The Daily Agenda for Tuesday, April 14

Jim Burroway

April 14th, 2015

TODAY’S AGENDA is brought to you by:

From the Advocate, May 13, 1983, page 38.

In 1983, Indianapolis’s gay bars got together to take out a full page ad in the Advocate to encourage anyone coming to town for the upcoming Indy 500 to stop in for some fun. Among them was Heads or Tails, which was located in a small strip mall in the northern part of the city on Meridian near 38th Street. As of 2013, the strip mall is empty except for a payday loan office next door to the club’s old location.

Westbrook Pegler

Westbrook Pegler

 65 YEARS AGO: “Sexual Depravity in the Roosevelt-Truman Bureaucracy”: 1950. The Lavender Scare of 1950 had begun quietly enough when John Peurifoy, Deputy Undersecretary of State in charge of administration testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee that 91 State Department employees were let go “for moral weakness (“Most of them were homosexual. In fact, I would say all of them were.” See Feb 28). That revelation almost didn’t make the papers. When it did, it was buried pretty deeply in much larger coverage of an ongoing political argument over Alger Hiss. Those 91 might have gone unnoticed if it hadn’t been for a rising public feud between Peurifoy and Sen. Joseph McCarthy over the next couple of weeks. McCarthy had spent the previous two months blathering about 57 — or 205 or 81, depending on what day it was — Communists and other “undesirables” in the State Department. Peurifoy blasted McCarthy for refusing to release even one of those names to substantiate his claims. With the public back-and-forth, Peurify’s original testimony was repeated in the papers, and pretty soon it seemed that no one was worrying about Communists in the State Department (although that concern would soon return), but those 91 homosexuals.

The Lavender Scare hit the papers in full force a month later when conservative columnist George Sokolksy wondered why Peurifoy’s testimony “passe[d] with little excitement.” He thought it odd because “A liar advantageously station; a blackmailed creature in a sensitives spot; a frightened soul, caught in the web of conspiracy, can produce such a results as the conquest of China by Soviet Russia by consent. There is the menace” (see Mar 21). Two days later, author and novelist Robert Ruark, whose column was syndicated nationwide by Scripps-Howard, added his weight to the new scare: “Most ‘queers’ eventually acquire a tendency to hysteria, which means they blow their tops in time of stress.” Also,  “…his inclination is to surround himself with his like. Homosexuals travel in packs, as do most divergents from an accepted status.” That’s why, Ruark speculated, there were so many in the State Department: “His appointees surrounded themselves with their appointees, and on down the line. What you have finally is a corroded organization which can be bribed, bulled or blackmailed in the easiest possible fashion” (see Mar 23).

The worst came the next day, when Westbrook Pegler, a nationally-syndicated King Features columnist and future John Birch Society propagandist, jumped on the Lavender Scare bandwagon and drove it straight into his longstanding war with the now-gone Roosevelt Administration but its still-present New Deal, which Pegler didn’t like one bit (see Mar 24). He used that column to all but accuse FDR of homosexuality in print. But of course, he wasn’t finished; propagandists with an axe to grind never are. On April 14, Pergler returned to the subject again to allege that Peurifoy’s testimony about the 91 in the State Department revealed widespread “sexual depravity” in the administration:

The hesitant discussion of sexual depravity in the Roosevelt-Truman bureaucracy, brought to public notice by the dismissal of 91 perverts in the State Department alone, had elicited interesting comments and some references which seem to cast light. Mr. Truman of course, inherited the corruption. It took root and flourished under Roosevelt.

Pegler offered a civil liberties lawyer by the name of Morris L. Ernst as “a witness to set forth and explain the attitude of the New Deal culture toward queers.” Ernst had successfully defended before the U.S. Supreme Court the right of the American Newspaper Guild to represent journalists and other media workers as a a labor union. Pegler didn’t like that, saying Pegler represented the Guild “in the period of its hottest communist infestation.” Ernst was also a member of Truman’s Civil Rights Committee which, Pegler complained, “promoted the proposition that government should compel employers to hire persons obnoxious to them.” You know, like Jews and Blacks. (The commission also called for federal protection from lynching, a proposal that got nowhere for the next two decades thanks to continual threats of filibuster from southern Senators.) What did any of that have to do with queers? Well Pegler had co-written a book with David Loth, titled, American Sexual Behavior and the Kinsey Report, in 1948, which praised Alfred Kinsey’s groundbreaking Sexual Behavior in the Human Male published earlier that same year (see Jan 5). Ernst and Loth called for the wholesale revision of America’s laws governing sexual offenses. That didn’t sit well with Pegler:

In this little work, Ernst remarks angrily that only recently a committee on human reproduction was set up to seek answers “to some of the unknown questions as to how babies are born.” Very soon however, he is expertly discussing sexual practices which, far from propagating people, actually frustrate propagation. The western peoples, he says, have sought to impose their “pattern” of sexual morality, which he calls “customs” on the rest of the world.

“As if,” he adds, “only one set of sexual customs was either desirable or natural,” from which I earnestly infer that he regards as “desirable” and “natural” some “customs” which are by religion, morals and law abhorrent to Western peoples. If he so regards those “customs,” then as an authoritative New Dealer, he has at least established a base. In that case, we know what the New Deal morality really is. In that case, we can understand why abnormality flourished in the State Department, to say nothing of other departments, and why those Americans who are aghast at the revelations are in turn reviled as ignorant hypocrites.

… Although this book was published in 1948, long before the disclosure of the condition of the State Department, Mr. Ernst, by the merest accident, no doubt, seems to anticipate that explosion and to enter a plea long in advance. Speaking of the historic scandal in Kaiser Wilhelm’s court, he says there is difficulty in deciding whether public outcry is based primarily on the outrage “said to have been done to public opinion” or on a desire for political advantage.

Pegler does what a lot of ideologues do: he engages in guilt by association — and that’s only if we were to concede the dubious proposition there was anything wrong with what Ernst had written (as quoted by Pergler, at least.)  Furthermore, — and I haven’t read Ernst’s book, but if Pegler managed to paraphrase it accurately — it seems that Ernst’s observations about political advantage may have been a particularly timely warning for the political upheaval which took place a mere two years later when a faction of the Republican Party rallied around Sen. McCarthy’s crusade against the Truman administration.

And Pegler does something else that a lot of anti-gay ideologues did in the 1950s and 1960s: his reference to the “historic scandal” which served as a common trope whenever the topic of  gays in government employment came up. That historic scandal was the famous Eulenburg Affair of 1907, which brought down Prince Philipp zu Eulenburg, a close friend and adviser to Kaiser Wilhelm II (see Feb 12). Pegler continued:

… I now refer to a letter from a noted American reporter who has spent many years in Europe, especially in Germany. He was a friend of Maximilian Harden, the German who exposed the perverts in the Kaiser’s court. Harden’s motive was “political” but in a patriotic sense. “Politics” is the science of government and Harden realized that this condition among the men who manipulated the Kaiser was dangerous to Germany. Had the perverts vanished when they were warned, Harden would have made no scandal.

My correspondent in Germany writes: “You say 91 homosexuals have been dismissed from the State Department in the last three years. What a terrible state of morals in our government. Is it confined to the State Department only? Not likely. Homosexualism is worse than communism. It changes the mentality, blurs morality and the outlook, not only on sex but upon life, ideals, principles and scruples. It is a cancer. That is why I am so troubled that it has made such inroads in our State Department. Blackmail through threats of exposure is a powerful weapon often used to make a victim do a thing he does not want to do.”

But, see, this is the outmoded superstitions of a Victorian bigot. If we consult Mr. Ernst, “such customs” do not “blur morality” and the outlook on sex, life, ideals, principles and scruples. On the contrary, it is the Western “pattern” of sexual morality which blurs morality and the outlook. Abandon that “pattern” and the blur is cured and a beautiful, spiritual, intellectual and sexual existence comes into clear focus.

The state mental hospital in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.

60 YEARS AGO: Iowa’s Sexual Psychopath Law Goes Into Effect: 1955. The last time anyone saw eight-year-old Jimmy Bremmer alive was on the night of August 31, 1954, when the Sioux City youth went to a friend’s house two doors down to play after dinner. He left his friend’s house at around 8:00 to go home, but he didn’t make that short distance. On September 29, his decomposed body was found in a pasture north of town. His crushed skull was several feet away from his decapitated body, and both hands were missing. A man was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. He had confessed after being sent to a mental hospital and injected with Desoxyn and Seconal. (His conviction wouldn’t be overturned until 1972.)

The Red and Lavender Scares, which had dominated the evening news and newspapers for most of the decade, may have been winding down in Washington, but its effects continued to reverberate in cities and towns across the country. With Jimmy’s death, Iowans became convinced that the state was crawling with sexual psychopaths. On January 31, 1955 Iowa legislators introduced a bill in the Iowa House of Representatives “to provide for the confinement of persons who are dangerous criminal sexual psychopaths.” The bill extended to anyone, whether they had been convicted of a crime or not, and its procedures allowed “any reputable person” to charge anyone with such “propensities.” It empowered the court to appoint a psychiatrist for an examination, and allowed the court to commit the accused to  indefinite confinement until “cured,” or until proven to court that release would not be “incompatible with welfare of society.”

The bill passed both houses unanimously with very little discussion and went into effect on April 14, 1955, making Iowa the twenty-fourth state to pass such a law. Michigan was the first, in 1937, and in one eleven year period confined 369 under its law. Twenty-four were confined under the District of Columbia’s law between October 1948 and March 1950 (see Jun 9), and in California, more than fourteen hundred had been confined over a fourteen year period.

On the evening of July 10, 1955, two year old Donna Sue Davis was kidnapped from her crib where she was sleeping. The kidnapper had come in through the open bedroom window, and left the house with Donna Sue through that same window. A neighbor saw the kidnapper flee and gave chase, but the kidnapper got away. The next morning her body was found in a cornfield outside of town. An autopsy revealed that the child had been raped and sodomized. Her left jaw was broken and there were several bruises and cigarette burns on her buttocks. She died of a massive brain hemorrhage from a severe blow to the head. One itinerant farm hand was arrested, but investigators quickly ruled out the possibility that he committed the crime.

Panic gripped Sioux Falls as hardware stores reported running out of padlocks. The Sioux City Journal on July 12 demanded that the city be made “the most feared town in American for the sex deviate.” With no other firm suspects to investigate, the police chief began a roundup of “known sex perverts.” On July 23, Gov. Leo Hoegh announced that a special ward at the state mental hospital in Mount Pleasant had been established to house them. He said, “The guy I want to treat [is the sex deviate] who is now roaming the street but never committed a crime.” Most of those “sex perverts,” it would turn out, were gay men, “diagnosed” with “sociopathic personality disturbance. Sexual deviation (Homosexuality).”

By the end of the year, thirty-three men had been committed, all without charge or trial. At least twenty of them from Sioux City. Many of them were arrested at the Warrior Hotel and its bar, the Tom Tom Club. Once they were nabbed, and fearing for their jobs and reputation, they named names which led to more arrests and detentions. A few with connections were set loose, and one man was able to successfully fight back in court. That was a risk; one juror commented, “He admitted in open court that he listened to Liberace on the radio, and a man who does that is liable to do anything.”  But most of the men accepted plea bargains to avoid public trial and arrest. At least one confined man’s diagnosis was “Homosexuality, no overt acts” — he hadn’t even done anything except be a homosexual. Sioux City’s prosecutor boasted, “At least word is out that they’re not welcome in Sioux City any more.”

At Mt. Pleasant, the men underwent group therapy, individual counseling, and so-called “therapeutic” — unpaid — labor. They were spared aversion therapy, but otherwise, hospital staff were at a loss as to what to do. Mount Pleasant superintendent Dr. W.B. Brown said, “there is no specific treatment which brings about improvement or cures of such individuals. … Law requires me to report to the court once a year… What can I say? I can’t say they are cured.” He also complained that due to crowded conditions, the gay men were often put in the same bedrooms together, leading an Iowa State law professor to note that “the curative effect of this may be said to be doubtful. Staff psychologists, pressured by a state government that no longer wanted to foot the bills, eventually released the men despite doubts that they could be “cured.” Most of those confined never spoke of their confinement again.

Donna Sue’s killer was never found. The sexual psychopath law was finally repealed in 1977.

[Sources: “Dal McIntire” (pseudonym). “Tangents: News & Views.” ONE 4, no. 2 (February 1956): 11-12.

Neil Miller. Sex-Crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the 1950s (Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2002).]

  John Gielgud: 1904-2000. Acting is quite literally in his blood. His maternal grandmother was the actress Kate Terry, whose two brothers and sister were also actors, and his great-grandmother on his father’s side was a renowned Polish actress, Aniela Aszpergerowa. And for good measure, his brother Val was a popular radio actor, writer and director for the BBC. John began studying acting in 1921, and by the following year he was understudying for Noël Coward. From 1929 to 1931, Gielgud drew attention for his performances in the title roles for Shakespeare’s Richard II and Hamlet at the Old Vic Theater, and through much of his career he was a fixture in London’s West End where he specialized in classical plays with a smattering of comedies here and there, including a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, for which he won a Tony in 1948.

He also took his Shakespearean roles to film, although he didn’t get really serious about film acting until the late 1960s. He won an Academy Award for his supporting role as a sardonic butler in Arthur (1981), a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Providence (1977), and a BAFTA Award for Murder on the Orient Express (1974). He also appeared on television’s Brideshead Revisited (1981) and won an Emmy for Summer’s Lease (1991).

Gielgud’s “coming out” was under less than auspicious circumstances: shortly after receiving his knighthood in 1953, he was arrested and found guilty of “persistently importuning for immoral purposes” at a public toilet in Chelsea. Deeply humiliated, Gielgud avoided traveling to the states as much as he could for the next decade, fearing that he would be denied entrance by U.S. Customs, who routinely barred homosexuals from entering. While Gielgud never denied being gay, he kept his private life private. After he died in 2000, it was revealed that he had made anonymous financial contributions to the British gay rights group Stonewall.

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?


April 14th, 2015

Thanks, Jim, for focusing on the sexual psychopath law. While the Red scare is somewhat known, and some LGBts know of the Lavender scare, the sexual psychopath laws were much worse in their effect, but have largely been forgotten.

Paul Douglas

April 14th, 2015

Westbrook Pegler ended up being a disgusting little vermin. Narcissistic. He hated the Roosevelts obsessively, which should’ve been a clue.


May 8th, 2015

Jim, in the interests of edits for next year’s post, there are a few places where you seem to put Pegler’s name in the place of Ernst’s.

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