Trump’s Pick for Intelligence Chief Represents a Step Forward for Gay Rights

Not long ago, Richard Grenell would have been disqualified for his sexuality. It’s a pity, however, that he’s not the right candidate for such an important job.

Richard Grenell and his husband Ben Lashley attend the 4th of July party hosted by the U.S. Embassy at former Tempelhof Airport on July 04, 2019 in Berlin, Germany.
Richard Grenell and his husband Ben Lashley attend the 4th of July party hosted by the U.S. Embassy at former Tempelhof Airport on July 04, 2019 in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

There are growing reasons to fear that Richard Grenell is a security risk for the United States. ProPublica has reported that Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany and newly designated acting director of national intelligence, failed to disclose work for Moldovan oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who is barred from entering the United States under anti-corruption sanctions. Disclosure of such paid work is required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act—the same law that both Paul Manafort and Rick Gates were convicted of violating.

Another recent accusation made against Grenell, however, has been almost universally dismissed. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council expressed concern last week about Grenell’s sexuality, fearing he will engage in “LGBT activism” while overseeing the nation’s top intelligence-gathering apparatus.

And yet Perkins’s objection didn’t arrive from nowhere. It’s not so long ago that Grenell’s homosexuality would have been considered—in the culture and under the law—a major security breach. At the outset of Washington’s intelligence-gathering institutions during World War II and the Cold War, and throughout much of their history, homosexuals were considered threats to national security, not good stewards of it.

It’s worth trying to reinhabit this bygone worldview, if only to better appreciate the milestone that Grenell’s appointment represents. Grenell is the first openly gay cabinet appointment in U.S. history, and the first openly gay director of national intelligence. Given Grenell’s right-leaning politics—he has been one of President Donald Trump’s most strident defenders—and lack of qualifications, not many gay or lesbian activists have been celebrating his new position. But Grenell’s leadership over agencies that once would have barred him illustrates a sea change in the government’s approach to sexuality and security.

In the summer of 1950, Rear Adm. Roscoe Hillenkoetter, the first director of the Central Intelligence Agency (and the third director of central intelligence), told Congress that homosexuals must not be employed “in positions of trust.” He gave them 13 reasons from which to choose. He claimed they exhibited “psychopathic tendencies” which affected the soundness of their judgement and rendered them unstable employees. Worse, he claimed they were promiscuous, indiscreet, and susceptible to blackmail. Because they were “extremely vulnerable to seduction by another pervert employed for that purpose by a foreign power,” he warned that they presented a security risk of enormous importance.

As evidence for his claims, Hillenkoetter offered the story of Col. Alfred Redl, the head of Austrian intelligence prior to World War I. He noted that the Russians learned of Redl’s sexual proclivities, supplied him with an attractive “newsboy,” and then burst in on them in a hotel room. Through this alleged blackmail scheme, Russian intelligence acquired hundreds of important documents, including Austria’s war mobilization plans.

Hillenkoetter’s testimony was meant to provide evidence to the wild claims of Sen. Joseph McCarthy that the State Department was honeycombed with “communists and queers.” But like McCarthy’s charges, Hillenkoetter’s story had been embellished. Although Redl was a notorious double agent, the story of the newsboy and blackmail was invented.

Police officers gave similar testimony that homosexuals were uniquely vulnerable to blackmail. But when pressed for evidence, they could only recount failed cases of blackmail—where gay men reported the blackmail to the police and the blackmailer was arrested. Confirming this pattern, Soviet intelligence would later attempt to blackmail noted American journalist Joseph Alsop with photographs of a tryst in a Moscow hotel room. Alsop went to the FBI and never succumbed to the blackmail. (Of course, heterosexual married men having affairs with women were equally vulnerable to such blackmail schemes, but Hillenkoetter and his colleagues made no mention of them.)

Nevertheless, the stories had the desired effect. They led to a scathing report by U.S. Congress about the dangers posed by homosexuals within the government. Security agencies developed policies and procedures to detect and remove men and women suspected of homosexuality. Reports that a woman lacked shapely hips or that a man had a funny walk would often be enough evidence to open an investigation. Proof that an employee had visited a gay bar or had a gay roommate were considered sufficient grounds for dismissal. When faced with the threat of exposure, most suspected gay men and lesbians resigned. With the election of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 under the campaign slogan “Let’s Clean House,” the ban on gay employees was codified in Executive Order 10450. Lasting into the 1970s, well past the McCarthy era, it ruined thousands of lives.

During the Cold War, the U.S. government even pressured its allies and many international organizations to adopt U.S.-style security services with a focus on restricting homosexuality. Canada proved the most zealous in carrying out its own anti-gay purges. Unsatisfied with the results of polygraph exams often used in the United States, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police spent four years trying to detect homosexual public servants based on pupillary responses to suggestive images. They called the experimental apparatus “the fruit machine.”

By the 1960s, gay activists were pushing back, asserting that they were being treated as second-class citizens. They formed picket lines in front of government buildings and filed lawsuits demanding the government demonstrate a connection between off-duty behavior and job performance. Unable to prove a connection, the Civil Service Commission ended its anti-gay policies in 1975. But national-security agencies continued to discriminate, claiming the granting of a security clearance was a privilege requiring a higher level of screening.

Not until 1980 would an openly gay National Security Agency linguist, Jamie Shoemaker, be allowed to keep his job and his security clearance. As a condition, Shoemaker was required to tell his family about his sexuality to reduce the alleged risk of blackmail. Shoemaker won his case with the assistance of long-time gay activist Frank Kameny, himself a victim of the government’s Lavender Scare under the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower.

Only in 1995 did President Bill Clinton pass an executive order banning discrimination in the granting of security clearances based solely on sexual orientation. Clinton’s executive order shifted the emphasis in security clearances from issues of sexual to financial impropriety, requiring government workers with security clearances to disclose personal financial records.

As gay rights activist Frank Kameny said at the time, “The Government has gone beyond simply ceasing to be a hostile and vicious adversary and has now become an ally.” Agencies such as the CIA now recruit LGBT employees and host official Pride Month celebrations.

If there is a lesson in this story, it is the power of unsubstantiated stereotypes, rumor, and lies to influence public policy. There has never been a single example of a gay or lesbian U.S. government employee who submitted to blackmail by a foreign agent or betrayed national security secrets because of their sexuality. And yet the government fired thousands of gay men and lesbians because they feared one might. The other lesson is that this change in policy did not just happen naturally. It was the result of sustained and courageous activism on the part of gay men and lesbians, who stood up to the most powerful and secretive national-security network in the world and demanded to be treated fairly.

Grenell is now the most prominent beneficiary of this social activism. The question now is how he will use the vast power it has helped put at his disposal. National intelligence is an extremely vital function that requires a high level of trust at all levels. While it’s great that sexuality is no longer considered a sign of one’s trustworthiness, extreme partisanship is. Grenell, of all people, should understand the dangers of manipulating intelligence to serve a preexisting narrative or demonize a particular group.

David K. Johnson is a professor of history at University of South Florida.

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