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American Quarterly 57.1 (2005) 289-296

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Sexual Politics and Gendered Poetics during the Cold War

The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. By David K. Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 277 pages. $30.00 (cloth).
Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics. By Michael Davidson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. 281 pages. $56.00 (cloth). $22.50 (paper).

What unites these two very different books, beyond their shared publisher, is their common interest in the politics of identity during the cold war. Both writers are concerned with the ways in which the domestic containment of the political "other" also authorized containment of the sexual "other" during the 1950s. But both writers also describe the subversion of such containment. For David Johnson, this subversion happens gradually through individual resistance and the formation of activist groups like the Mattachine Society. For Michael Davidson, the subversion is much more a matter of immediate textual rupture.

David Johnson gives us a very detailed and particular perspective on cold war sexual politics through his account of the many gay men and women who lost their jobs with the federal government because they were perceived as "security risks." His highly readable and meticulously researched account of the antigay purges provides a useful corrective to the common view of 1950s political extremism as dominated by (and limited to) a single aberrant demagogue, Joseph McCarthy. Instead, Johnson shows that homophobia at times eclipsed anticommunism as a national paranoia and pervaded all branches of federal government. In the process Johnson locates the beginnings of the gay rights movement in the 1950s rather than the late 1960s.

Davidson's focus is much broader; although concentrating on the 1950s, he extends his purview beyond this decade into the late 1980s and as far back as the nineteenth century. Davidson's work shows the rich possibilities arising [End Page 289] from a combination of literary, historical, and cultural studies. While Johnson is concerned with the effects of gender politics on individual lives, Davidson is more interested in theorizing gender, which he presents as primarily performative. If his readings of particular works are at times too speculative to be fully convincing, his acute sense of cultural context maintains the force of his overall argument. Together, these books offer very different but still complementary perspectives on the same period.

The story told by Johnson is a compelling and disturbing one. He begins in 1950 with two related political announcements. The first was Senator Joseph McCarthy's claim that the State Department harbored 205 Communists. The second was the disclosure by Deputy Undersecretary John Puerifoy that, although free from Communists, the State Department had dismissed 190 homosexual employees as "security risks." Both statements were equally influential in shaping domestic policy during the 1950s, but while McCarthy's claim has become one of the most notorious moments in American history, Puerifoy's response has, until now, survived only as a historical footnote. Johnson's rhetorical strategy here is effective. By presenting both statements together in his introduction, he succinctly signals his agenda: to demonstrate that the lavender scare was as much a matter of national concern as the red scare, and to reveal the extent to which the antigay purges went far beyond McCarthy's short time in the spotlight.

The reasons gays were targeted as security risks are simultaneously simple and complex. Johnson notes the much-publicized trial of Whittaker Chambers in 1948, an ex-Communist and homosexual spy who named State Department official Alger Hiss as an accomplice. This event brought a much earlier scandal back into the newspapers—the Eulenburg Affair, which had implicated members of Imperial Germany's nobility in homosexual intrigue involving state secrets. And of course, McCarthy had dramatized his alleged findings about communist subversion by pointing out that several of the men on his list were homosexual. Therefore, for many Americans, the connection between communism, political subversion, and homosexuality seemed self-evident. Since homosexuality was represented by the psychiatric profession at this time as...


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