Queer Desire and Cold War Homophobia

By Elspeth Brown, University of Toronto Posted May 23, 2013

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This photograph archives queer, illicit desire in Cold War America. It was made by George Platt Lynes, and is part of a set of male nudes that the photographer made in the decades leading to his death, from lung cancer, in 1955. Because exhibiting these photographs was a impossibility during Lynes's lifetime due to Cold War homophobia, he circulated them privately among his queer kinship networks.

Lynes was part of a closely connected circle of elite gay men who dominated American arts and letters in the interwar and early post-war years. For 16 years, Lynes lived with the writer Glenway Wescott and museum curator Monroe Wheeler, who were a couple for over fifty years; they had a variety of other sexual partners throughout, including Lynes, who shared a bedroom with Wheeler during their years together. All three of them, as well as friends and colleagues Lincoln Kirstein, Paul Cadmus, and other leading figures, participated in sex parties in the 1940s and 1950s, as documented in their personal papers. However, in the context of 1950s-era red scares, which particularly focused on homosexuals, the more open sexual subcultures of the 1930s and 1940s were driven even further underground.

In April of 1950, Glenway Wescott wrote George Platt Lynes that while the erotic explicitness of George’s nudes didn’t personally concern him, he was worried for Monroe Wheeler, since Wheeler held a public position as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art.  “I really don’t mind scabrousness, etc., on my account, as you must know,” he wrote. “Only that our poor M [Monroe] must conclude his career with good effect and honor, I am anxious not to involve him in what is now called (in the nation’s capital) ‘guilty by association’ (have you been reading the columns and columns in the newspapers upon this and correlative points?).”

Although McCarthyism is often understood as the effort to purge suspected communists from the State Department and other branches of the federal government, the Red Scare equally targeted homosexuals, who were forced out of public service and into the closet. Wescott may well have been referring to the front page of the New York Times on March 1, 1950, where Secretary of State Dean Acheson testified about the Alger Hiss trial and the loyalty program at the State Department. Although the article purportedly concerned communism, it shows that the red scare mainly affected homosexuals, as Wescott clearly understood. Senator Bridges asked John E. Peurifoy, Deputy Under-Secretary of State in charge of the security program, how many members of the State Department had resigned since the investigations began in 1947. “Ninety-one persons in the shady category,” Mr. Peurifoy replied, “most of these were homosexuals.” This was not necessarily newsworthy in and of itself, so far as the New York Times was concerned in 1950, and the remainder of the article detailed the testimony relating to other aspects of the hearings.

Lynes continued to make and circulate his portraits, despite this climate of homophobia. He was very concerned that the work find an audience, and published it in several issues of the Swiss homosexual journal Der Kreis in the 1950s. He also became an important informant for Alfred Kinsey’s research, as did Glenway Wescott and other members of their circle. Between 1949 and 1955, Lynes sold and donated much of his erotic nudes to Kinsey, where they are now part of the Kinsey Institute collections in Bloomington, Indiana.