The Sexual Cold War


Andrew Sullivan linked to a review of an interesting art exhibit at Winkleman Gallery in New York. The project is called Homosexuality Is Stalin’s Atom Bomb to Destroy America and the artist is Yevgeniy Fiks. The title is from a piece of anti-communist agitprop in 1953.

Taking its title from a 1953 article by the Cold Warrior and pundit Arthur Guy Mathews, this exhibition explores the historical and ideological links between anti-Communism and homophobia in the United States, as well as the intersections between Communism and sexual identity as it played out during the 20th century. Works in the exhibition range from dry factuality to humorous and farcical, and posit the 20th century queerness as the shared “Other” of the Communism-Capitalism dichotomy, while tracing the uneasy yet tangible historical links between the early 20th century Communist activism and the gay rights movement of the second half of the century.

The exhibition delves into the interlocking histories of the “Red” and “Lavender” scares during the McCarthy-era, when anti-Communist and anti-gay sentiments were fused together in the Cold War witch-hunt rhetoric. Pundits and government officials went as far as envisioning a sinister conspiracy: the Soviet Union is promoting homosexuality as a tool to destroy America. Concurrently, the federal government purged homosexuals that it employed, calling them “security risks”—vulnerable of being blackmailed by Soviet agents into working for them. Ironically, in response to and mirroring its ideological enemy, the American Communist Party also purged known gays from its ranks—marking them as “security risks”—for fear that gay Communists were vulnerable to blackmail and could become informants for the Feds. The official charter of the Communist Party USA even before its 1950s anti-gay purge strictly prohibited gays from membership, adhering to the policies of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union where homosexuality was officially criminalized under Stalin and stigmatized as a “capitalist degeneracy.”

Works in the exhibition include Stalin’s Atom Bomb a.k.a. Homosexuality, a series of prints that highlights paranoid anti-communist and anti-gay quotations from American politicians and pundits of the era.

It’s fascinating how both the United States and the Soviet Union used homosexuality as a general evil that the other side was creating to undermine them, ignoring the fact that both sides were actively suppressing homosexuals, throwing them in jail and persecuting. But such rhetoric was useful to both sides because it paired two things that everyone just knew were evil, communism (or capitalism, in the USSR) and homosexuality.

It’s a lot like how the far right today tries to claim that there is a liberal/gay/atheist/Muslim axis trying to undermine the country. Just group all the things you think are bad together and imbue them with extraordinary powers they can’t possibly have and — voila — you have the perfect boogeyman.

Comments

  1. slc1 says

    Considering that some of McCarthy’s closet allies (e.g. Roy Cohn and David Shine) were gay, and that there was considerable evidence that he was at least a switch hitter, this was rather fine. Not to mention the closet queen J. Edger Himmler himself.

  2. says

    slc1, those people weren’t gay. They loved America so much that they were willing to pretend to be gays, so that they could root out actual gays, for America! How else are you supposed to expose the homosexual menace without repeated, deep undercover, sting operations?

  3. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    It’s fascinating how both the United States and the Soviet Union used homosexuality as a general evil that the other side was creating to undermine them, ignoring the fact that both sides were actively suppressing homosexuals

    The logic here could be that homosexuality weakens a society, therefore you expect the enemy to suppress it on their own side while encouraging it on yours.

  4. slc1 says

    Re Modusoperandi @ #2

    I guess that Roy Cohn took his playacting a little too far as he eventually died of AIDS.

  5. says

    If you’re a 12 year old boy playing Gears of War, your enemy is always a fag.

    So it is, apparently, if you’re a McCarthyite or Communist, Islamist or Christian fundamentalist.

  6. says

    I just remembered one tortured rationale for turning down someone for a job in the CIA. Think it was around the time of the red scare. He was openly gay. They said that he was a security risk because someone could compromise him by blackmailing him for being gay. Even though this hypothetical blackmailer can’t threaten to out him because he was already out.

  7. lofgren says

    They said that he was a security risk because someone could compromise him by blackmailing him for being gay.

    I don’t know what specific case you are talking about here, but this was the stated reason for both the US and Britain denying access to classified information to homosexuals.

    There is an uncomfortable kernel of legitimate complexity in there. Whether a person is gay, openly gay, closeted, or straight should be their personal business alone. But what if an issue is controversial in the culture? If you are in charge of making decisions for the protection of the country, I can see how it would seem reasonable to keep anyone whose identity is controversial at a distance, even though that policy itself perpetuates the stigma.

  8. jonrowe says

    Not too often that a fellow Mercer professor makes your page. But not the first time!

  9. meursalt says

    #2:

    repeated, deep undercover, sting operations

    I guess now we know the real story of the enigmatic “stinger” references of goatse infamy,

    Homosexuality Is Stalin’s Atom Bomb to Destroy America

    And those long-laid plans are finally coming to fruition, any time now, just as soon as gay “marriage” is legalized and true Christians are rounded up and packed into FEMA coffins. Arthur Guy Mathews was clearly a visionary.

  10. laurentweppe says

    t’s fascinating how both the United States and the Soviet Union used homosexuality as a general evil that the other side was creating to undermine them

    It’s older than that and lasted longer than you’d think: Instead of merely denouncing the hypocrisy of the upper-class moralism and the way they treated sexual freedom like a privilege for themselves, european communists used to describe homosexuality as a “bourgeois vice” until very recently: in the early 2000s you still had some self-proclaimed gatekeeper of the true-and-authentic-left who considered that the “gay agenda” was something that only interested the “Bobos”.

  11. matty1 says

    Of course the reason closeted gays could be blackmailed was because they would be fired as a security risk if they were outed so the paranoiacs were creating their own threat.

  12. andrewkiener says

    @13.
    “Lavender Dawn” is potentially the funniest movie in thirty years:

    Quentin Taratino and John Waters Present Jason Statham and Nathan Lane in LAVENDER DAWN. Also Starring Brad Pitt, RuPaul, and Ron Perlman. “When Our Enemies Attack, Real Americans Step Up and &%ck Some A$$!” or “America’s Enemies Never Saw THIS Coming!”

    Not what you were getting at, but why not? The country needs some movies about hyperpatriotic, openly gay action heroes saving the world. Socailly constructive cognitive dissonance – you could stand outside the theater and watch guys struggle with the decision to buy a ticket…

  13. Alverant says

    I keep a mental list of how the GOP and the USSR are alike. Now I get to add “Oppression of homosexuals” to the not-so-surprisingly long list.

  14. laurentweppe says

    I keep a mental list of how the GOP and the USSR are alike.

    I’ve always said thet the USA is a nation of closeted socialists: more than half the country vote for social-democrats who pretend they’re not social democrats and the remaining 47% vote for a self-appointed benevolent intelligentsia who’s members are little more than a de facto hereditary aristocracy, like the K∏CC

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