Read the headlines: The race between the United States and China to develop cutting-edge technology is frequently likened to the Cold War. That’s at least in part because, just as with nuclear weapons, advances in technology such as artificial intelligence are perceived as conferring profound military benefits to whichever country achieves them. But two Harvard researchers are pointing to another, perhaps subtler, parallel between the current US-China tech competition and Cold War-era dynamics: homophobia.
The Chinese company that owns Grindr, which markets itself as the “largest social networking app for gay, bi, trans, and queer people,” has reportedly reached an agreement to sell the app after facing pressure from the US interagency committee that monitors foreign investment in the country, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). One key US government concern: Chinese agents could use information from Grindr to blackmail people with security clearances, according to The Wall Street Journal.
In a recent Guardian article, however, Harvard researchers Julian Gewirtz and Moira Weigel point out how that logic is not so different from the conventional thinking during the so-called Lavender Scare. Haven’t heard of that chapter in Cold War history? You’re probably not alone.
The Cold War-era Red scare, in which the rabid anti-communist crusader Sen. Joseph McCarthy played a star role, is well-known. McCarthy is a household name. Less well-known is a sexual orientation subplot: The Wisconsin senator explicitly linked gay people to the alleged communist conspiracy to infiltrate the US government. He believed gay people were easy targets for communist recruiters because “they had what he called ‘peculiar mental twists,’” historian Judith Adkins writes. (Adkins’ article in the National Archives’ Prologue Magazine is a worthy read.)
An influential report from the Lavender Scare era, Employment of Homosexuals and other Sex Perverts in Government, makes points that unfortunately might not be as anachronistic as its title and language certainly are. The Senate report from 1950 includes observations like “the pervert is easy prey to the blackmailer … Espionage agents can use the same type of pressure” for extortion.
Intelligence agencies have long leveraged sexual information to turn targets into agents, but Gewirtz and Weigel suggest that the US government’s concern over Grindr reflects a belief that gay people “are uniquely prey to blackmail in a way” straight people aren’t. “In 2019, these ideas still have traction.”
They cite a Washington Post article, for instance, which they say asks readers to imagine “what a creative team of Chinese security forces could do with its access to Grindr’s data.” The article suggests Chinese agents could leak photos of gay generals or send “male honeypots” to targets involved in US national security. “The special scrutiny paid to the supposed liabilities of gay men reflects lingering conservative ideas that homosexuality must always be a source of shame and danger,” Gewirtz and Weigel write.
The Trump administration and the leadership in Beijing are seemingly ratcheting up tensions between the two countries on an almost daily basis. Gewirtz and Weigel write that US officials need to deal with issues related to the US-China tech completion without “reprising past scares that damage our own society.”