'Uniquely Nasty' Remembers The U.S. Ban On Gay Federal Workers NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Michael Isikoff and Charles Francis about their documentary Uniquely Nasty, which explores the government's campaign against gay workers starting in the 1950s.

'Uniquely Nasty' Remembers The U.S. Ban On Gay Federal Workers

'Uniquely Nasty' Remembers The U.S. Ban On Gay Federal Workers

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NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Michael Isikoff and Charles Francis about their documentary Uniquely Nasty, which explores the government's campaign against gay workers starting in the 1950s.


In the 1950s, when FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was determined to drive communists out of the federal government, his agency was just as determined to drive out another group - gays and lesbians. The Bureau collected files on hundreds of thousands of federal employees suspected of being, in the phrase used by the FBI at the time, sex deviants. Being gay could cost you your security clearance, and later on, it could cost you your job.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It was a war on gays. It was an effort to silence them.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: They said, we don't want you; we think you're sex deviants.

SIEGEL: This is the subject a half-hour online documentary film for Yahoo News by investigative reporter Michael Isikoff. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Good to be here.

SIEGEL: And central to Michael Isikoff's work is Charles Francis, longtime Republican public relations consultant who, at one time, actually handled George W. Bush's outreach to gays and lesbians. Welcome to the program as well.


SIEGEL: And first, Mike Isikoff, the title of this film is "Uniquely Nasty." I'd like you to explain the choice of that phrase.

ISIKOFF: It comes from a memo - a government memo written by a top lawyer for the U.S. Civil Service Commission explaining why gays and lesbians were not suitable for federal employment. And it reflects the cultural view of gays and lesbians at the time, something that was viewed by coworkers as something uniquely nasty. And there it is in black and white in this memo written, actually, in the 1960s well after the FBI Sex Deviates Program began.

SIEGEL: In documents that you draw upon, one can read an argument that obviously a gay man is unsuitable as an air traffic controller because he's made misjudgments in the past, and he may upset his colleagues too.

ISIKOFF: Would be disruptive to the federal workforce, the argument went. It would make coworkers uncomfortable. And for all these reasons, they were banned from working for the federal government.

SIEGEL: Charles Francis, your story is fascinating. You were a longtime friend of the Bush family...


SIEGEL: ...In Texas. You actually organized then-Governor George W. Bush's meeting with gay Republicans, which was cited as an instance of his compassionate conservatism when he ran for president. After breaking with him over his support of a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage, you became involved in researching this whole history. Have you been surprised by the scope of the pursuit of gay federal workers that you found?

FRANCIS: Yeah, surprised and amazed not only at the scope of it - the untold tens of thousands of gays and lesbians who were investigated and fired - but also the toxicity of it, the animus of it embedded in federal law. And that's what we're seeing with these memos that say stuff like uniquely nasty.

SIEGEL: I mean, when you read the memos, are you seeing documents of American social attitudes in the 1950s and '60s, or is there something that goes beyond that?

FRANCIS: It goes beyond that. I mean, it starts out with concerns about gay people being able to be blackmailed, but it grew to revulsion and then morphed into suitability and stretches over seven presidencies from Eisenhower through Reagan and didn't really end until President Clinton put an end to it with an executive order.

SIEGEL: One of the people, Mike Isikoff, whom you interview for "Uniquely Nasty" is Lester Hunt Jr. His father was Wyoming senator Lester Hunt Sr. And you questioned him about his arrest in 1953 near the White House by a man who'd approached him, one of the many undercover cops posing as gay men cruising.


LESTER HUNT JR.: I got into a conversation with a guy there.

ISIKOFF: Were you gay?

HUNT JR.: No. I wanted to proposition him, and I did. And then he arrested me, took my fingerprints and let me go.

ISIKOFF: Did you tell your dad?


SIEGEL: What happened after that?

ISIKOFF: Lester Hunt Jr. was the son of a Democratic senator, Lester Hunt, who was a foe of Joe McCarthy, a critic of Joe McCarthy. And what happened after that arrest is that allies of Joe McCarthy - Styles Bridges of New Hampshire and Herman Welker of Idaho - intervened in the case, pressured Washington, D.C., prosecutors to bring Lester Hunt Jr. to trial. He was tried. He was convicted, had to pay a hundred-dollar fine. His father sat in the trial.

And then those senators - the allies of McCarthy - pressured Senator Hunt not to run for reelection, threatening him that they would flood the state of Wyoming with pamphlets about his son's arrest. Senator Lester Hunt went to his office on a Saturday morning and shot himself, committed suicide. And that inspired the story...


ISIKOFF: ...Of "Advise And Consent."

SIEGEL: "Advise And Consent" was the best-selling novel inspired by this. It was made into a movie. A senator - some homosexual acts in his youth are disclosed, and he eventually commits suicide. Charles Francis, you mentioned that - I think it's in 1978 - the FBI destroys thousands and thousands and thousands of files. Would that be the information that you'd want to look at right now? Has it been shredded and burnt by now?

FRANCIS: This goes to the larger question. Gay and lesbian history is so often deleted, sealed, destroyed. The letters are burned. So our biggest fear is more destruction of documents and trying to put a stop to it now so that historians will have this record of a time of huge upheaval and transition.

SIEGEL: Charles Francis of The Mattachine Society of Washington, thanks for talking with us.

FRANCIS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News, which has produced the online documentary "Uniquely Nasty," thanks for talking with us too.

ISIKOFF: Thanks for having me.

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