Thursday, June 4, 2009

Jon C. Hinson: southern exposure

Image from The Ledger

With a little luck on his side, Jon Clifton Hinson was able to win a second term in Congress despite admitting that he'd visited a couple of homosexual hangouts. It was only a matter of months, however, before he was once again caught with his pants down.

Hinson was born in Tylertown, Mississippi in 1942. After graduating from the University of Mississippi in 1964, he served as an aide to Mississippi congressmen Charles Griffin from 1968 to 1973 and Thad Cochran from 1973 to 1977. From 1964 to 1970, he was also a member of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.

In 1978, Cochran moved on to the Senate and Hinson was chosen to run for his seat. His conservative platform included support of lowering taxes and increased military growth, as well as opposition to affirmative action, socialized medicine, deficit spending, and the ceding of the Panama Canal to Panama. Running as a Republican, he successfully took over for his former boss.

The first scandals befell Hinson in his run-up to the 1980 elections. In a press conference in August of 1980, he admitted that he'd been arrested in September of 1976 on a charge of committing an obscene act near the Marine Corps War Memorial in Washington, D.C. He later pleaded to a reduced charge of creating a public nuisance and was fined $100. Hinson also revealed that he had been in Cinema Follies, a pornographic theater, in October of 1977 when a devastating fire broke out. Nine people died in the blaze, and Hinson, one of four survivors, was rescued from beneath a pile of bodies. Both the memorial and the theater were known sites of homosexual activity.

Hinson said he'd given the information as a preemptive measure against any attempt by political opponents to use the incidents against him. He had recently given a deposition to lawyers handling civil suits related to the theater fire, and his involvement could easily have been discovered. He argued that he had not committed an obscene act at the memorial, and that his innocence on that charge was demonstrated by his ability to plead to a reduced charge. A friend said the incidents were a result of emotional problems Hinson had been having, and that he had resolved those issues by 1978.

Media reports after Hinson's revelations unearthed more details than Hinson had been willing to admit. The arrest at the memorial had occurred after Hinson had exposed himself to an undercover agent and allegedly tried to get the agent to perform oral sex on him. He failed to show up at court on the charge on multiple occasions until the threat of a second arrest. Reporters also found out that the theater had 22,000 members and multiple uses, including empty rooms where members could have sex. Hinson had also managed to delay giving his deposition until after the Republican primaries.

Nevertheless, Hinson maintained that he was straight. "I am not, never have been, and never will be a homosexual," he said at a news conference with his wife of one year. Whether or not his constituents believed him, Hinson was re-elected in the 1980 election. Some analysts said that the Mississippi voters simply preferred a conservative in Congress, no matter what his sexuality was. However, Hinson was also helped by a three-way contest, in which independent candidate and Jackson State University professor Les McLemore outperformed Democratic candidate Britt Singletary. Hinson came away with 39 percent of the vote for the victory.

Hinson had barely returned to office when he blew any chance of a quiet second term. In February of 1981, Capitol Police had a busy night at the Longworth Building, a House of Representatives office building on Capitol Hill. Tipped off that a bathroom in the building was being used for homosexual activities, police staked out the location. They arrested a consultant and a member of the Democratic Study Group on charges of sodomy. Two hours later, they arrested another two men engaged in oral sex: Hinson and Harold Moore, a black Library of Congress clerk 10 years his junior.

Hinson was originally charged with felony sodomy, which was punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The charge was reduced to a misdemeanor, with the prosecuting attorney saying consensual homosexual acts could be prosecuted as such. Hinson pleaded innocent to the charge and, following the lead of Walter Jenkins, checked himself into the hospital "in order to have the benefit of professional care, counseling, and treatment," according to a statement from his office. The statement blustered on that the care was "necessitated by the onset of an episode which he termed a dissociative reaction attributed to a two-year period of intense emotional and physical exertion." He remained hospitalized for two months.

Hinson immediately faced calls to resign from Mississippi and Republican Party leaders. "I think we gave him the benefit of the doubt on the other charges," said Clarke Reed, national Republican committeeman from Mississippi. "I feel strongly he should resign if found guilty on the charges." Mike Retzer, the Mississippi GOP chairman, said he thought the party had been fooled into supporting Hinson in the 1980 election and added, "It's unfortunate Jon has serious, substantial problems that are ongoing." Hinson agreed to resign, and later pleaded no contest to attempted oral sodomy. He was given a suspended 30-day jail sentence and one year of probation. In April of 1981, he resigned, saying it was "the most painful and difficult decision" he had ever made.

Democrat Wayne Dowdy, the mayor of McComb, was chosen to face off against Republican businessman and strong supporter of President Ronald Reagan, Liles Williams. Though Williams had the majority of the vote in these selections, it was not enough to forgo a special election. In an upset, Dowdy, who had spent one-third as much on his campaign as Williams, narrowly won Hinson's seat. He credited a strong turnout in black voters, though some saw it as a repudiation of Reagan.

Hinson later admitted that he was gay. In an article he wrote shortly before his death, he said that he was "still closeted and into heavy denial" when he was first elected. He and his wife separated in 1987, and divorced in 1989. In a tragic parallel to Hinson's miraculous escape from death in 1977, his parents were killed in 1984 when their house was destroyed by fire.

Remaining in the Washington, D.C. area, Hinson became active in gay rights issues. He opposed a ban on gay servicemen in the military and was a founder of the Fairfax Lesbian and Gay Citizens Association in Fairfax County, Virginia. In 1994, he attended a fund-raising event for a gay community center in Biloxi in his home state. The next year, Hinson died of respiratory failure from AIDS.

Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "Rep. Hinson Facing New Sex Charge" in The Bulletin on Feb. 5 1981, "Hinson Pleads Innocent; Congressman Faces Charge of Sodomy" in the Eugene Register Guard on Feb. 5 1981, "Lawmaker is Facing Sex Charge" in the Rome News-Tribune on Feb. 5 1981, "Hinson Enters Plea; Admitted to Hospital" in The Ledger on Feb. 6 1981, "Lawmaker Pleads Innocent to Sex Charge" in the Sunday Star-News on Feb. 6 1981, "Aide Says Hinson Planning to Quit" in The Bulletin on Feb. 9 1981, "Businessman, Mayor Win Mississippi Runoff Spots" in the St. Petersburg Times on Jun. 24 1981, "Mississippi Democrat Says Blacks Helped" in the Ellensburg Daily Record on Jul. 8 1981, "Democrat Wins Mississippi Race" in the St. Petersburg Times on Jul. 8 1981, "Jon Hinson, 53, Congressman And Then Gay-Rights Advocate" in the New York Times on Jul. 26 1995, Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976-2006 by Jere Nash and Andy Taggart, Men Like That: A Southern Queer History by John Howard

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for jogging my memory on the story of "my" congressman from 30 years ago. It was getting difficult to remember the details. One note: Dr. Leslie McLemore taught at Jackson State University, not Mississippi State.

Dirk Langeveld said...

Thanks for the comment! I just made the correction.