J. Edgar Hoover had long been obsessed with moral issues, using sex crime panics and anti-obscenity campaigns to burnish the FBI’s reputation with the public. He helped to protect his position and increase his powers as head of the FBI by keeping secret files on the sex lives of politicians, including allegations of homosexuality; for example, the only card from that file that was not destroyed after Hoover’s death is one on two-time Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, detailing rumors that he had been arrested for homosexual activity. Beginning in 1951, he maintained a formal “sex deviates” program that, as one of its activities, would contact the Civil Service Commission or other government agencies with the names of suspected homosexuals, leading to their dismissal.
In addition to these activities, Hoover’s FBI spied on a wide variety of domestic organizations, spying that only began to be revealed shortly before Hoover’s death in 1972, as a result of a break-in to FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania. The FBI’s surveillance included the Mattachine Society, which they initially suspected of being a Communist front organization. They would attempt to destroy gay organizing shortly thereafter by attacking the earliest gay rights magazine, ONE, as being obscene. This effort failed when, in 1958, the Supreme Court surprisingly decided in its ONE v. Olesen decision, that a magazine directed toward homosexuals was not automatically obscene. This was the first U.S. legal victory for gays and lesbians as a group. It did not, however, mark the end of FBI surveillance of gay and lesbian organizations, including D.C.’s first sustained gay organization, the Mattachine Society of Washington.