Britain’s overseas intelligence agency wants to wish you a happy International Day Against Homophobia. On Tuesday, MI6 flew a rainbow flag from its London headquarters, showing just how much the world has changed for LGBT spies. Once considered a security risk, gay spies on both sides of the Atlantic are now in high demand.
In March, for instance, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence made a presentation at South by Southwest called “America’s LGBT Spies (Secret Agents of Change).” The CIA began recruiting LGBT agents in 2012. MI6 has the U.S. intelligence community beat — it began recruiting LGBT spies way back in 2008.
It wasn’t always this way. In the not-so-distant past, even helping to win the biggest war in history was not enough to absolve a gay man of suspicion if he had the misfortune to be outed. Alan Turing famously cracked the codes that German submarines were using to give their location, helping the allied forces to win a decisive World War II battle. He then went on to invent the precursor to the modern computer.
Outed against his will in 1952, Turing was forced to choose between prison and an experimental hormone treatment. He was also banned from government code work. Later, he killed himself.
In the even-less-distant past, the United States military discharged at least seven gay Arabic speakers for violating the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy between 1998 and 2004, despite the dearth of qualified linguists who could translate Arabic. The policy was eliminated in 2011, and gay troops can now serve openly.
Throughout the Cold War, being gay, bisexual, or transgender was seen as a vulnerability and a mark of potential disloyalty. The idea was that the enemy could blackmail gay government officials by threatening to out them to their employers or families. Joseph McCarthy, in fact, explicitly linked being gay to having Communist sympathies.
When British spy Guy Burgess was found to be a double agent, for example, much was made of the fact that he was a gay man, though his decision had little if nothing to do with his sexuality. That didn’t stop Phillip Knightley from referring to Burgess as a “dedicated homosexual” in a fantastically homophobic 1997 Independent article.
But pre-Cold War and non-Western cultures have been more welcoming of their LGBT spies. French spy Chevalier d’Eon, for example, reportedly succeeded in getting a message to Empress Elizabeth of Russia by dressing as a woman. In 1775, d’Eon, biologically male, began living as a woman full time, performing fencing demonstrations in a black dress.
In Japan, Kawashima Yoshiko, a cross-dressing bisexual spy and princess who led her own army during the Japanese invasion of China, has been celebrated in biographies and movies. Some have even referred to her as a “Manchu Joan of Arc.” Yoshiko’s story doesn’t end as well as d’Eon’s, however: she was executed as a spy in Beijing in 1948.
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