Lifting the Ban on Gays in the Civil Service: Federal Policy toward Gay and Lesbian Employees since the Cold War

By Lewis, Gregory B. | Public Administration Review, September-October 1997 | Go to article overview

Lifting the Ban on Gays in the Civil Service: Federal Policy toward Gay and Lesbian Employees since the Cold War


Lewis, Gregory B., Public Administration Review


Although the military's ban on lesbians and gays has generated considerable political controversy, many people remain unaware that the federal government also prohibited the employment of gays in the civil service until 1975. This article provides a brief history of the political, bureaucratic, and judicial forces involved in the creation, implementation, and elimination of that prohibition. Though the policy apparently stretches back to the early days of the Republic, its importance exploded in the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s, when "sex perverts" in government erupted as a public policy issue that merged concerns about national security and moral purity. Under pressure from Congress, the U.S. Civil Service Commission and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) developed techniques to purge lesbians and gay men from the civil service. These bureaucratic efforts persisted long after the political issue had died down. The courts slowly undercut the government's blanket exclusion of homosexuals from federal employment, eventually demanding that the bureaucracy demonstrate a rational connection between homosexual conduct and the efficiency of the service. Although the Civil Service Commission resisted employing homosexuals for years, it institutionalized the policy change in 1975, and recent progress toward guarantees of equal treatment for gay and lesbian federal employees has occurred primarily through the bureaucracy.

Homosexuals Emerge as a Personnel Policy Concern

The federal government has traditionally required that its employees be of good moral character, a standard that historically excluded known homosexuals. Regulations have long instructed the bureaucracy to deny examinations to applicants, refuse appointments to eligibles, and remove incumbent employees from their jobs for "criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct" (U.S. Civil Service Commission, 1941, 37). We know of isolated dismissals for homosexuality long before the Cold War. (The Interior Department fired Walt Whitman in 1865 and the Post Office discharged the founder of the country's first homosexual political organization in 1925. See Katz, 1976).

It is not clear how actively civil servants attempted to prevent the employment of lesbians and gay men, however. A U.S. Senate report (1950, 10) charged that "some officials undoubtedly condoned the employment of homosexuals ... particularly ... where the perverted activities of the employee were carried on in such a manner as not to create public scandal or notoriety."

By 1950, however, many in the Senate were impatient with "the false premise that what a Government employee did outside of the office on his own time, particularly if his actions did not involve his fellow employees or his work, was his own business" (U.S. Senate, 1950, 10). The problem began with a list of "admitted homosexuals and suspected perverts" sent by a Senate Appropriations subcommittee to the State Department in 1947 (Wherry, 1950, 1). In early 1950, a State Department official testified before that subcommittee that 91 "sex perverts" had been allowed to resign in the previous three years, and that some had subsequently been reemployed by other federal agencies. The Republicans launched blistering attacks on the Truman administration both for employing these people and for allowing them to resign without permanent blots on their records (although taboos on discussing homosexuality severely limited the publicity). The chairman of the Republican National Committee sent an open letter charging that "the sexual perverts who have infiltrated our Government in recent years ... [were] perhaps as dangerous as the actual Communists" ("Perverts," 1950).

Republican Senators Wherry and Hill formed a subcommittee to study the issue and called in the experts -- military investigators and the Washington, DC, morals squad. These experts "testified that moral perverts are bad national security risks . …

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