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When the government could destroy your life for being gay

June 26, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
Today, gay rights activists celebrate a major milestone, as the Supreme Court declared that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. The federal government’s treatment of gays and lesbians has not always been accepting, however. In a new Yahoo! documentary, “Uniquely Nasty: The Government’s War on Gays,” Michael Isikoff explores this dark history.

HARI SREENIVASAN: While today the Supreme Court recognized the right of gay people to marry, the history of the federal government’s treatment of gays and lesbians has not always been so favorable.

In the new Yahoo! documentary “Uniquely Nasty: The Government’s War on Gays,” reporter Michael Isikoff explores a dark chapter of America’s past. It’s striking today to see how much the country’s changed.

MAN: Even if there were only one communist in the State Department, even if there were only one communist in the State Department, that would still be one communist too many.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: The ’50s, Americans are gripped with fear of communists. But there was also hysteria over what was portrayed as an equally sinister infiltration of government.

DOUG CHARLES, Author, “Hoover’s War on Gays”: Homosexuality was considered just a horrible thing, in that decade, if they discovered a gay person in government could blackmail them into betraying state secrets. Now, there was never, ever any evidence whatsoever that anybody was ever blackmailed, but that didn’t matter.

MAN: “June 20, 1951, upon the receipt of an allegation that a present or former employee of any branch of the United States government is a sex deviant, such information in all cases should be disseminated.”

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: While digging through government archives, Charles Francis came across a stunning document, shown here for the first time.

CHARLES FRANCIS: We get J. Edgar Hoover’s sex deviant program memo of 1951. For us, it was an ‘aha’ moment that we have got J. Edgar Hoover in our sites and we’re seeing him provide his brand of sick, obsessive focus on gay America.

MAN: “Each supervisor will be held personally responsible to underline in green pencil the names of individuals who are alleged to be sex deviates. Very truly yours, John Edgar Hoover.”

MAN: He’s instructing his people to become plants in each arm of the federal government, to identify potential accused homosexuals, report back to him and then let them investigate.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: The plants were also instructed to leak the names of gays, in some cases anonymously, to their employers.

DOUG CHARLES: In terms of FBI abuses, this ranks at the top.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Doug Charles is the author of a new book, “Hoover’s War on Gays.”

DOUG CHARLES: It was an effort to silence them. It was an effort to ruin their lives, because if you were exposed as gay in the 1950s or 1960s, your life as you knew it was over.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You can watch the entire documentary at