glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture
social sciences
special features
about glbtq


   member name
   Forgot Your Password?  
Not a Member Yet?  

  Advertising Opportunities
  Permissions & Licensing
  Terms of Service
  Privacy Policy





social sciences

Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-E  F-L  M-Z

Bookmark and Share
page: 1  2  3  

McCarthyism is the term applied to the attempts in the late 1940s and early 1950s to expunge Communists and fellow travelers (often identified as homosexual) from American public life. Named for Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, the term has come to signify Red-baiting, political extremism, and civic hysteria.

For gay men and lesbians, the period was one of police harassment, witch hunts, suspicions of disloyalty, and dismissals from jobs, especially in the public sector.

Sponsor Message.

Indeed, McCarthyism may be seen as the time when homosexuals became the chief scapegoats of the Cold War. In the United States and Great Britain, throughout the 1950s, thousands of individuals were arrested and imprisoned on homosexual charges. The popular consensus that homosexuals were immoral, emotionally unstable, and untrustworthy justified their punishment and stigmatization.

The Climate of Paranoia

Senator McCarthy was active in hunting down Communists for a relatively short period of time. Only four years passed between the Senator's 1950 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, where he claimed to have a list of 205 people in the State Department known to be members of the American Communist Party, and his spectacular downfall in the Army-McCarthy hearings, which culminated in his censure by the United States Senate, passed on a vote of 67 to 22. Yet the climate of paranoia that he and his tactics helped establish was one of the enduring traits of the Cold War.

Communists and homosexuals were the major targets of the witch hunts promoted by McCarthy and his fellow conservatives. During the era, the two groups became closely associated. As John Loughery puts it, "few events indicate how psychologically wracked America was becoming in the 1950s . . . than the presumed overlap of the Communist and the homosexual menace."

Events Contributing to the Association of Homosexuals and Communism

Specific events contributed to the association of homosexuals with Communism. For example, in 1948, Whittaker Chambers, an editor and writer at Time magazine and a former Communist Party member and courier in a Soviet spy ring infiltrating the American government, accused Alger Hiss, head of the Carnegie Endowment, of perjury and, implicitly, of Soviet espionage. The vast media coverage of the scandal hinted that Chambers had a crush on Hiss, establishing a link between Communism and homosexuality.

Chambers was only too eager to strengthen this link, declaring to the FBI that his homosexual activities had stopped once he had left the Communist Party.

In addition, the 1951 flight to the Soviet Union of gay British spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean also helped fuel the association of homosexuality and treason in the public imagination.

Not surprisingly, "Pinko fag" became the worst insult of the era.

The Psychological Atmosphere

Equally important in establishing the link between Communism and homosexuality was the psychological atmosphere of paranoia that fostered fears of foreign infiltrators preparing attacks against America, abetted by home-grown traitors. These fears prompted Americans to look for evidence of foreign infiltration and to search for the enemy within.

In this climate, conformity became the most prized characteristic of the era. Clearly, both homosexuals and Communists violated this ideal. Moreover, in the popular imagination, they shared some crucial ideological positions: both groups allegedly abhorred religion; rejected middle-class morality; were manipulative and cynical; and, finally, were eager to put their own cause above the national one.

Republican Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska summarized these popular perceptions in an interview with the New York Post in December 1950: "You can't hardly separate homosexuals from subversives. . . . Mind you, I don't say that every homosexual is a subversive, and I don't say every subversive is a homosexual. But [people] of low morality are a menace in the government, whatever [they are], and they are all tied up together."

As John D'Emilio has concluded, such "congruence between the stereotype of Communists and homosexuals made the scapegoating of gay men and women a simple matter."

Purges of "Sexual Deviants" from Public Employment

The link between Communism and homosexuality was used in particular against public employees. In February 1950, John Peurifoy, Undersecretary of State, reported to the Senate Appropriations Committee that most of the ninety-one men who had recently been dismissed from the State Department as security risks were sexual deviants.

By May of 1950, Senator Wherry quoted reliable police sources that 3,750 homosexuals held federal jobs. A month later, the Senate authorized an official investigation, the first of its type in the history of the United States. The results of the "pervert inquiry," as it was popularly named, came out in December at a time of profound concern over national security.

The Senate Report accused the Truman administration of indifference toward the danger represented by homosexuals in governmental positions. The Report explicitly mentioned "lack of emotional stability" and "weakness of . . . moral fiber" as defining characteristics of homosexuals that made them likely targets of Soviet propaganda and recruitment.

    page: 1  2  3   next page>  
zoom in
Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Contact Us
Join the Discussion
Related Entries
More Entries by this contributor
A Bibliography on this Topic

Citation Information
More Entries about Social Sciences
Popular Topics:

The Arts

Drag Shows: Drag Queens and Female Impersonators
Drag Shows: Drag Queens and Female Impersonators

Photography: Gay Male, Pre-Stonewall
Photography: Gay Male, Pre-Stonewall

Erotic and Pornographic Art: Gay Male
Erotic and Pornographic Art: Gay Male

New Queer Cinema

White, Minor

Halston (Roy Halston Frowick)


Winfield, Paul

McDowall, Roddy
McDowall, Roddy

Cadinot, Jean-Daniel
Cadinot, Jean-Daniel




This Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc. is produced by glbtq, Inc., 1130 West Adams Street, Chicago, IL   60607 glbtq™ and its logo are trademarks of glbtq, Inc.
This site and its contents Copyright © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
Your use of this site indicates that you accept its Terms of Service.