Ever since the law criminalised homosexual acts and identities, it has been open to abuse from blackmailers. When I examined the Burney Collection, almost a quarter of complaints concerning sodomy related to blackmail, the threat of “swearing sodomy” against an innocent party. If discovered, the blackmailer was subject to the same punishment as somebody convicted of the crime they claimed (generally standing in the pillory up to three times, and paying a fine of 50l, or £10,000/$15,000 in today’s money).
While obviously a serious problem for those who found themselves blackmailed, or convicted of blackmailing others, these were private dramas; tragedies for individual families, but not nations. Following the Second World War, all that was to change.
As the global landscape shifted, and the secrets of nations were held more and more in private hands — the individuals working for the intelligence services — any trait which could leave an intelligence operative open to blackmail became a matter of national security. The discovery of the Cambridge 5, a Soviet spy ring drawn from graduates of one of England’s most illustrious universities, and first discovered when two members defected to Moscow in 1951, put intelligence agencies across the west into high alert. Donald Maclean was a violent drunk and philanderer; Kim Philby had affairs (and children) with a succession of women, and was thrice-married by 1956; Guy Burgess was openly, defiantly queer, and in later life became an alcoholic; Anthony Blunt was also queer, and as second cousin to the Queen Mother his close connection to the royal family became a matter of national embarrassment when he was exposed. Only John Cairncross, the shadowy “fifth man”, who first admitted spying in 1951 but wasn’t publicly exposed until 1979, seemed to have lived a relatively quiet personal life.
Queerness became synonymous with being untrustworthy, deceitful, and susceptible to blackmail. In the UK, it led to the “gay pogrom” of the 1950s; in America, Undersecretary of State John Peurifoy announced in 1950 that 91 homosexuals had been “allowed to resign” from the State Department to protect national security as the Cold War rumbled on. The same year, the Republican National Chairman said “sexual perverts who have infiltrated our Government in recent years [are] perhaps as dangerous as the actual Communists”. While McCarthy aggressively pursued suspected Communists across America, J Edgar Hoover’s FBI were rounding up homosexuals in government employ. In 1953, the State Department reported it had fired 425 employees alleged to have been homosexual.
It was a period which became known as the “Lavender Scare”. Hoover (himself widely suspected of being queer), made the responsibility for identifying queer employees the responsibility of their colleagues: “Each supervisor will be held personally responsible to underline in green pencil the names of individuals … who are alleged to be sex deviates,” he wrote in a 1951 directive. Names were often supplied anonymously, and the named employees dismissed without hesitation or recourse. It’s easy to see how such a system could be abused to settle old scores. Not only did the named person lose their employment, in 1950s-1960s America, to be identified as queer frequently meant losing your home, the support of your friends and family, and any possibility of finding new employment elsewhere.
Over a twenty year period, more than 360,000 files on gays and lesbians were collected, occupying nearly 100 cubic feet in FBI headquarters. Many of them were filed under the category “Sex Perverts in Government Service.” Agents gathered names from a variety of sources, including police records and anonymous informants. Even unwittingly befriending somebody the FBI knew was queer was enough to place you on their register. The FBI also worked covertly with Confidential magazine, a publication which made its name by outing high-profile celebrities from the world of entertainment; and even went after the son of a senator whom Hoover disliked.
The Cold War paranoia on both sides of the Atlantic surrounding homosexuality extended far beyond the ranks of government employees. Queer emancipation groups, just beginning to get off the ground, were often infiltrated by spies, their activities reported back to governments who, rather than liberate them from the law and remove the threat of blackmail which had left them vulnerable to begin with, doubled down on their efforts to quash their fledgling organisations. Caught in a catch-22 between being declared criminal through no fault of their own, and then treated as a national threat precisely because of their criminal status, queerfolk began to fight back. The LGBT emancipation movements in the UK and US came about, in large part, precisely because of the relentless persecution which the community suffered as a result of being forced to live beyond the law.