Today In History: Eisenhower Signs Executive Order 10450
April 27th, 2008
Fifty-five years ago today, on April 27, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which mandated the firing of all federal employees who were determined to be guilty of “sexual perversion.” Over the next two decades, thousands of gays and lesbians would loose their jobs solely because of their sexual orientation.
This was the culmination of an anti-gay witch hunt which began three years earlier. In February of 1950, Undersecretary of State John Peurifoy, testifying before the US Senate Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Department, revealed that 91 employees “in the shady category” had resigned since 1947. Republican Senators took that admission to allege that President Harry Truman’s administration’s employment of “sexual deviants with police records” was recklessly endangering the country’s national security.
It just so happened that Joseph McCarthy was a member of that committee. He had just given give his famous Wheeling Speech a few weeks earlier, claiming to have “a list in my hand” of 205 communist employees at the State Department. The Homosexual Scare now joined the nascent Red Scare as twin threats to American liberties. By April, McCarthy pressured the Civil Service to begin rooting out gays and lesbians from federal offices. By June, he persuaded the Senate to authorize a full-range investigation of homosexuals “and other moral perverts” in the civil service. The Senate Appropriations Committee responded with a rushed report a few months later, saying “one homosexual can pollute an entire government office,” and “to pussyfoot or take half measures will allow some known perverts to remain in government.”
By the end of 1950, anti-homosexual hysteria was in full swing. The Republican Party’s national chairman sent a warning to 7,000 party members that, “Perhaps as dangerous as the actual Communists are the secret perverts who have infiltrated our government in recent years.” On Christmas Day of that year, Time magazine opined that all homosexuals should be fired from the federal government. The hysteria raged for the next three years as McCarthy presided over countless hearings on the imagined threat of homosexuals and communists in the government. Ironically, it would be McCarthy’s chief council, Roy Cohn, who would draw fire during the Army investigations of 1954 over rumors of his own homosexuality. (Cohn would later die of AIDS in 1986.) This played a small but key role in McCarthy’s eventual downfall.
Clamor over the twin menaces raged for the next three years, culminating in Eisenhower’s 1953 Executive Order which declared all homosexuals to be “security risks,” regardless of whether they were actually disloyal or not. It didn’t matter how low or innocuous their position was; their mere presence in a government office was deemed a threat. Following Eisenhower’s executive order, more than 640 federal employees would lose their job because of allegations of homosexuality over the next year and a half. Unknown numbers of others resigned quietly. State and local governments and government contractors followed suit, tossing countless more innocent Americans out of their jobs.
Unintended consequences are funny things though. In 1957, a young astronomer by the name of Dr. Franklin Kameny was fired from the Army Map service because of his homosexuality. After all of his court appeals were denied, he founded the Washington, D.C. Mattachine Society. He and Daughters of Billitis founder Barbara Gittings organized the first gay rights demonstrations in front of the White House, State Department and Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in 1965 to demand an end to the federal employment ban. This demand remained a key component of the whole gay rights movement from the 1950’s through the 1970’s. Much of today’s modern gay rights movement has its roots buried deep in the anti-gay and anti-red hysteria of the 1950’s and Executive order 10450.
The Civil Service ban on gays and lesbians would continue for the next two decades. In 1973, a federal judge ruled that a person’s sexual orientation alone could not be the sole reason for termination from federal employment. But even with that ruling, it wasn’t until July 3, 1975 when the Civil Service Commission finally announced that they would consider applications by gays and lesbians on a case by case basis.