Archive Activism Uncovers LGBTQ+ Communities' Deleted Histories - McDermott Will & Emery

Archive Activism Uncovers LGBTQ+ Communities’ Deleted Histories


Animus meted out by the federal government against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTQ+) Americans was sealed, classified or unavailable to the public for many decades. The evidentiary history of discriminatory action against the LGBTQ+ community was at risk of being forgotten or simply “deleted.”


Uncover documents and stories evidencing discrimination against LGBTQ+ Americans with the goal of preserving history to ensure it is never repeated.


McDermott developed a longstanding partnership with the Mattachine Society of Washington DC (MSDC) with a focus on uncovering the deleted histories of LGBTQ+ Americans.

A team of 20+ lawyers from across the country pursued an aggressive legal strategy filing dozens of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, appealing when necessary, making clear that litigation was always an option and applying public pressure through the use of targeted media.

Our unique approach has become widely known as “archive activism,” the motto of the Mattachine Society of Washington, DC.

“Our partnership with McDermott is unique in its passion and scale. Together we can execute a truly multifaceted strategy of FOIA requests, legal research and analysis and litigation in order to rescue the LGBTQ+ political and legal past from total erasure,” said Charles Francis, President of the Mattachine Society of Washington, DC.

Archive activism has since uncovered both new and previously declassified government material, which paints a picture of deeply embedded animus against LGBTQ+ Americans. Among the uncovered documents are:

  • A 1951 FBI memo approved by Director Hoover directing the FBI to seek out all “sex deviates in government service.”
  • Internal memoranda and letters revealing Hoover’s successful effort to oust President Eisenhower’s trusted political advisor, Arthur Vandenburg, Jr., the son of a sitting US senator, based on suspicions that Vandenburg was gay.
  • Documents revealing the terrifying history of the Civil Service Commission (CSC), the agency tasked with enforcing J. Edgar Hoover’s Sex Deviate Program and Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450, which sought to purge all homosexuals from government service. An internal memorandum from CSC leadership referred to homosexuality as “something uniquely nasty, not just a form of immorality.”
  • Internal CSC documents reflecting the government’s attempt to terminate employee William Dew based solely on homosexual acts committed while he was a teenager. Dew was a heterosexual, married African-American veteran, and unlike thousands of others, Dew fought back and won. Our investigation revealed his story for the first time.
  • Internal Office of the General Counsel (OGC) documents from the CSC that reveal a decades-long bureaucratic commitment of Department of Justice and CSC lawyers to undermine successive federal court rulings in favor of LGBTQ+ plaintiffs.


What began as an exercise in document discovery blossomed into a number of signature projects in support of LGBTQ+ rights throughout the country.

McDermott’s partnership with MSDC resulted in an amicus brief in the landmark Supreme Court marriage equality case, Obergefell v. Hodges; an award-winning documentary produced by Yahoo!News investigative journalist Michael Isikoff; and most recently, a comprehensive white paper report examining the legal and political history of conversion therapy in the United States. Feature stories covering this work have been published by The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Associated Press.

Lisa A. Linsky, the New York partner who co-leads the MSDC Project with DC partner Paul Thompson, notes, “The work done by the McDermott team and the MSDC over the past seven years has resulted in the rescue of documents and other materials essential to the preservation of LGBTQ+ American history. With this evidentiary paper trail now uncovered and protected, legal scholars, legislators, judges, journalists and others have access to a robust body of knowledge that but for our efforts, would have been lost and the stories they tell, erased. The MSDC is Sherlock Holmes when tracking down LGBTQ+ American history, and is relentless in its efforts to inform the public about the forgotten, deleted and untold stories that aid in the fight for full civil equality.”

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