The Supreme Court is set to rule on Thursday, Friday, or Monday whether gay men and women can demand the government recognize their marriages under the 14th Amendment. Most folks seem to think the court will rule in favor of recognition (read my analysis of the arguments here). If the predictions hold true, that will mark the end of a huge chapter—no, really a volume—of gay activism and history.
For much of the late half of the 20th century, the American government was actively hostile toward gay and lesbian citizens. A new documentary put out on the cusp of this important Supreme Court decision serves a reminder of how the government was actively the enemy of gays and lesbians—or rather that the government was convinced that its own gay citizens were an enemy of the United States.
The years between 1950 and 1980 were a notably harsh period for gays in American society. The federal government viewed gays, especially gay men, in the same way it viewed communists: as huge threats who could destroy American society.
Gays were not just banned from working for the federal government; the government also spent huge sums of money and assigned personnel to track down employees that were suspected of homosexuality, attempt to find out the truth (or what seemed like "truth" anyway) and drive them out. It was an open, culturally approved purge, with headlines announcing how many government employees had been fired for being "sexual deviates."
A short documentary by journalist Michael Isikoff presented by Yahoo's "Viewfinder" series provides some insight into two stories of federal abuse, mostly forgotten by now. Uniquely Nasty: The U.S. Government's War on Gays tells of how the demonization of gays destroyed people's lives.
Oddly, though, the documentary's first chapter has almost nothing to do with this time period. Instead, Isikoff starts by exploring how former President George W. Bush reached out to gay conservatives during his first term, but then abandoned them as the administration turned toward anti-gay-marriage populism to help bring out the religious right vote and guarantee a second term.
There are logical reasons for Isikoff to start here. The documentary's aim is to introduce Charles Francis, a gay conservative former friend and advisor to Bush, who has since taken up duties researching the history of federal abuse of gay citizens and workers. It's Francis' work that is responsible for the stories that make up the second and third chapter.
Still, though, it's a jarring shift, after opening with snippets of outrageous claims about the evil corruptive influence of homosexuals in the government, to instead first talk about Bush and the current gay marriage fight. It—intentionally or not—blends the modern political debate with the historical political debate, and the tonal shifts are odd.
Starting with the 2004 gay marriage fight seems especially weird once we get deep into the second segment, which was how the FBI's program of ferreting out and arresting homosexuals in the 1950s led to the suicide of a sitting U.S. senator. Lester C. Hunt, a Democratic senator from Wyoming, was targeted by allies of Sen. Joe McCarthy in the Republican Party after Hunt's son was arrested for soliciting sex with an undercover male officer. They tried to drive him out of office. Instead, he ultimately shot himself at his desk in his Senate office. The story is told in Uniquely Nasty in part with the assistance of Hunt's own son, Lester "Buddy" Hunt Jr., on camera for the first time.
The second segment does a great job of highlighting just how pervasive and organized the federal government's hunt to root out gay workers would be in the 1950s and '60s. This was not "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." It was aggressive and predatory. J. Edgar Hoover ordered supervisors, planted in various federal agencies, to actually track accusations of homosexuality and report this information both to the FBI and to employers. Hundreds lost their jobs this way and had their reputations ruined. Hunt's suicide inspired part of the plot (altered a bit) of the Pulitzer-prize-winning book and movie Advise and Consent.
The third segment pivots to gay men and women starting to fight back against efforts by the government to destroy their careers. Did you know that in the early 1970s an openly gay man working for the U.S. Bureau of Standards successfully fought back when the government tried to fire him entirely because of his sexual orientation? The third chapter tells the tale of Charlie Baker, who sought out the help of pioneer of gay activism Frank Kameny to try to keep his job. A court ruled back then that the government couldn't just fire Baker for being gay unless it somehow affected his job performance. Baker's case has been largely lost to history, but he's still alive and married his partner earlier this year. He is interviewed for the documentary. (The piece also reminds us that the federal government at the time thought gay people could be "rehabilitated," something to remember when government officials attempt to assert control over therapeutic treatments.)
As we mull over this history in the terms of the possibly momentous decision that expected from the Supreme Court, it's easy to look at this massive change and ask: What next? Is that the whole ball game?
It may depend on what role you think the government should play in the lives of gay men and women and their relationships with not just the government but the private sector. Gay activist Michaelangelo Signorile is already warning against too much celebration with a new book literally titled It's Not Over (subheaded "Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality"). But while libertarians and progressives have largely agreed that gay people have the right to demand the government recognize their relationships in the same fashion they recognize those of heterosexuals, there is significant disagreement over the government enforcement of policies related to sexuality and private sector entities like businesses and employers.
As such, I wanted to point out an important quote from Baker talking about his experiences of being stalked and threatened by the federal government: "What really made me angry is that they had all this power and all these people involved in this, and they were coming after me. I mean, you know, just little me. It was not fair. It was very unfair."
And now we have the reverse: We have government agencies with huge amounts of power and numerous people investigating, threatening, and fining small businesses because they don't want to provide goods or services for gay weddings. This is often how government operates. Assuming that this trend of gay acceptance continues (and there's no reason to think it won't), we should look at this and consider whether it's moral or ethical to use the government in this very same fashion to torment those who deny us cakes or flowers.
Uniquely Nasty is a breezy 30-minute documentary available online at Yahoo. Watch it here.