Heteronormativity and Identity During the McCarthy Era

Katie Moran

In the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy fueled a climate of fear about communism by claiming that those labeled as subversives and communists had infiltrated America. He centralized his efforts by attacking communists and gays. The discrimination gays felt under McCarthy’s era is emphasized by Audre Lorde’s literary work. By looking at Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, I will discuss heteronormativity’s effect on homosexual identity during the McCarthy era. This era was characterized by paranoia, fear, and secrecy as homosexuals were labeled as subversives and deviates. Lorde’s retelling of this time in her biomythography allows for readers to understand first-hand the challenges and obstacles gays had to face during the Lavender and Red Scares. Lorde coins the term biomythography as she opens up a new literary genre, which uses her mother’s stories of African mythology as an inspiration to empower her own narrative from a feministic perspective. Lorde’s embrace of femininity synthesized with her rejection of gender conformity turns over the heteronormative ideal projected to Americans in the early 1950s by the media and the McCarthy committee. With the projection of this heteronormative ideal, the threat of identifying as homosexual was just as dangerous as being a communist during the McCarthy era. McCarthyism encouraged heteronormativity and prejudiced against all who did not fit into the heteronormative category.

McCarthy utilized isolation techniques to stigmatize homosexuality under a veil of subversion, which fractured the development of individual identity for those whom McCarthyism wrongly marginalized. McCarthy also attacked his political enemies, demanding that Secretary of State, Acheson, be impeached due to his influence on Truman and his alleged coddling of communists. Senator McCarthy tried to demonstrate “a communist penetration” of the State Department (White) by making “wild accusations” which ultimately proved to be “nothing more than the figment of McCarthy’s vivid imagination” (McMahon 114). The McCarthy committee made “special inquiry into whether homosexuals were employed by the Executive Branch of the Government” (White). Within the McCarthy committee, there was further corruption, such as “the abuses of the loyalty programs and other security measures” (Brinkley 40). These abuses were controversial, frequent, and dismantled the power of the corrupt system in the long-term.

McCarthy and his advisor, Roy Cohn, took John G. Adams, Army Counselor, to court over speculation that homosexuals were serving as personnel in United States Defense. Adams denied that he had ever “tried to divert the McCarthy committee from its Army investigations by holding out the ‘bait’ of providing them with evidence of alleged homosexuals in the Air Force or the Navy” (Lawrence). Homosexuals were considered to be “loyalty risks” by McCarthy, and were therefore misguidedly labeled as “sexual deviates, persons with mental or character weaknesses—moral risks” (Mandelbaum 135). McCarthy considered these “moral risks” the fourth degree of communists, as it was believed that they were vulnerable to blackmail and were stigmatized as subversives. Cohn said that Adams “offered up bigger bait from time to time, to wit, subversives, homosexuals, in the Air Force and in the Navy” (Lawrence). Mr. Adams attempted to “put to rest any allegations that this homosexual ring did exist,” but that was not a simple task as Cohn was responsible for “investigating the report of homosexual activity” in the Navy and Air Force (Lawrence).

During the McCarthy era, homosexuality was “a reason for suspicion and shunning” (Lorde 149). The suspicion this era bred and endorsed did not promote an open forum for discourse on matters of race, gender, and sexuality. Lorde opens this discourse by publishing her biomythography in the 1980s during the rise of the AIDS epidemic and after the Stonewall Riots in New York City. The 1980’s became pivotal in the modern formation of pride identity within the LGBTQ community by sparking a redefining of the social construct of gender and the fostering of a more inclusive atmosphere for homonormative categories to develop. By setting her biomythography during the 1950s, she encapsulates the struggle identity formation became for those individuals who did not fit into the dominant heteronormative culture of the time.

Lorde’s isolation due to the red stigma associated with homosexuality during the McCarthy era allowed for her identity to become fragmented. She felt threatened even when she went to gay bars in the village, saying, “you never could tell who was really who” as the “paranoia of the McCarthy years was still everywhere outside of the mainstream of blessed-out suburban Middle America” (Lorde 187). The subculture of fear, which escalated during the McCarthy years, did not allow for proper identity formation, at least not public identity formation for homosexuals. Public recognition of individual identity is essential in establishing a sense of community; this is shown when Lorde feels more comfortable returning to the United States after hearing the Brown v Board of Education verdict. While the verdict provided her with a racially defined type of social acceptance, Lorde still felt rejected on the grounds of her sexuality.

Although a subculture of fear existed during and still lingered after the McCarthy era, a more inclusive atmosphere surfaced in 1954 with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling of segregation as unconstitutional in Brown v Board of Education. Lorde was listening to the McCarthy censures on the radio around the same time she heard of desegregation in the United States school system. Lorde found herself hopeful after hearing the Supreme Court decision on desegregation in the education system, allowing for her to feel more comfortable coming back to the United States to rekindle her American identity. The formation of her American identity seemed to be compromised by her age, race, gender, and sexuality. Lorde recalls “how being young and Black and gay and lonely felt” (Lorde 177). Before her relationship with Muriel (Lorde’s girlfriend) and before Rhea (Lorde’s roommate) realized Lorde was a lesbian, Lorde identified as both gay and lonely. The intersection of sexuality and loneliness was stressed for homosexuals by McCarthy’s isolation tactics through fear of stigmatization. The role of individual identity becomes vital in the process of community building and social bonding, which is exemplified by the strain in Lorde and Rhea’s relationship after Rhea discovered that Lorde was a lesbian. Lorde believed that Rhea’s move to Chicago was out of fear that Rhea’s coworkers may find out that she was living with a lesbian, furthering Lorde’s isolation. Sexuality is merely a facet of an individual’s identity, but the persecution of homosexuals committed in the early 1950s stifled identity formation for that minority. Although Lorde describes her singular experience, she is part of a collective whole whose identity formation became hindered under McCarthyism.

Lorde takes readers along with her on her journey of self-discovery, inviting them to sympathize with her as she formulates her own identity in a time of institutional prejudice. The country’s political ideology was constructed under the fear of red enemies, which condemned particular individuals who in turn became limited by certain facets of their own humanity (race, gender, sexuality). The accusations made by the McCarthy committee were coupled with their own hypocrisy while, surprisingly enough, Roy Cohn was outed as a homosexual when he was diagnosed with AIDS in the 1980s. Cohn’s presence in the McCarthy era not only points out the hypocrisy within the committee, but also highlights the socially forced fragmentation of the individual identity of homosexuals at the time. Identity formation during the McCarthy era evoked paranoia as a suspicious government accused its citizens instead of protecting and serving all of them.

Works Cited

Brinkley, Douglas. Dean Acheson: The Cold War Years, 1953-71. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. Print.

Lawrence, W. “CROSS-EXAMINED.” New York Times (1923-Current file): 1. May 14 1954. ProQuest. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

Lorde, Audre. Zami: A New Spelling of my Name. New York: Random House, Inc., 1982. Print.

Mandelbaum, Seymour. The Social Setting of Intolerance: The Know-Nothings, The Red Scare, and McCarthyism. United States of America: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1964. Print.

McMahon, Robert. Dean Acheson and the Creation of an American World Order. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, Inc., 2009. Print.

White, Williams. “M’GRATH ACCUSED OF ‘ADVISING’ JURY.” New York Times (1923-Current file): 19. May 25 1950. ProQuest. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

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