Home / Articles / What It’s Like to Be Gay in the Ultra-Masculine NatSec Community
A few months ago, I was at one of those boozy, early evening events that bind together professional life in Washington, D.C. I was there to meet a retired White House official who was holding court off to the side of the party after offering a few remarks to the gathered crowd about his career working in national security policy. When it was my turn to shake his hand, his eyes darted to the wedding ring on my left hand. “It’s great to meet you,” he said. “Is your wife around?”
It was a simple question — one most people would not think twice about. But for me, it brought up a familiar discomfort. I stuttered for a few seconds, then corrected him: “My husband isn’t here — he’s away on a work trip.” This senior official batted an eye, hesitated for the briefest of moments, and said, “That’s great,” before moving on to meet other people. He never made eye contact with me again for the remainder of the party.
Or maybe I imagined that last part — after all, people at such a senior level rarely make time for idle conversation at these events. It’s hard to tell when a subtle interaction like that is innocent or malicious. The social culture in Washington is remarkably tolerant of LGBT people — upwards of 10 percent of adults in the city identify as LGBT, the biggest percentage of any state in the country. Within the government, policymaking, and associated contractor and nonprofit industries, there are plenty of people out of the closet. But this wasn’t just any D.C. happy hour. This was an event that drew in journalists, budding pundits, academics, and policy analysts from the city’s national security community. And if the arc of the city as a whole has bent toward tolerance, those in national security, or NatSec, as it is called, have been a little slower to come around.
The NatSec community has a long history of troubled relations with its LGBT members. From the start of the Cold War, officials have thought of gays as a security risk on par with communists. In the early 1950s, Joseph McCarthy viewed homosexuality as being equally, if not more, subversive to American values as the hammer and sickle, freely mixing his disdain for liberalism with his revulsion for gay men and women. In one press conference, he toldreporters, “If you want to be against McCarthy, boys, you’ve got to be either a Communist or a cocksucker.” It was the suspected communists (mostly at the State Department) who we more commonly remember as McCarthy’s victims, but he persecuted LGBT people during the “lavender scare” in far greater numbers than he did any alleged Soviet sympathizers. By 1953, the State Department had fired more than 400 “perverts,” as the media called them, as compared to around 100 suspected communists.
Public opinion about alleged communist sympathizers in the government changed after McCarthy’s fall from power; government attitudes toward homosexuality did not. President Dwight Eisenhower codified the government’s stance against employing those inclined toward “sexual perversion” (meaning: homosexuality) in Executive Order 10450. The Eisenhower logic was that homosexuality was so inherently abhorrent that it could be used as a means of blackmail — that being gay meant a person was subject to coercion by a hostile intelligence agency, and thus could never be trusted in government.
It wasn’t until 1975 that the U.S. Civil Service Commission officially…