milestone. Along with Pete Buttigieg’s historic presidential campaign, it is a sign of progress that people who harbored what was once considered the most shameful secret are now entrusted with guarding the nation’s most sensitive ones.