Jasmyn Morris (JM): Welcome to another episode of the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. I’m your host, Jasmyn Morris.
This season – and in honor of the 50th anniversary of Stonewall – we’ve been sharing stories from LGBTQ folks, especially from those who lived before Stonewall.
So this week, we take you back to the mid-1950s.
Joe McCarthy (JMcC): 54 individuals, homosexuals, were allowed to resign.
JM: That’s Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1952.
JMcC: One of my friends said why worry about those individuals, you don’t claim they’re all communists do ya? And the answer is obviously no. Some of them, have that unusual affliction because of no fault of their own, most of course because they are morally weak. The pervert is easy prey to the blackmailer. We’re not disturbed about them because of their morals but because they are dangerous to this country.
JM: The following year, President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, launching an investigation of every federal agency.
Eventually, thousands of people who were caught up in these investigations, were publicly outed, pressured to resign, and removed from their jobs because of so-called “sexual perversion.” This became known as the Lavender Scare.
And the man behind that executive order? That was Robert “Bobby” Cutler, the National Security Advisor and right-hand man to the president.
But when Bobby died, years later, he left behind a six-volume diary that showed a very different side of him than what you might expect.
His great nephew, Peter Shinkle, inherited those diaries. Here he is reading an entry from July 1958.
Peter Shinkle (PS): A year ago he brought me home from a movie in the Thunderbird and went to say goodnight; I took his hand, our fingers for a moment interlaced. It was at that moment the greatest adventure of my life began.
JM: After reading through hundreds of pages, it became clear to Peter that his great uncle – the man responsible for the implementation of the Lavender Scare – had been in love with another man…
PS: The brilliant light of my love for him throws all the rest of this world in shadow. To me he is indispensable.
JM: People often come to StoryCorps with a goal in mind. It’s an opportunity to sit across from someone – a spouse, a family member or friend – and ask the questions you’ve always wanted answers to.
Well, after reading through his great uncle Bobby’s diaries, Peter had a lot of questions.
So he sat down to interview some people who knew of Bobby.
First, we’ll hear from 92-year-old Stephen Benedict. He worked in various federal agencies, including a stint as a security officer at the White House during the 1950s.
Stephen Benedict (SB): I was very much head over heels in the gay community at that point. And quite an elaborate check was done on me by the FBI, but I’ve kept my head down my nose clean – pretty clean, not entirely. None of us went to gay bars or anything like that because we knew that they were being monitored. It was almost kind of a given that we be very careful.
PS: When did you eventually realize that you had become a target for investigation?
SB: I was implicated by somebody. It was then that I was asked to talk to security people. I had the bitter and the sweet at the end of a long table, you know, the two questioners, doing good cop, bad cop. They had no hard evidence and I simply denied everything. That was the first time and I survived that one.
It’s very hard to imagine now how different things were 50, 60, 70 years ago. One would simply routinely lie. I mean it didn’t mean anything other than that you were doing what you knew you had to do or you wouldn’t be considered for the job.
JM: That’s Stephen Benedict with Peter Shinkle in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Stephen avoided being fired in 1958, but resigned from his government job later that year.
Here’s Peter again reading from his great uncle Bobby Cutler’s diary.
PS: What means so much to me, so incredibly much, means nothing to him. But what is important is this: there is no conclusion to be drawn from this difference that I love him, but he does not love me.
JM: The man Bobby is referring to in his diaries was actually one of his colleagues named Skip Koons, who died in 2005. So here’s Peter with Skip’s longtime partner, Ed Glazbrook at StoryCorps.
Ed Glazbrook (ED): I met Skip Koons in 1969. And, uh, we locked eyes and, somehow, I felt that this was going to be a night that was going to change my life forever.
PS: You know another person who loved Skip very much, was of course Bobby Cutler.
EG: Um Hm. You know, I never met Bobby. But I heard a lot about Bobby from Skip. I knew that Bobby had hired him to work for the National Security Council and staff.
So working in Washington with Bobby and Eisenhower was terribly exciting for him but Skip talked about the danger of being gay in that environment and it took a heavy toll on him.
PS: He did eventually come under investigation by the government.
EG: Yes. He told me that they were onto him.
He had a lover at that time who phoned him from overseas and was indiscreet about their relationship and Skip was horrified because he was aware that the phones could be tapped and they were. So he knew his time was up.
PS: How did he feel about that?
EG: Well, I think he felt the pain of it because he had always wanted to be in government when he was growing up and he told me that his real ambition was to be Secretary of State. So what he wanted most in the world was taken away from him. That was a great loss.
EG: And not just for him, but for all the people like him who couldn’t continue with what they wanted to do, just because they were gay, you know. It was a terrible time in our history.
JM: That’s Ed Glazbrook remembering his longtime partner, Skip Koons at StoryCorps with Peter Shinkle.
It’s been more than 60 years since Peter’s great uncle Bobby Cutler initiated Executive Order 10450, resulting in what’s been called the Lavender Scare.
And while his StoryCorps interviews with Stephen and Ed help fill in some blanks, Peter is still left with a lot of questions…
PS: It is extremely difficult to know what Bobby Cutler was thinking when he recommended the ban on homosexuals in the federal government, which caused immense pain and suffering to the gay community with thousands losing jobs and untold numbers committing suicide. Terrible, terrible impacts from these rules.
I think he was a profound patriot and lover of his country who would not have been comfortable, at all, with the idea that he was going to be investigated merely because of whom he loved.
So I’ve spent years trying to understand how this happened and it’s NOT a simple story. There is a question in my mind to what extent Bobby may bear some of the burden for this decision…
But what we do know is that there’s no record of anybody standing up and saying this ban on sexual perversion… you should take that out of these rules. Nobody did that.
JM: And it would be a long time before someone did stand up. Although parts of Executive Order 10450 were pulled back over the six decades it was in existence, it wasn’t fully rescinded until just two years ago.
And of course, these kinds of policies, both official and unspoken, existed outside of the government too.
More, after this short break. Stay with us.
JM: Welcome back.
Next, we’ll hear from Dick Titus and Zeek Taylor, who have been a couple for almost 50 years.
Not long after they got together, they settled down in Fayetteville, Arkansas. It was 1975 and Dick was working as an electrician.
Dick Titus (DT): I always referred to myself as the invisible gay guy. Because people that I worked with didn’t know I was gay and I heard every gay joke and slur. And, you know it hurt ‘cause these are people I liked.
And, um, in a small town like Fayetteville, everybody would know I was gay and nobody would hire me. So we had two houses. Because I needed a place so people could come after work and have a beer or hang out.
Zeek Taylor (ZT): It kept the Miller Lite cold in the fridge [Laughter] for when they guys came over.
DT: Even though it had clothes in it, and food. You could open the door and swear I slept there last night but I never did.
ZT: I knew that’s what had to happen. It was pretty easy to run into people that you worked with at the grocery store or wherever.
DT: Do you remember the things we had to do when somebody came up and talked to me?
ZT: Oh sure. You chose the name “Oscar” as your work name. And when we would go out, if someone said, “Hey Oscar,” I just kept walking like we were strangers. And I never questioned having to do it. I didn’t like it but it would have been so hard on you if we had lived in the open at that time.
DT: Did you ever feel like I was ashamed of you or embarrassed by you?
ZT: No. I never felt that at all. I felt more that you were ashamed of yourself.
DT: That’s probably pretty true. You know, I’ve never really told you how brave I think you are. You were this openly gay ballet dancer and, uh, I was always the chameleon. And I think that I took the coward’s way out.
ZT: But I felt this is the price we have to pay to be together.
DT: You know, even though I come across as the strong one you’re really the strong one in our relationship. And I admire you for being your own person all these years.
ZT: I appreciate knowing that, it means a lot to me.
DT: Well, you deserve all that and more. I’ve known you a long time and, uh, you just constantly amaze me.
ZT: Thank you.
JM: That’s Zeek Taylor with his husband, Dick Titus at StoryCorps in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
Dick is now retired. He was never out to any of his colleagues, until late in his career when he started his own business.
To this day there are still no nationwide protections for LGBTQ people in the workplace. You can still be legally fired in most states based on your sexuality or gender expression.
That’s all for this episode of the StoryCorps podcast. It was produced by Jey Born, Jud Esty-Kendall and me. Our Production Assistant is Afi Yellow-Duke. Our engineer is Jarett Floyd. Natsumi Ajisaka is our fact-checker.
Special thanks to Von Diaz and Natalia Fidelholtz and to Marquette University Library for the archival audio of Joseph McCarthy that we used earlier in the episode. For more information about the Lavender Scare, Peter Shinkle wrote a book about his great uncle Bobby Cutler. It’s called Ike’s Mystery Man.
Lastly, we’ll leave you with an excerpt from an interview recorded on the StoryCorps app as part of our effort called Stonewall OutLoud, this comes from Lucy Elam and she’s speaking with her friend, Lindsey Scott.
Lucy Elam (LE): I have both been denied a promotion and also fired for being gay.
Lindsey Scott (LS): Wow.
LE: And I was fired in 2004 and that was a really ugly situation. So I was hauled into HR and this young woman just started screaming at me, “Are you gay? I was so stunned I didn’t know how to react. I got really angry about the whole situation and so I was fired for, It was actually for insubordination, but there’s no way to prove what happened ‘cause they’re not going to admit that’s why they fired you. So it’s really hard to do anything about it.
JM: That’s Lucy Elam recording on the StoryCorps app for Stonewall OutLoud. Head over to StoryCorps – DOT – ORG – slash OutLoud to learn how to record your own interview.
For the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Jasmyn Morris. Thanks for listening.