Far from being the merely the stuff of rumour and sexy-Black-Widow-Russian-stereotypes (which, in all honesty, was largely my impression going in), western nationals being seduced and blackmailed by Soviet agents was a surprisingly well-documented thing – and though heterosexual entrapments were probably far more common, the threat of exposure of homosexual leanings made blackmail that much more potent. Four examples that can be found pretty easily via a little googling are that of Joseph Alsop, an American journalist who'd worked for the CIA in 1957, John Vassall, a civil servant who worked at the British Embassy in Moscow in 1954, Jeremy Wolfenden, another foreign corespondent and British spy in the early 1960's, and John Watkins, a Canadian ambassador in 1956 – all set up during visits to Moscow, photographed and blackmailed by Soviet agents. It's worth keeping in mind, moreover, that Alsop and Wolfenden are known specifically because they were brave enough to go directly to their superiors and admit the whole thing. One can only imagine how many more such operations might have happened, and simply never come to light.
Similarly, we can only speculate whether the ‘Soviet agents’ responsible for seducing these men were actually trained KGB or just some poor rentboy they’d pulled off the street and press-ganged into service, though the line may be blurry in places. Some sources from the hazier, conspiracy-theorist end of my reference list suggest that threats of homosexual blackmail were just as useful to the KGB in recruiting their own native agents – regardless of nationality, men with something to hide were that much easier to control. Were these agents actually trained in seduction, though? Again, details are sketchy – all the more salacious anecdotes about KGB sex-agent-harems seem to refer to female operatives, and the sources may be dubious, but at least one report traces back to a 2002 article from Pravda (effectively the Russian broadsheet newspaper since the Revolution). If popular culture is guilty of exaggerating the sexy-Russian-agent stereotype, it's not without plausible foundations.
But the story doesn't end there. Though homosexuality was as taboo and illegal in the USSR as in most of the West, several key events would inextricably link it with communism in the mindset of the Cold War era. While most of us have probably heard of the Red Scare – the devastating witch hunt for ‘communist sympathisers’ or 'reds under the bed' which gripped the US through the 1950s – fewer are likely familiar with the parallel ‘Lavender Scare’, which sought to expose and purge LGBT members from the same communities, because of the security risk they were seen to pose.
In fact, probably the greatest communist spy bust of the 20th Century, the exposure of the Cambridge Spy Ring, involved a group homosexual British Intelligence agents publicly unmasked as double agents working for the Soviets since the 1930s. It's difficult to overstate just how big a scandal this was – one of the ring was the actual head of the anti-Soviet counter-intelligence in MI6 (ie, the man directly responsible for rooting out double-agents like himself) and had even consulted in the US during the establishment of the CIA, while others may have been responsible for leaking secrets behind the atomic bomb to the Soviets. In actual fact, only two of the (known) men involved (Guy Burgress and Anthony Blunt) were definitely homosexual – a third, Donald Maclean, was probably bisexual, while two others, Kim Philby and John Cairncross, were entirely heterosexual. Some sources even argue it may have been Philby's first wife, Litzi Friedman, who was responsible for putting them all in contact with Moscow to begin with, which could really take the wind out of the 'sinister homosexual conspiracy' angle. But such minor technical details were hardly going to sway public perceptions, especially when Burgress and Maclean were the first of the ring to have all their secrets outed to the press in 1956. (None of the ring seem to have been in relationships with one another, for the record – just university buddies with interests in common.)
And the association between homosexuality and communist sympathies didn’t end there either – further support came directly from one of the highest profile KGB defectors of the era, Alexander Orlov, who defected to the west during Stalin's Great Purge of former party members in 1938. While debates over the validity of some of the intelligence Orlov supplied may never be settled, there seems to be little doubt that he was at one time the KGB handler of the Cambridge Ring, and information he'd later supply to the CIA made particular note of how the KGB went out of its way to recruit homosexual double agents in his (now helpfully declassified) essay On the Theory and Practice of Soviet Intelligence:
Considerable success was achieved among foreign diplomats tinted with homosexual perversions; it is no secret that the biggest concentration of homosexuals can be found in the diplomatic services of Western countries. Those of these who agreed to work for the Russian network were instructed to approach other homosexual members of the diplomatic corps, a strategy which was remarkably successful. Even when those approached declined the offer to collaborate, they would not denounce the recruiter to the authorities. Soviet intelligence officers were amazed at the mutual consideration and true loyalty which prevailed among homosexuals.
The rather fascinating notion that "the biggest concentration of homosexuals can be found in the diplomatic services" is, for the record, something I've since seen repeated in just enough other sources to believe there might be something to it, but the specific association between spies and homosexuality is both stronger and better documented still. A 1999 article from The Independent, So what's new about gay spies? recounts a tantalising anecdote about an unnamed "student, later to become a famous Sunday newspaper correspondent" who was "approached to join MI6" in "the good old days when Britain's secret services recruited only at Oxbridge". This particular recruit turned down the opportunity when his (male) interviewer ("a master spy, later to become head of the service") came onto him while making his pitch. The same article also has more concrete details to share, in the form of Alex Kellar, director of MI5's F Branch in the mid 1960's, who was homosexual, and likely also Maurice Oldfield, who was chief of MI6 until 1978 (and possibly one of the parties involved in the anecdote above). A bit of poking around other articles and google books suggested both these names are pretty well substantiated, and found me a quote from John le Carre (former MI5/MI6 and author of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) repeating the story that homosexuality was by no means uncommon in the British Secret Service of the Cold War era. Maxwell Knight, another British spymaster (whose incredible list of career credits include masterminding crucial anti-fascist and anti-communist efforts between the 20s and the 40s, spearheading the use of female agents, writing the book on British sexpionage, and directly inspiring the Ian Fleming character M) has likewise been variously described as homosexual or bisexual – evidently far too good a secret agent to leave us with a definitive answer.
Official policies against the hiring of homosexuals seem to have had little effect. The Independent's claim that "Right from their formation in 1909, Britain's secret services have been thick with homosexual officers, as has the opposition," might not be any exaggeration at all.
And perhaps the idea that a secret services career might appeal to homosexuals shouldn't be so surprising. Researching this topic has meant seeing the point made again and again that members of the LGBT community – particularly in times past, where the art of maintaining a largely falsified cover identity and making covert contacts could be crucial to their survival in mainstream society – came to the job ready-trained. Nowadays, MI5 actually goes out of its way to encourage LGBT persons to join, for reasons both deliberately inclusive and simply practical. But in past eras when homosexuals were necessarily social outcasts and criminals by orientation, perhaps stewing in a lifetime’s resentment against society, they were also potential targets for conversion to ‘alternative’ philosophies such as communism, who might be easily turned against the state. And for those who resisted, the possibility they might be turned by blackmail still remained.The KGB weren't targeting them for nothing.
Small wonder the fear of homosexuals lurking in civil services so quickly had America by the balls.
Lest all this homophobia begin to sound a little too rational, rest assured that by no means all the voices of the era were inclined to limit themselves to the bounds of reason. An influential article by a German woman by the name of R. G. Waldeck – influential enough to make it into the congressional record in 1952 – went so far as to posit the existence of a sinister "Homosexual International" – a massive conspiracy of homosexuals who had (supposedly) infiltrated every level of government. Waldeck does seem to have had enough experience with the diplomatic services that her claims (echoing those of Orlov) to have seen "little sodoms functioning within embassies of foreign countries" may not be entirely without merit. When it comes to rationalising why this ought to be a concern, however, is where the argument rapidly devolves into vagaries and fear-mongering. Though she admits outright that a homosexual diplomat can "do as well by his country as a normal one, and sometimes better," and even that many are "harmless" and that we must not "throw them all into the same pot" as the "dangerous" variety, she also declares that homosexuals are "natural secret agents and natural traitors", who "by the very nature of their vice [...] belong to a sinister, mysterious and efficient international", which constitutes "a world-wide conspiracy against society". (Actual evidence of any such conspiracy is obviously superfluous at this point.)
In a pattern familiar to so many bigoted diatribes, Waldeck's targets are painted with so many negative traits that the picture quickly becomes muddled with contradiction. Members of this "efficient, international conspiracy" are "too unstable to withstand the pressures and conflicts inherent in the struggle between East and West" (nevermind that by her own account they've been very successfully dominating international diplomacy for years). Also, if the gays aren't out there becoming communists, then the communists are probably making us gay: "Some astute observers insisted that the disturbing increase in homosexuality [...] is the result of a Moscow-directed propaganda expressly designed to corrode the issues of capitalist society." If you're starting to get the feeling Waldeck is all of a few short steps short of launching into a spiel about bodily fluids and Zionist conspiracies before keeling over sideways foaming at the mouth, you're not alone.
The sad fact is that LGBT members in government positions didn't need to have done anything remotely treasonous to inadvertently help kick off a witch-hunt – a single political rival with a grudge was all it took. Waldeck makes much of the Harden-Eulenburg Affair – a huge political scandal from Germany in the early 1900's where several members of Kaiser Wilhelm's inner circle were exposed as homosexual. In the US, a key event later used as justification for the Lavender Scare was the political downfall of Sumner Welles in 1940 , an important figure in the State Department and close friend of President Roosevelt. Note that neither Wilhelm nor Roosevelt cared one whit about the unconventional sexual orientations of their friends, and both did their best to protect and cover for them. But for political rivals who resented their influence, their orientations were highly convenient targets, and the wider public wasn't nearly so forgiving as the likes of Roosevelt or the Kaiser.The irony of the fact that it is precisely the culture of homosexual persecution that made them ‘natural’ traitors and 'security threats' was, of course, quite lost on the likes of Senator McCarthy and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover as the Lavender Scare took hold, and the persecution of homosexuals ratcheted up into full gear. No-one was above suspicion – even both McCarthy and Hoover themselves would be accused of homosexuality before long (surprisingly, there may even be some truth to such rumours, though we'll never know for sure).
Like the Red Scare, the peak of the Lavender Scare was the 1950s, though the ongoing effects on culture lasted much longer. It's hard to get a feel for exactly how many livelihoods were ruined or jobs lost to the victims of the period, but one of the more detailed sources I could find on the web, an extended article by Yale Professor William Eskridge, Privacy Jurisprudence and the Apartheid of the Closet 1946-1961, reports that, "The anti- homosexual witch hunt overwhelmed the anti-Communist witch hunt in importance. Between 1947 and April 1, 1950, an average of five homosexuals were dismissed from the civil service each month; the average went up to sixty per month between April and November and remained at double-digit monthly levels through 1955." In some cases, people might lose their jobs for as little as a single past arrest (and that's an arrest, not a conviction) for loitering near a known gay-cruising area, or to admitting to having merely wondered about what it might be like to have sex with someone of the same gender. The legal system of the time made homosexuals a much easier target than communists for commissions and investigations, and left the victims without recourse to defend themselves.
And though the US may have lead the world, it was far from being the only nation responsible for fanning the flames. In Canada, the civil service even trialed a machine that was supposed to be able to detect homosexuality by measuring a subject's response to pornographic imagery (in reality, the machine never worked, and the nickname of the "fruit machine" can't have helped its credibility, but it was still apparently used to justify the firings of any number of people). Perhaps the highest profile victim of all the Lavender Scare was Britain's Alan Turing, whose code-breaking work at Blechly park was crucial to counter-intelligence operations during WWII. Turing was a bonafide war hero – there’s precisely zero evidence his loyalty to his country was ever in doubt – yet because he was a homosexual, he was sentenced to chemical castration in 1952. Debates continue as to whether his death from cyanide poisoning two years later was truly a suicide or merely a laboratory accident, but the possibility that it was a direct consequence of his persecution at the hands of the law has long been the most widely repeated version of his story.
Many sources go so far as to suggest that the damage done and lives ruined by the Lavender Scare far exceeded that done by the Red Scare, yet as with so much LGBT history, relatively few people seem to be aware that the Lavender Scare took place at all. But for all the doom and gloom, there is some reason for optimism that the record is starting to be set straight. A 2013 documentary was dedicated entirely to the subject of the Lavender Scare, and for all its flaws, the 2014 movie about Alan Turing did at least tackle the subject of his treatment by the law unapologetically, and helped spark new discussion about the topic. Nowadays, the CIA openly celebrates its LGBT members, while MI5 has been recognised by the UK Stonewall charity as one of the most inclusive employers in the country. It's taken a long time, but change is finally coming.In retrospect though, it’s hard not to snicker a little at the absurdity of this particular era of gay panic – the morbid fear of gay communist spies lurking under every bed – that went so far as to speeches made to congress about the sinister ‘Homosexual International’, preparing to undermine all of western society. If nothing else, open mockery is the least of the shame that period of history deserves.
Dragging all this back to the fandom that got me started on the subject, what does all this mean for fic-writers working in the era? IMHO, pretty much whatever you want it to. Though realistically, it might not make a lot of sense for an agent as valuable as Illya to be trained for gay-baiting operations, it's arguably no less unrealistic than anything else about how the world of espionage is portrayed in the show, so if people really want to keep playing with that trope, I'm not going to be the one to tell them not to (though, y'know, do keep in mind we do have actual Russians in this fandom, and they do read fic, and my impression is that the more sensationalist takes on the KGB don't always go down well).
The overwhelming atmosphere of homophobia of the period certainly could inform fic possibilities in ways that might be interesting (if depressing) to explore. There's been plenty of excellent fic that dealt explicitly with the Cold War tensions of the era, and the Lavender Scare could very much be part of that, if you'd like to go down that route (and I know I've seen at least a couple of fics out there that do). But once again, you're by no means obligated to address it. The Man from UNCLE was, after all, quite deliberately set in a world where the US/Russian tensions were almost never mentioned, and Cold War may or may not have existed in any form we'd recognise at all. It arguably wouldn't be much of a stretch to interpret UNCLE as a world where the Lavender Scare never really took hold either.
It could also be interesting to note that in Mr. Waverly's younger years, the ubiquity of homosexuality in the British Secret Services was very much an open secret. An excellent case could be made that he, personally, might see gay spies as a wholly unremarkable part of the business.
And on that note, I have fic of my own to be working on (and which I'd probably be a lot further along with by now if non-fictional history didn't keep turning out to be so interesting).
If you would like to read more on the subject, here's some of what I read (if not necessarily cover-to-cover) while looking into the subject. Most of these are linked somewhere in the text above, but here's a list by title.
Articles available on the webSo what's new about gay spies?
The era when gay spies were feared
Gay Files: History's grim closet
9 Things To Know About The Lavender Scare
How MI5 became Britain's most inclusive employer
Inside file: Gay diplomats are safer in the closet
The love that dared not speak its name in the Foreign Office
Cambridge Spy ring+Litzi Freedman
The Cambridge spy ring: what the biographers say
An interesting review of the 2003 BBC series about the Cambridge Ring
The Epic Honey Trap: A Classic Case Shows Just How Far Moscow Will Go
Books and other extended sources
PRIVACY JURISPRUDENCE AND THE APARTHEID OF THE CLOSET
The Theory and Practice of Soviet Intelligence
The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government
The Homosexual International
Homintern: How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World
KGB: The Secret Work of the Soviet Secret Agents
2013 Documentary on the Lavender Scare
Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History — link will take you directly to a section with some personal stories of some of the victims of the scare