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Trump Admin. Purging Civil Servants Suspected Of Disloyalty


A trove of e-mails obtained by House Democrats reveal efforts by top State Department officials — working hand in hand with the White House, outside conservatives and right-wing media — to sideline and demote career civil servants who are seen as disloyal to President Trump.

The report on the emails set off alarm bells across Washington, D.C. and prompted Democrats on the House Oversight Committee to demand that the State Department hand over records of internal communications on the issue. Department officials have reportedly labeled certain career staffers “troublemaker,” “turncoat” and “Obama/Clinton loyalist” because of their work for past administrations.

But independent watchdog groups tracking the issue tell TPM the problem is not confined to the State Department, citing similar acts of retaliation against career staffers throughout the government.

“I think we’re seeing a pattern across a number of agencies,” Nick Schwellenbach, the Director of Investigations at the Project On Government Oversight, told TPM. “Top political leadership is working to root out people they view as insufficiently loyal to Trump’s agenda. It’s extremely troubling, because federal government employees’ loyalty should be to the Constitution, not to the political masters of the moment.”

Skirting the laws

Under federal laws dating back to the late 1800s, government workers can only be hired or fired based on their merit and work performance. It’s illegal to make those decisions based on political affiliations or patronage. Additional laws passed in the wake of Watergate and President Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre strengthened those protections, mandating that supervisors show cause for firing any federal worker and setting up the Merit Systems Protection Board for employees to appeal their cases. 

While several past administrations have still found ways to push out, reassign, or outright fire employees for political reasons, watchdog committees on Capitol Hill and outside good-government groups say the problem has escalated significantly under President Trump.

The Interior Department moved last year to reassign dozens of its longtime career staff, forcing some to either take jobs on the other side of the country or resign. One of those targeted for reassignment was Joel Clement, who was moved out of his job as director of the Office of Policy Analysis into an unrelated post in the accounting office. Clement said he believed the move happened in retaliation for his speaking out about the risks of climate change.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) director Mick Mulvaney is currently attempting to bring more political appointees into the agency. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who before entering the Senate helped create the CFPB, has warned that adding political appointees “could violate civil service laws designed to protect such employees from undue political pressure and discrimination.”

And State Department officials recently tried to reassign a career staffer after her Iranian last name and her work under the Obama administration were flagged by the likes of Breitbart and Newt Gingrich, according to emails given by a whistleblower to Democrats on the House Oversight Committee.

“I think a cleaning is in order here,” Gingrich wrote to State Department officials.

Lawmakers called the e-mails “extremely disturbing.”

“Over the past year, we have heard many reports of political attacks on career employees at the State Department, but we had not seen evidence of how extensive, blunt, and inappropriate these attacks were until now,” said Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Eliot Engel (D-NY), the top Democrats on the House Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees.

The lawmakers are demanding the Trump appointees turn over “documents regarding any reassignment or proposed reassignment of career or civil service employees at the Department, including any based on alleged personal political beliefs and prior service with previous Administrations.” But without cooperation from their Republican counterparts, they are unable to subpoena the documents, if the State Department stonewalls them.

Changing the laws and their arbiters

Employees who feel they have faced unfair retaliation can appeal their cases to the Merit Systems Protection Board, but the board currently has just one member and is unable to hear cases until more are confirmed. As of the end of 2017, the board had the longest backlog of cases in its history, topping more than 750. Two men nominated by President Trump to serve on the board are currently awaiting Senate confirmation. 

With this key resource for federal workers unavailable, President Trump and his allies in Congress are openly calling for laws to roll back protections for government employees. Lawmakers and advocates say such measures could make it much easier for Trump administration appointees to target career staffers for political reasons.

In his first State of the Union speech in January, Trump asked Congress “to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.” 

Whistleblower advocates like Schwellenbach say they fear that will mean more laws like the one passed in 2017 to overhaul the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs, which reports have found led to a mass purge of rank-and-file employees for minor infractions.  

“The VA is a petri dish,” Schwellenbach said. “The law there is really being used in ways not intended by Congress. It is disproportionately going after lower-level people instead of holding senior officials accountable for wrongdoing in the department.” 

A slew of bills recently introduced by House Republicans would implement the weakened employee protections now in place at the VA and other government agencies.

The Labor Department Accountability Act and Education Department Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act replicate the VA’s legislative language almost exactly, giving the secretaries at those agencies more authority to swiftly  suspend, involuntarily reassign, demote or remove employees.

The Promote Accountability and Government Efficiency (PAGE) Act would classify all new federal hires as “at-will” employees, meaning they could be “removed or suspended, without notice or right to appeal, from service by the head of the agency at which such employee is employed for good cause, bad cause or no cause at all.”

And the Modern Employment Reform, Improvement, and Transformation (MERIT) would allow Cabinet secretaries to fire any employee, provided they give a notice in writing, and would limit the employee’s ability to appeal the case to the MSPB.

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Spending bill could quash Minor League Baseball players’ wage claims

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Top congressional leaders are considering whether to grant a blanket exemption to baseball owners in a bid to forestall litigation.

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How Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin became the Trump Cabinet’s most endangered member

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A personality clash that’s really about policy.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin hasn’t made many headlines. He was confirmed by a 100-0 vote in the United States Senate early in President Trump’s term after a few years of service as a sub-Cabinet official under President Obama; it’s probably fair to call him the least controversial member of the Trump administration. Even a minor scandal involving Wimbledon tickets and improperly billing the public for his wife’s airfare didn’t generate many Democratic calls for firing or investigation.

And yet over the past few months, Shulkin’s position has quietly become untenable.

His relationship with his own staff at Veterans Affairs has become toxic to the point where he’s posted an armed guard outside his office door. As part of the breakdown, the VA communications team has been openly trashing their boss to the press. In response, Shulkin has freelanced in his own communications with the media, going outside normal administration channels. And Axios reported over the weekend that Trump, in an effort to get a handle on the situation, organized an impromptu conference call with Shulkin and Fox & Friends cohost Pete Hegseth, an Iraq War veteran and Trump confidant on whom the president relies for expertise in veterans’ matters.

The situation appeared to be at a boiling point Tuesday evening when the White House leaked simultaneously to multiple outlets that Trump was leaning toward asking Energy Secretary Rick Perry to take over the VA.

Somewhat oddly, Shulkin isn’t in the hot seat because anything is particularly wrong with the VA’s work or because of anything he’s done. Rather, the issue is precisely that Shulkin isn’t doing enough for conservatives’ tastes. Instead, he’s in line with the preferences of most veterans groups, taking a deliberate pace toward reform rather than pushing to blow up the agency with a big push for privatization.

There’s no particularly good reason for Trump to ensnare himself in a contentious fight with veterans groups in order to pursue a conservative ideological hobbyhorse — and, in fact, he initially appointed Shulkin precisely to avoid doing that. But the very lack of policy knowledge and inattention to detail that often gives Trump’s governing style a sheen of moderation serves, in practice, to consistently empower the most radical and right-wing elements inside the GOP coalition.

It all goes back to the big VA scandals

The origins of this standoff date back to the scandals that rocked the VA health system in early 2014. The basic story there came down to three parts:

  1. The VA’s hospitals didn’t have the doctors and nurses to see veterans — many from the Vietnam War and a growing number from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars — in a timely manner.
  2. The VA set wait time goals, which were backed by bonus payments, to see patients within 14 days of a requested date of appointment.
  3. The VA’s central office in Washington, DC, engaged in very little oversight over its sprawling system of local hospitals and medical centers.

The upshot of this was that rather than responding to inadequate resources by reporting the problems up the chain, officials in the field responded to financial incentives by falsifying records and ultimately compromising patients’ care.

Conservatives hoped to use the resulting scandal to push for big structural changes to how veterans’ health care works in the United States, with a much larger role for private providers and much less direct government provision of health care. A big problem with that vision, however, is that veterans organizations have traditionally opposed it — they want the VA to provide an excellent standard of care but are committed to the basic vision of special purpose institutions who exist to serve veterans’ health care needs.

Ultimately, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) struck a major compromise that only tinkered around the edges of privatization by creating a pilot program that reimburses private care for veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or experience long wait times. Primarily, however, the legislation was dedicated to pumping new funds into the system and correcting some of the previous incentives that created problems. Concurrently, retired Gen. Eric Shinseki was forced out as secretary of veterans affairs and replaced by Bob McDonald, a veteran and Procter & Gamble executive whose political contributions over the years had gone exclusively to Republicans.

Armed with new authority and new money by the McCain-Sanders legislation and backed by an overwhelming 97-0 confirmation vote, McDonald set about to clean house. And it basically worked.

VA reform worked — that’s the problem

Candidate Trump loudly and frequently condemned the Obama administration’s treatment of veterans, frequently (and absurdly) arguing that under Obama, veterans were treated worse than undocumented immigrants. Trump, in his typical manner, rarely offered any particular policy critique of the Obama administration’s approach — he just vaguely invoked the scandals (which were better-publicized than the subsequent bipartisan legislation or successful reforms) and tossed it into the general stew of racial and cultural animosity of his campaign message.

Trump was, therefore, somewhat surprised to learn after taking office that veterans liked McDonald, thought he was doing a good job, and broadly opposed rocking the boat.

But on December 11, the nation’s largest veterans organizations — including the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America, and Amvets — came together to tell Trump to keep McDonald.

“We all want McDonald,” Joe Chenelly, the executive director of Amvets, told the New York Times. “He has a good business mind, he is experienced and we feel we can trust him.”

Trump was not, however, willing to admit that his campaign rhetoric had been entirely inaccurate, so he insisted on firing McDonald anyway. As a compromise, he nominated David Shulkin, who had been the VA’s undersecretary for health affairs, to serve as secretary. That paired veterans’ goals of continuity with Trump’s goal of avoiding an admission of error, though, of course, the fact that Shulkin had been specifically tasked with running health programs was an implicit admission that the Obama-era reform process had in fact been successful.

And in a normal administration, it might have ended there. But this is the Trump administration.

Trump surrounded Shulkin with enemies

One oddity of the American system of government is that since political appointments are made by the president, Cabinet secretaries typically end up having relatively little say in the selection of their own subordinates. There are exceptions, of course, like James Mattis in the Trump administration or Hillary Clinton in the Obama administration, who have enough clout to effectively control personnel matters in their department. But the rule is that you have to deal with the people the president sends you.

Normally, though, an administration makes some sort of effort to send a coherent team that’s united around reasonably similar goals and priorities.

The Trump transition operation, however, wasn’t run that way. And while the president-elect personally selected Shulkin to carry out a mandate of continuity, the transition team generally staffed the VA with hardcore right-wingers who were committed to the conservative vision of VA privatization.

Trump himself, meanwhile, has neither the ability nor the inclination to actually parse this on the level of policy. But Shulkin’s enemies appear, according to Jonathan Swan’s reporting for Axios, to have successfully cast his problems with his staff as a question of loyalty to Trump personally. “In the view of senior officials,” Swan writes, “there’s a difference between discreetly and professionally handling staffing issues and publicly embarrassing and firing supporters of the president.”

And of course there is a difference between those things. But Trump’s personality-focused view of the situation is also distracting him from the significant policy stakes here, where the American Legion, Vietnam Veterans of America, and other veterans groups continue to support Shulkin as a bulwark against privatization while the newer Koch-funded group Concerned Veterans of America advocates for it.

Fundamentally, in other words, the Shulkin drama isn’t really about staffing issues. It’s about how Trump’s haziness on policy questions, while often giving him a superficial appearance of moderation, tends in practice to push him relentlessly toward far-right positions.

Trump may be stumbling into a big political fight

Most members of Congress hold safe seats, and most of the time, Congress’s many veto points can be counted on to prevent anything from passing. Consequently, it’s generally safe and easy for members of Congress to sign on as agreeing with their party base’s most aggressive ideological goals, secure in the knowledge that probably nothing will happen, and even if it does, your odds of being defeated on Election Day are objectively very low.

Presidents face a different situation — they are actually capable of influencing events, are generally held responsible by the public for outcomes, and need to run in fiercely contested national elections.

That’s why typically you find presidents acting as forces for caution on many issues. A president will usually have a handful of key priorities that he pushes aggressively while trying to put other things on the back burner. Why, for example, would an incumbent Republican president want to pick a big fight with veterans groups when veterans have generally been supportive of him and there’s no particularly urgent problem at the VA?

One answer, obviously, could be a deep, personal, ideological commitment to VA privatization. But Trump, of course, does not have any particularly firm policy convictions outside of immigration and trade.

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Losing An NCAA Tournament Game From Every Seed Isn’t Easy, But These Schools Are Trying

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A few familiar Cinderellas have provided some of the greatest moments in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. But every shocking upset from a ragtag mid-major also means something else: a big-name school has fallen on its face in spectacular fashion.

And it seems certain big-name schools are more prone to this than others. In tournaments over the past 10 years, Georgetown has lost its opening-round game playing as a No. 3, No. 6 and No. 2 seed. Arizona won a title and made a second Final Four in the 1990s but also peppered that decade with four losses in the opening round — and in each, the Wildcats were seeded No. 5 or better.

So are certain schools uniquely susceptible to March heartache? We looked back over every team’s opening-round game since the tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985 — including the round of 64 and the play-in games known as the First Four.3 Some higher seeds do seem to head home early more than others — and a few of those well-known names are putting together an interesting range of losses.

In the past 33 tournaments, 22 teams have made opening-round exits at least eight times.4 But most of those teams have typically been underdogs — teams that want to win, of course, but aren’t strictly supposed to. Brigham Young, for example, has lost its opening game 12 times, including once in the First Four, but never as a seed better than eighth.5 Only eight of those 22 teams were seeded better than their opponent in half or more of their opening-round losses. One of those teams is Arizona, which has lost 11 times in the round of 64 and as the better seed in six of those games — most recently in 2016 as a No. 6 seed to a Wichita State team that had to win a play-in game just to be there. Missouri and Indiana have each lost 10 round-of-64 games, though only five of the Tigers’ losses came as the better seed, while the Hoosiers were the better seed in eight of their defeats.

Some early exits were more predictable than others

Men’s college basketball teams with at least eight losses in their opening games, including the First Four and round of 64, in the NCAA Tournament, 1985-2017

School Opening-round losses Share as better seed than opponent
Brigham Young 13 31%
Arizona 11 55
New Mexico State 11 18
Pennsylvania 11 0
Missouri 10 50
Murray State 10 0
Indiana 9 78
Oklahoma 9 56
Temple 9 33
Xavier 9 22
Princeton 9 11
Iona 9 0
Utah State 9 0
Texas 8 75
Georgia 8 50
Louisiana State 8 50
Vanderbilt 8 50
Davidson 8 0
East Tenn. State 8 0
Montana 8 0
Valparaiso 8 0

Source: sports-reference.com

Georgetown, however, doesn’t show up in our list of biggest opening-round losers, even though it suffered high-profile losses to Florida Gulf Coast in 2013 and Ohio in 2010. Indeed, the Hoyas have lost at the start of the tournament only two other times since 1985, as a No. 6 seed in 2011 and a No. 10 seed in 1997.

But Georgetown does have something interesting in common with Arizona and Missouri, teams with high numbers of opening-round defeats. All three have lost an opening-round game as both a No. 2 and a No. 3 seed — a distinction they share with Duke, Iowa State, Michigan State and South Carolina.6

This got us thinking: If a team already has round-of-64 losses from two of the top three seeds, how many different seed lines could it lose from?

In this day and age, it would be tough to suffer opening-round defeat from every spot on the bracket (especially considering that a No. 16 has yet to fell a No. 1). Major-conference teams are almost guaranteed a seed somewhere between 1 and 11, so they have plenty of opportunities to fail from those seed slots.7 And 14 through 16 seeds are almost always automatic qualifiers from smaller conferences that will have a hard time ever reaching the higher seeds without moving to a power conference or magically transforming into Gonzaga. So, a reasonable goal — if you could call it that — might be to lose from 12 different seeds, or three-fourths of those possible.

It takes a special kind of program to have a diversified portfolio of early tournament losses. It has to be good enough to make the tournament often but not so good that it never loses its opener. So teams like Kansas are out: The Jayhawks have made the tournament every year but one since 19858 but have lost only two of their 32 round-of-64 matchups. (Duke is in a similar position, with only two opening-round losses other than its two highly seeded defeats.) The team also needs enough regular-season inconsistency from year to year to receive tourney bids from many different seeds — a program that’s good enough for a No. 4 seed one year but just the right amount of mediocre for a No. 10 seed the next.

This merit badge of losing might not be possible; no team has reached even the three-fourths mark. These are the programs with opening-round losses from at least six different seeds:

Schools that are consistently inconsistent

Men’s college basketball teams that have lost in the NCAA Tournament’s First Four or round of 64 from the most seeds, 1985-2017

Lost when seeded …
School 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 Total
Arizona 8
Missouri 8
Providence 7
Princeton 7
Iowa State 6
Indiana 6
New Mexico 6
W. Virginia 6
Nebraska 6
Georgia 6
Vanderbilt 6
La. State 6
Marquette 6
Murray State 6
Utah State 6
Pennsylvania 6

Source: Sports-Reference.com

These teams are closest to running the table, but they all still have a long way to go. Iowa State has some of the hardest seeds out of the way — losing as a No. 29 and No. 310 — but also handling the tricky 12 and 13 spots. To get to three-fourths of the seeds, all the Cyclones need to do is lose from those middle seeds of 4 through 7, 9 and 11. (For a long-suffering fan of the cardinal and gold, this feels like an attainable goal.)

West Virginia is another team with a good range of losses, and unlike the Cyclones, the Mountaineers actually have a chance to add to their total this year. West Virginia is seeded fifth in the East region — a seed from which it has never lost in the round of 64. The 5-vs.-12 matchups are already ripe for upsets, as we know, so I’ll be picking Murray State to take down the Mountaineers and hand them a fresh seed loss. Like Iowa State and West Virginia, Murray State has six differently seeded opening-round losses, but one of those already came from the No. 12 seed, unfortunately. Penn also could have built on its total this year, but it’s already lost as a No. 16 seed. (And, of course, we’re hoping that the Quakers make another kind of history.)

The teams on top of our loser’s bracket, Arizona and Missouri, have lost as eight different seeds, an impressive feat. Both teams have been responsible for several busted brackets, having fallen from the second, third and fourth seeds. We were hopeful that each team could add a notch to its belt this year, but the selection committee didn’t come through for us. Arizona is missing a No. 7 seed loss, but the Wildcats were too strong, securing the No. 4 seed in the South region. Missouri had more options in the middle, needing a No. 5 or a No. 7, but no such luck for the Tigers (well, really, for us) — they ended up with the No. 8 seed in the West.

No team wants an early exit from the tournament. But if you’re going to lose your first game, it may as well be in a new and interesting way.

Check out our latest March Madness predictions.

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Planting GMOs kills so many bugs that it helps non-GMO crops

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One of the great purported boons of GMOs is that they allow farmers to use fewer pesticides, some of which are known to be harmful to humans or other species. Bt corn, cotton, and soybeans have been engineered to express insect-killing proteins from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, and they have indeed been successful at controlling the crops' respective pests. They even protect the non-Bt versions of the same crop that must be planted in adjacent fields to help limit the evolution of Bt resistance.

But new work shows that Bt corn also controls pests in other types of crops planted nearby, specifically vegetables. In doing so, it cuts down on the use of pesticides on these crops, as well.

Entomologists and ecologists compared crop damage and insecticide use in four agricultural mid-Atlantic states: New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Their data came from the years before Bt corn was widespread (1976-1996) and continued after it was adopted (1996-2016). They also looked at the levels of the pests themselves: two different species of moths, commonly known as the European corn borer and corn earworm. They were named as scourges of corn, but their larvae eat a number of different crops, including peppers and green beans.

After Bt corn was planted in 1996, the number of moths captured for analysis every night in vegetable fields dropped by 75 percent. The drop was a function of the percentage of Bt corn planted in the area and occurred even though moth populations usually go up with temperature. So the Bt corn more than counteracted the effect of the rising temperatures we’ve experienced over the quarter century covered by the study.

As the number of moths has gone down, the number of recommended and actual pesticide applications has dropped as well. Green beans and peppers used to require three to six pesticide applications per crop cycle “to ensure marketable quality.” Between 1992 and 2016, the total amount of insecticide applied to New Jersey pepper fields decreased by 85 percent.

Granted, this coincided with the introduction of more effective pesticides that didn’t need to be applied quite as liberally as their forebears. But this study still suggests that much of the decline can be attributed to Bt corn.

There are a couple of practical applications of this work besides vindicating that Bt crops are at least doing what they were engineered to do. One is planning plantings so that that other crops known to be attacked by these same pests—popcorn, potatoes, and sorghum—end up near fields of Bt corn. Another is using these vegetables, rather than non-Bt corn or soy, as the refuges for Bt resistance management that are currently mandated by the EPA.

Pests who eat the non-Bt crops in these refuges have no reason to evolve resistance to the toxin. When they mate with any of their rare colleagues that manage to survive after eating the Bt corn in the next field over, they will likely make baby moths that are still susceptible. This should help preserve the effectiveness of Bt technology—for a while, at least.

But now that the widespread benefits of Bt crop use are known, farmers can plant to both minimize resistance and maximize the benefits.

PNAS, 2018. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1720692115 (About DOIs).

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A Modern Controversy Over Ancient Homosexuality


It might have been the first academic textbook that greeted the masses via the medium of Garry Trudeau’s comic Doonesbury. In a series of strips in June 1994, recently outed gay character Mark Slackmeyer attempts to pick up a fundamentalist Christian married man, and tells him that the church had, for a millennium, performed gay-marriage ceremonies. “Where did you hear such garbage?” the man replies, irate.

"It's in a new book by this Yale professor,” answers Slackmeyer. “His research turned up liturgies for same-sex ceremonies that included communion, holy invocations and kissing to signify union. They were just like heterosexual ceremonies, except that straight weddings, being about property, were usually held outdoors. Gay rites, being about love, were held INSIDE the church!"

That week, at least two Illinois newspapers refused to print the strips, while a few dozen readers rang the distributor to ask “why Garry Trudeau exists to make their lives unhappy.” If the strip provoked controversy, the book, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, incited outrage—both within and outside of the academic community. Its author, scholar John Eastburn Boswell, known as Jeb, died six months after the comic strips ran, at the age of 47, and of AIDS-related complications.


In barely 20 years at Yale, Boswell’s work as a historian managed to set the cat among the pigeons to stupendous effect, through years of meticulous scholarship that, if correct, undermined the very foundation of much modern homophobia. In the introduction to his 1980 American Book Award-winning Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, he observed that gay people were “still the objects of severe proscriptive legislation, widespread public hostility, and various civil restraints, all with ostensibly religious justification.” Boswell’s work suggested, however, that this “religious justification” might, in fact, be bogus—a latter-day alteration, introduced hundreds of years after Christianity was founded.


The book argued that the Roman Catholic Church had not always been as hostile to gay people, and indeed, until the 12th century, had thought homosexuality no more troubling than, say, hypocrisy—or even celebrated love between men. The response to the book was explosive, if polarized. "I would not hesitate to call his book revolutionary," Paul Robinson, a Stanford University historian, wrote in the New York Times Book Review in 1981. But other critics felt that, despite its attention to detail, its central thesis—that Christianity and homosexuality had not always been such uneasy bedfellows—was not only false, but a failed attempt by Boswell, gay and Catholic, to square two aspects of his identity they felt could not be reconciled.

Boswell was young and brilliant, blond and boyishly handsome, with an incredible facility for languages. His work might at any time draw on any of 17 dead and living examples—among them, Catalan, Latin, Old Icelandic, Syriac and Persian. As a teenager growing up in Virginia, writes the researcher Bruce O’Brien, he had converted to Catholicism from Episcopalianism. This conversion was precipitated by a show of tolerance and strength: “because, in large part, the archdiocese of Baltimore had voluntarily desegregated its schools, without a court order, solely because it was the right thing to do.” Here, he saw a Catholic church that was intrinsically moral and would be a beacon of light against intolerance—one that might lead the charge on other struggles for equality in a country whose sensibilities were shifting at great pace.

Many saw the book, therefore, as a chance for a reckoning—Boswell giving the church the opportunity to welcome the gay community. As his sister Patricia, who spoke at his funeral, puts it: “Jeb’s love of God was the dri­ving force in his life and the dri­ving pas­sion behind his work. He did not set out to shake up the straight world but rather to include the gay world in the love of Christ… to acquaint all with the fear­some power of that love, the wild­ness, the ‘not tame­ness’ of it.”


Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality is a 442-page journey through around 1,000 years of gay history. Assiduously researched, it jumps from country to country, instance to instance, drawing on examples of love between specific men, and generalized cases of societies in which sex between men was quite normalized.

Boswell spends some time delving into the relationship between the 4th-century Ausonius, a Roman poet living in Bordeaux, France, and his pupil Saint Paulinus, later the Bishop of Nola. Whether or not the relationship was a physical one is impossible to say—but the passionate affection the two had for one another seemed to transcend ordinary platonic friendship.

In whatever world I am found,
I shall hold you fast,
Grafted onto my being,
Not divided by distant shores or suns.
Everywhere you shall be with me,
I will see with my heart
And embrace you with my loving spirit.

“It would be inaccurate to suggest any exact parallel between such relationships and modern phenomena—as it is to compare medieval marriage with its modern counterpart,” Boswell wrote. But the idea that the concept of friendship has simply changed rang hollow to him—especially given that in many ancient societies, homosexuality was conventional and so might well have been part of a normal friendship. “Friends of the same sex borrowed from the standard vocabulary of homosexual love to express their feelings in erotic terms,” he wrote.

Saint Augustine, writing at the same time, described a friendship thus: “I felt that my soul and his were one soul in two bodies, and therefore life was a horror to me, since I did not want to live as a half; and yet I was also afraid to die lest he, whom I had loved so much, would completely die.” Elsewhere, however, he claims to have “contaminated the spring of friendship with the dirt of lust and darkened its brightness with the blackness of desire”—yet this is a denigration not specifically of homosexual lust and desire, but of sexuality more generally.


In the same period in Antioch, an ancient Greco-Roman city sometimes called “the cradle of Christianity,” Boswell described how Saint John Chrysostom visited the town, in what is today Turkey. Chrysostom was surprised to see the men of the city “consorting” not with prostitutes, but “fearlessly” with one another. Boswell quoted him: “The fathers of the young men take this in silence: they do not try to sequester their sons, nor do they seek any remedy for this evil. None is ashamed, no one blushes, but, rather, they take pride in their little game; the chaste seem to be the odd ones, and the disapproving the ones in error.” In this early Christian city, Chrysostom found homosexuality to be so very common and accepted that “there is some danger that womankind will become unnecessary with the future, with young men instead fulfilling all the needs women used to.”

Boswell shored up example after example of homosexual love and sex in the early Christian world over the course of almost 1,000 years. There were occasional laws against them, he pointed out, but they were not usually religious ones, but civil, where homosexual acts were fined as a way to increase tax coffers. Indeed, often the people being taxed in this way were not ordinary members of society, but bishops and clerics. “Purely ecclesiastical records usually stipulate either no penalty at all or a very mild one,” he wrote. Under Pope Saint Gregory II, for instance, lesbian activities carried a 160-day fasting penalty, likely under the same terms as Lent. A priest caught going hunting, on the other hand, would be in comparable trouble for three years.

In the 1980s, at a time when laws against sodomy remained in place in many American states, the book was a bombshell—especially for Catholics. The United States, at that time, was still a place of extreme homophobia and prejudice. In 1978, the openly gay politician Harvey Milk had been assassinated in San Francisco; a year earlier came Anita Bryant’s organized opposition to gay rights, with its rhetoric about saving children from gay “recruitment.” Queer studies remained a very niche part of academic study—Yale’s Lesbian and Gay Studies Center, which Boswell helped to found, emerged only in the late 1980s.

Criticism of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, therefore, came on a variety of fronts. In some parts of the academic community, it came from historians like R. W. Southern of the University of Oxford, who believed that “gay history” was not an interesting or important part of historical research. (Southern, O’Brien notes, was largely influenced by having grown up in “a repressed age where homosexuals were criminals [a word he used when talking about homosexuality.]”) In others, it came from theological scholars who picked apart Boswell’s thesis and found it undermined by the scholar’s deep, deep desire to be right. In the Catholic magazine Commonweal, after the book’s release, Louis Crompton wrote: “It is a pity that [the book] is … vitiated by a determination to construe all its voluminous evidence in the light of an untenable leading idea.” Some of its harshest criticism came from members of the gay community, who accused Boswell of being an apologist for the church’s atrocities against gay people. In the Gay Books Bulletin, Wayne Dyne wrote, decisively: “Christianity is definitely guilty of the stigmatization and persecution of same-sex relations in our civilization. It has served as a redoubt for bigotry of all sorts, and until those who call themselves Christians are ready humbly to acknowledge this, they are coming to us with dirty hands.”

Boswell, for his part, seemed to take the response in his stride. To the many critics who argued that such categories as “gay” and “straight” were modern conceptions, Boswell responded: “If the categories ‘homosexual/heterosexual’ and ‘gay/straight’ are the inventions of particular societies rather than real aspects of the human psyche, there is no gay history.” The book had caused controversy, but it had also won multiple awards and cleared important ground in developing this largely uncharted territory of gay studies.

Today, Boswell is remembered for two things—by those who didn’t know him, for his contributions to his field; and by those who did, for his unwavering kindness and generosity. A 1986 video of Boswell giving a talk shows a man who was at once dazzlingly bright and brilliantly charismatic. He’s likeable, urbane, often very funny. On and off campus, he was adored—by undergraduates, who clamored to be in his classes, and graduate students; gay and straight members of faculty alike; and by many members of the Catholic community. At Harvard, where he had completed his PhD, he counted among his devoted friends John Spencer, rector of the Jesuit community of Boston, and Peter J. Gomes, the Plummer professor of Christian morals, who came out publicly in 1991. "At a time of great public trauma for me, he wrote me out of the blue a lovely letter of support," Gomes told the Harvard Crimson, shortly after Boswell’s death. "He gave me courage.”


When he passed away in December 1994, Boswell had been in the Yale infirmary for some months. The music historian Geoffrey Block recalled visiting him in his hospital room, where, despite having only recently emerged from a coma, he was “brilliantly and miraculously holding court,” quoting lines from films and singing “Cause I’m a Blonde” from the musical Earth Girls Are Easy. Admirers and friends drifted in and out of the infirmary—friends he had helped through crises; a devoted graduate student; his father; the newly installed President of Yale, Richard Levin, who cried freely and readily. “A young bar­ber who came to the infir­mary room to give Jeb a hair­cut moved us to tears when he refused pay­ment.”

Boswell died on Christmas Eve, surrounded by family, friends, and his partner of many years, Jerry Hart. In the months leading up to his death, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, which had been previewed in Doonesbury, incited similar levels of controversy to Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Comprised of the study of more than 60 manuscripts from the 8th to the 16th century, it was a full investigation into the history of same-sex unions. These he described as relationships that were "unmistakably a voluntary, emotional union of two persons," and "closely related" to heterosexual marriage, "no matter how much some readers may be discomforted by this." Again, critics argued that he was looking for something that he dearly wanted to be there. Block, in his 2013 memorial, wrote how delighted and thrilled Boswell would have been to have been able to legally marry Hart. “I came across a sign on a lawn that would have made Jeb, a devout Catholic—per­haps para­dox­i­cally con­sid­er­ing this insti­tu­tion’s take on his sex­ual iden­tity—extremely happy. It sim­ply said, ‘Approve R-74. My Church Sup­ports Mar­riage Equal­ity’.”

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