Later this month the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to decide whether the unions of same sex couples have the same legal status as heterosexual marriages. Not coincidentally, Yahoo producer Mike Isikoff has released a documentary that disinters the suicide of Wyoming Sen. Lester Hunt. Hunt’s story is a reminder that when politicians bully people about personal behavior, with government as a cudgel, the results are often toxic and tragic.
The documentary is about the Austin 12 — a group of Republicans who thought they’d convinced President George W. Bush to apply his “compassionate conservatism” to gay issues. Then his 2004 presidential campaign decided to support a constitutional “marriage protection” amendment, an issue strategists thought would engage social conservative voters likely to support Republican candidates. That betrayal led Austin 12 founder Charles Francis to research the treatment of gays in government over the last half a century — and that led him to Lester Hunt’s story.
Hunt was a dentist from Lander, a Democrat who was elected Governor in 1942 and U.S. Senator from Wyoming in 1948. That was the era of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) and his demagoguery about Communist infiltration of the federal government. McCarthy had lists — waved at hearings but not shared — of card-carrying Reds, and homophobia was one of his tools: a homosexual in government, he thundered, could be blackmailed by foreign spies into revealing secrets.
Former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson (R-Wyo.), whose father served as governor and senator shortly after Hunt, describes Hunt as “a gentle giant of a guy” — who nevertheless stood up to McCarthy in the Senate. With Congress evenly split between Republicans and Democrats in 1952, McCarthy saw an opportunity to knock off Democrat Hunt and gain a Republican majority. The ammunition he used was the arrest of his son, Lester “Buddy” Hunt, Jr., for soliciting a male undercover officer for sex in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, one night in 1953.
Rodger McDaniel, in his book Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins (Wordsworth, 2013), explored the ways in which McCarthy and his cohorts tightened the screws on Hunt. Charles Francis has unearthed documents that show how vigorously J. Edgar Hoover and other federal officials pursued “sex deviates” in government. The agent who arrested Buddy Hunt was part of a “pervert elimination squad.”
The senator and his wife stood by their son, appearing in court with him and paying the $500 fine imposed. Hunt said he would run for reelection, but he dropped from public sight. Then he dropped out of the race, citing health problems. But he also wrote privately that he was being “blackmailed,” the documentary reveals, and that his opponents threatened to distribute 25,000 pamphlets to Wyoming voters detailing his son’s arrest. On June 19, 1954, he carried a rifle into his Senate office and took his own life.
“He couldn’t handle that,” said Simpson, who I interviewed for the Yahoo documentary. “That’s beyond the pale of politics … Evil things out of MacBeth.”
Gay behavior, and gay marriage, is a Biblical violation to some on the religious right, and the most nuanced argument will not likely change their views. But there are many who are more irritated than outraged by openly gay behavior, and to whom the gay marriage issue is more about flaunting a lifestyle than protecting and extending an essential freedom.
But the Lester Hunt story — and the other stories in the Austin 12 documentary — are reminders of the real cost of stigmatizing a minority, both in terms of personal anguish and in terms of squandered lives that could have contributed more to society. The Supreme Court in April heard and read an enormous volume of argument, but whatever Lester Hunt might have added was muted by his rifle half a century ago.
When I was covering the Wyoming legislature, I observed the struggle between two wings of conservative thought — those who feel their religious or moral values should be enforced in the lives of their neighbors; and those with a more libertarian bent who felt that restricting the reach of government was especially important in matters of personal behavior. Though some of our legislators have voiced their opposition to gay marriage in a brief to the Supreme Court, resistance to legislating rules for private behavior has historically been a distinctive element of Wyoming politics.
Tolerance doesn’t require a joyous embrace. It doesn’t matter whether you’re put off by gay sex acts, whatever you imagine them to be. It’s merely an acceptance that the private behavior of others that does us no harm is not the provenance of government, and the rights conferred on each of us by government should be shared by all of us.
Lester “Buddy” Hunt spoke to Rodger McDaniel for his book, and on camera for the “Austin 12” documentary. He was 20 years old that night in Lafayette Park in 1953, and has stayed out of the limelight for 60 years, raising a family and working as a community organizer. He remembers his father proudly as a man of principle, and says of himself at that time, “I don’t think I knew who I was.”
He has lived a productive life. Fluent in Spanish, he taught in the poverty-stricken villages of pre-Castro Cuba. He worked as a community organizer in black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods in Chicago. He was an associate professor of history at Richard J. Daley College. He has been married for half a century, and has two daughters and granddaughters. He holds the witch hunters accountable, but memorializes his father’s character and decency.
That’s who he is.