A history of political gay-baiting.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 16 2010 10:02 AM

Fussy, Hysterical, Wine-Sipping Pols

A history of political gay-baiting.

(Continued from Page 2)

Unruly Wife
This rumor insinuates that a political wife who refuses to allow her ambitions to be overwhelmed by her husband's—who in this sense acts like a single lady—must be a lesbian. Hillary Clinton has been a victim of this bait throughout her career. The same Christian Action Network ad that announced the rumor of her lesbianism also announced, "It is rumored that Hillary Clinton will leave her husband upon taking office."

The ploy, however, is age-old. For an example, look to our friends the French. Compared with Clinton's, Marie Antoinette's behavior was proto-Gaga in its shock value, and the rumors about France's last queen were equally salacious. While M.A. wore the crown, anti-royalists circulated pornographic pamphlets suggesting that she conducted lesbian and bisexual orgies at court. Here's an excerpt:

The Court lost no time going a la mode;
Every woman turned both tribade [lesbian] and slut:
No children were born; it was easier that way:
A libertine finger took the place of the prick.

The intended message was that if Louis couldn't satisfy, impregnate, or control his woman, he must be equally impotent as a ruler. It also portrayed the queen herself, in her exuberant disregard for court propriety, as a threat to the social and political order.

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Lifelong Bachelor
The newspapers of the late 1700s were filled with verse mocking bachelors' supposed moral degeneracy. But mentioning a politician's single status didn't necessarily suggest that he slept with men, says historian John Gilbert McCurdy. The implication was slightly more pronounced in the 19th century. When James Buchanan, the only bachelor president in American history, ran for office in 1850, the press alleged that his unmarried status made him an unfit executive. "He had no taste for matrimony, which plainly implies a lack of some essential quality," declared the New York Herald. "If he is elected, he will be the first President who shall carry into the White House, the crude and possibly the gross tastes and experiences of a bachelor." It's not clear to historians whether "gross tastes" meant sodomy or just loose women.

In the 20th century, references to a politician being a bachelor more explicitly raised a rainbow flag. According to historian Claire Bond Potter, the public easily believed rumors that the founding director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, was gay because they felt that, "regardless of how many experts and former FBI officials denied it … as a lifelong bachelor he was obviously not normal." When recently retired justice David Souter was first appointed to the Supreme Court, he was also the target of the bachelor bait. Almost no media coverage of the repeated baiting of Lindsey Graham fails to mention his single status, as though to explain the provenance of the bait.

Before he came out, Ken Mehlman was often referred to as a bachelor in the press. In 2004, gay activist and journalist Michael Signorile wrote, "Mehlman must understand why his being a 37-year-old 'bachelor' who refuses to answer questions about his sexual orientation is a tip-off."

Lavender Scare
The early 1950s were consumed by not just the Red Scare but what scholar David K. Johnson refers to as the "Lavender Scare." In 1950, the State Department fired 91 "peculiars" solely on the basis of their suspected homosexuality. The Republican Party distributed a letter to thousands of members informing them, "sexual perverts  … have infiltrated our government," and were "perhaps as dangerous as the actual Communists." The equation of homosexuality with communist sympathy was a favorite refrain of Joseph McCarthy, who said in a speech he gave in 1950 to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, "Communists and queers … have American people in a hypnotic trance." According to Johnson, amid the fear mongering of the 50s, this correlation seemed plausible to the public. Both communism and homosexuality, Johnson writes, "seemed to comprise hidden subcultures with their own meeting places, cultural codes, and bonds of loyalty."

It was in this context that Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Illinois governor who ran against Dwight Eisenhower for president in 1952 and 1956, became one of the highest profile victims of this brand of bait. It's unclear who started the rumor that Stevenson was gay, but we do know that J. Edgar Hoover kept a secret file on Stevenson from 1952 onwards and added the candidate to the FBI's file of "sexual deviants." According to David Johnson, the rumor was widespread enough that the tabloid Confidential ran a story titled, "How That Stevenson Rumor Started." To Confidential's credit, the article never revealed the content of the smear, and yet the editors were certain that anyone in any supermarket checkout line would know exactly the rumor to which the title referred.

But even in the 50s, smearing a political figure as homosexual as a way of casting him or her as a political subversive—without evidence that he was either—was nothing new. In 1751, the Boston Evening Post published a doggerel explicitly accusing the Freemasons of homosexual activity. Because the Masons were an international secret society, the "Continentals," colonists pushing for independence from British control, distrusted them.

"I'm sure our TRUNNELS look'd as clean
As if they ne'er up A—se had been;
For when we use 'em, we take care
To wash 'em well, and give 'em Air,
Then lock 'em up in our own Chamber,
Ready to TRUNNEL the next Member."

According to historian Thomas Foster, the poem also included the line "we don't use TRUNNELS with a Sister," indicating also a disinterest in women.

Black and Gay!
The 1983 Mississippi gubernatorial race between Democrat Bill Allain and Republican Leon Bramlett saw one of the most sordid and elaborate gay-baiting campaigns ever initiated. Rather than limit themselves to an ad or speech, a small group of Bramlett's donors and supporters hired a private eye to investigate Allain. The investigator collected signed statements from three young black transvestites vowing that Allain, the popular attorney general, had on numerous occasions paid them for sex. During the ensuing controversy, the Bramlett supporters paid the prostitutes' room and board. According to the New York Times, the bait's masterminds also had statements from police saying they had observed Allain driving through bad neighborhoods in a way "consistent with solicitation of male prostitutes," which sounds rather interpretive. The bait was an attempt to appeal not just to voters' homophobia but to their racism, specifically a repulsion at miscegenation.

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