The Daily Agenda for Thursday, September 12

Jim Burroway

September 12th, 2013

TODAY’S AGENDA:
Pride Celebrations This Weekend: Boulder, CO; Burlington, VTCherry Hill, NJ; Dallas, TXDerby, UK; Humboldt/Eureka CAOuter Banks, NC; Savannah, GASpartansburg, SC.

AIDS Walks This Weekend: Amherst, NS; Chatham, ONLondon, ON; Ottawa, ON; Peterborough, ONPrince George, BC; Regina, SKSan Antonio, TXSpringhill, NS; Sydney, NS; Yorkton, SK.

Other Celebrations This Weekend: Folsom Europe, Berlin, Germany; Out in the Park Six Flags, Gurnee, IL; BUPA Great North Run, Newcastle, UK; International Bears Week, Sitges, Spain; Out in the Park Six Flags, Springfield, MA.

TODAY IN HISTORY:
John Vassall Arrested for Spying: 1962. No one ever bothered to ask how a low level British Admiralty clerk earning £908 a year was able to afford a home in London’s Dolphin Square apartment complex, which had been home to such illustrious residents as Charles de Gaulle, C.P. Snow and Sir Oswald Mosley. Nor did they pay much attention to his 36 Savile Row suits, three cashmere overcoats, tailored silk shirts, exotic holidays.

They should have, particularly since the Vassall held a Top Secret clearance with the Royal Navy. But British investigators didn’t begin poking around until December 1961, when a KGB agent, Anatoli Golitsin, defected to the United States and spilled the beans about Soviet agents working in the West, including two spies in the Admiralty. MI5 agents decided that one of them might by Vassall, but didn’t act for more than a year. Then in June of 1962, until another KGB agent, Yuri Nosenko, began providing further evidence of Vassall’s spying. Even then, MI6 held off for three more months, until September 12, 1962, when Vassall was finally arrested and charged with spying for the Soviet Union.

Vassall confessed immediately: about the spying, about the cameras and films hidden in his apartment, about the documents that he stole, and about how he got into the spying business for the Soviets. It began in 1952 when he was a member of the Naval Attaché at the British Embassy in Moscow, where he found himself socially isolated on several fronts: a Brit in Moscow, a common civil servant among upper-class officers and diplomats, and, crucially, a homosexual at a time when it was illegal both in Britain and in the Soviet Union. Through a Polish worker at the embassy, Vassall became connected with Moscow’s gay underground. In 1954, he was invited to a party — which was actually a classic “honey trap” set up by the KGB — where Vassall was encouraged to become extremely drunk, and where he was photographs in compromising positions with several men. The Soviets used those photos to blackmail Vassell, and he became their agent for the next eight years.

In 1956, Vassall was assigned to the Admiralty, where he photographed secret documents and passed them to his KGB handlers in exchange for money. The documents he photoed included specifications for British radar, torpedoes, nuclear weapons, anti-submarine equipment, and tactics. When Golitsin defected in 1961, the Soviets ordered Vassall to stop working and return his camera. But after Nosenko began providing information to the CIA in Geneva, the Soviets gave Vassall his camera back and ordered him to resume spying. It is now suspected that Nosenko, who never defected and whose information about other spies proved to be unreliable, may have set Vassall up to protect a more valuable spy at the Admiralty. When Vassall made his full confession following his arrests, he insisted that he had not stolen some of the documents that Golitsin said he stole.

Vassall was sentenced to 18 years years imprisonment, of which he served ten. A public enquiry in the following year, known as the Vassall Tribunal, was set up to investigate who in the Admiralty was to blame for the lax security oversight. Tam Galbraith, Civil Lord of the Admiralty, who was Vassall’s boss, was singled out for special scrutiny amid rumors that the he and Vassal had been lovers. Galbraith was declared innocent on all accounts, as were his other superiors in the Admiralty.

Vassall’s arrest also reignited the debate over Britain’s criminalization of male homosexuality. Five years earlier, the Wolfenden Commission had recognized that making gay men criminals exposed them to blackmail and extortion, and recommended that criminal penalties be lifted (see Sept 4), but Parliament refused to act. Now, it seemed that the time was right to revisit that decision. Peter Black, writing for the Daily Mail in 1963, argued:

The point is that though homosexuals  are no more inclined to treachery than you are. the law as it stands gives the Communists a lever against them which they have over nobody else.  If Vassall had not been a homosexual, and subject to this law, the Russians might have got him anyway. I think he had a predisposition to treachery. But they could not have blackmailed him into it.

Homosexuals are specially vulnerable to blackmailers because they cannot appeal to the protection of the law. The  blackmailer threatens him  with exposure. It he goes to the police exposure is what he’ll get anyway; for the police can, and sometimes do, charge the victim for participating in the offences he is being blackmailed about. So the law sharpens the threat of exposure and sharpens the wits of those vulnerable to it.

Those arguments however went nowhere, and homosexual relations between men remained a criminal act until 1967 (see Jul 28).

After Vassall’s release from prison in 1972, he wrote Vassall: The Autobiography of a Spy, which was published in 1975. He then changed his surname to Phillips and lived out the rest of his life in obscurity. He died in 1995 of a heart attack at the age of 71 in St. John’s Wood, north London. In 2006, details of his confession were released by the National Archives.

Gay Liberation Front Protests Village Voice: 1969. More than two months had passed since the landmark Stonewall uprising, but New York’s news media was still unable to grapple with what that night of defiance really meant. On the day following the riot, The New York Times buried its story on page thirty-three, where it didn’t even bother to mention why the patrons of the Stonewall Inn were fighting. The New York Daily News reported the whole thing, on page thirty, from the police’s point of view (“3 Cops Hurt As Bar Raid Riles Crowd”). The Daily News followed on  July 6 with their infamous report, “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad.”

If it weren’t for the Village Voice’s extensive coverage, much of what we know about Stonewall might have been lost to history. The Voice did have one advantage that New York’s more powerful media didn’t: it was located on Christopher Street, just a few doors down from the Stonewall. The July 3 edition of the weekly newspaper featured two front page stories about the riot: “Gay Power Comes to Sheridan Square” by Lucian Truscott IV, who reported what took place outside of the Stonewall. A second reporter, Howard Smith, arrived at the scene during the first raid just as police were loosing control of the crowd. Smith got caught up inside the bar where police had retreated for protection from the crowd. Smith described that experience in “From the Inside: Full Moon Over The Stonewall.”

While the Voice’s reporting on the rebellion was the most thorough and detailed of all the city’s news outlets, it wasn’t above the kind of mocking tone and prejudicial stereotypes that were typical at that time. Truscott wrote of “the forces of faggotry,” the “blatant queens” with “limped wrists and primed hair” battling police, which he described as “the city’s finest.” Smith’s report was less colorful, yet he couldn’t resist calling one lesbian a “dyke.” In his July 10 Voice column, Walter Troy Spencer called the riot “the Great Faggot Rebellion,” and laced his entire column with sneering disdain (“… a lot of that weekend swishy cruising on the streets around the Stonewall had gotten flamboyant and aggressive…”).

Immediately following the riot, the gay community began to organize. In August, the newly formed Gay Liberation Front tried to place two small ads in the free Bulletin Board section of the Village Voice to publicize its community dances. Newspaper staff deleted the word “gay,” arguing that it was obscene — even though they routinely accepted, without question, ads for apartments from landlords specifying “no gays.” The Voice saw itself as one of the most liberal papers in the country, and it defined its liberalism as allowing its writers to say anything they wanted, which meant that writers were allowed to write about “faggots” and “blatant queens with the full support of editors and management. even though no writer would have dreamed of using derogatory language to describe blacks or other minority groups. But that freedom ended at the Voice’s Bulletin Board section, where the Gay Liberation Front was barred from using the word “gay.”

The Gay Liberation Front struck back with a protest at the Village Voice on Friday morning, September 12 at 9:00 a.m, demanding a meeting with publisher Ed Fancher. The protest went on all day as Fancher stubbornly refused to meet with the group. Later that afternoon, a protester tried to place a classified ad reading, “The Gay Liberation Front sends love to all Gay men and women in the homosexual community.” That ad was rejected. But soon after, Fancher agreed to meet three of the protesters’ representatives. He angrily defended his writers right to use derogatory language, but agreed to rescind the ban on accepting ads with the words “gay” and “homosexual.” The Voice’s next edition didn’t see fit to report on the protest at its front door, but the GLF ad did appear in that issue’s Bulletin Board.

Village Voice, Sept 18, 1969, “Bulletin Board” on page 2: The Gay Liberation Front ad that was so “obscene” (Click to enlarge.)

[Additional source: Edward Alwood. Straight News: Gays, Lesbians and the News Media (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996): 88-91.]

If you know of something that belongs on the agenda, please send it here. Don’t forget to include the basics: who, what, when, where, and URL (if available).

And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?

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