Frank Buttino, a former high school history teacher who joined the FBI as a special agent in 1969, was not stupid: He knew enough to keep his mouth shut.
The “old bureau"--as veteran agents called it--was run under the iron fist of J. Edgar Hoover, whose unspoken, hard-line personnel policies against minorities and women remained in effect long after his death in 1972.
Buttino, who began a homosexual life style in 1974, and other gay agents kept their sexual preferences to themselves; he felt that homosexuality under Hoover was about as acceptable as communism or the plague.
And he thinks the same attitudes prevail now.
Buttino, 45, a highly decorated bureau veteran who has led many investigations of organized crime, narcotics trafficking, espionage and other sensitive cases, was fired June 21. The FBI said his homosexuality made him susceptible to blackmail.
The bureau learned of Buttino’s homosexuality in 1988 in a letter to the FBI’s office in San Diego. Buttino acknowledged his sexual orientation.
He knew he was in a Catch-22--denying or confirming his homosexuality would mean being fired--but he decided to fight, saying he weathered nearly two years of polygraph tests, interrogations and intimidation before being dismissed this summer.
“It was a witch hunt. It was absolutely irrational,” Buttino said. “No attempt was ever made to blackmail me, and I never would have submitted to blackmail. I would never betray my country, especially for anything sexual. And, once I admitted to them that I was gay, I couldn’t have been blackmailed anyway.”
Buttino is trying to regain his job and pension through a lawsuit filed in June in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. He said he has about $2 million in salary and potential retirement benefits at stake.
His lawyer, Richard Gayer, who specializes in gay-rights cases, is considering making it a class-action suit in an effort to crush what he calls the FBI’s “institutional discrimination” against homosexuals.
“This whole thing smacks of the McCarthy era,” Gayer said. “It’s irrational homophobia.”
Buttino, who said his FBI training taught him to shun publicity, finds himself in the increasingly uncomfortable position of leading the fight.
The FBI’s traditional policy of firing homosexuals within its ranks has resulted in a few lawsuits, including a 1979 suit filed by a clerk, but Buttino is the first agent to sue the bureau to regain his job.
The FBI long has been accused of discrimination against minorities, women and homosexuals. Within the past two years, the bureau has reached out-of-court settlements with a group of Hispanic agents and two black agents who alleged they were systematically discriminated against. FBI Director William S. Sessions in 1988 ordered sweeping changes in the agency’s personnel practices.
FBI officials in San Diego and Washington refused to comment on the Buttino case or any other pending cases in which gay bureau employees have alleged discrimination.
A three-paragraph section of the FBI’s personnel policy, updated in June, says the bureau does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, but that all information is considered in evaluating applicants and employees.
However, “homosexual conduct"--as opposed to simple sexual orientation--is considered a “significant factor” in personnel decision making, said FBI spokesman Nestor M. Michnyak.
The bureau seeks to balance a person’s individual rights and the bureau’s concern not to have a homosexual’s conduct adversely affect his or her ability to perform the job, according to the policy.
A person’s sexual conduct, whether homosexual or heterosexual, could affect that ability; each such situation is evaluated case by case, the policy continues.
“Well, of course, they are going to say that, but the longstanding policy is to not employ gays,” Gayer said. “That is well known. They will not say it point-blank, but that is what comes out in court.”
Buttino added: “Do you see the problem? Homosexual orientation is all right, but because they consider that every person will act on their sexual preferences, that automatically becomes sexual conduct, which is unacceptable. It’s unconstitutional.”
Buttino does not consider himself a martyr for gay rights--just a simple working man who wants his job back. But, as a student of American history and especially civil rights, he said he understands the need for dogged perseverance in fighting stereotypes; he sees himself as a catalyst for the eventual downfall of any discrimination against gays in the FBI.
“I’m just an ordinary man, but I’m going to see this through,” Buttino said. “Courage is contagious. It’s a matter of principle. I hope I will make it easier for others down the road.”
The case is moving slowly through the legal system and is not expected to come to trial until next year, but it is attracting the attention of local and national gay rights organizations.
“I think the gay community is very aware of the case and will be following it more and more as it progresses,” said Fred Scholl, director of legal services for the San Diego Gay and Lesbian Center for Social Services and a member of the local Citizens-Police Community Relations Advisory Board.
“To be honest, it was surprising to learn that the vestiges of the Hoover legacy were so strong. Buttino apparently tried to play it low-key, but now that he’s been terminated, he has nothing to lose. I imagine this case will attract a lot more national attention as time passes.”
Robert Bray, spokesman for the national Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington, said Buttino’s suit is evidence of growing discrimination against homosexuals and illustrates the need for congressional approval of a proposed amendment to the Civil Rights Act that would provide protection for gays and lesbians.
“This type of discrimination is deeply ingrained in the FBI,” Bray said. “It’s pure homophobia. Gays have no legislative recourse right now. The gay and lesbian community must attack this type of institutionalized discrimination. Cases like Buttino’s inspire us to get this legislation passed.
“It’s unconscionable: This man loves his job and the FBI, and they fire him because of who he loves.”
Born in 1945, Buttino grew up in Canastota, population 5,000, a small town in the rolling hills and woods near Syracuse, N.Y. He graduated from Colgate University in 1967 with a degree in history, and pursued that interest for the next two years, teaching American history in high and coaching football and basketball.
In 1969, as a member of the generation influenced by John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address urging young Americans to serve their country, Buttino became a special agent with the FBI, an agency responsible for enforcement of the nation’s civil rights laws. With the civil rights movement raging all around him, he said he felt honored to get the opportunity to enforce the law while preserving people’s rights.
“I loved teaching, but as opposed to teaching and observing history, I wanted to be involved in it,” he said.
Buttino relished his new career, thriving in the often intense life of a field agent.
“It was interesting, challenging. I felt I was making a contribution to the law, and that I was really involved in the fundamental aspects of law enforcement and civil rights,” he said.
He was 24 when he joined the bureau; two years later, he said, he knew he was gay. To preserve his job, Buttino said he began leading a “very discreet private life” to conceal his homosexuality from his supervisors and co-workers.
The possibility of blackmail was ridiculous to him--"Blackmail is a function of character, and I would have never submitted to it,” he said--but he knew his supervisors thought differently.
“Their (FBI administrators in Washington) biggest fear in 1972 was women becoming agents. Now they feel threatened by gays,” Buttino said. “It was understood that, if the bureau found out, you would be fired.”
Buttino’s carefully concealed private life crumbled when it was revealed by a letter to his San Diego supervisors in July 1988. The letter was initialed, and the FBI has interviewed the author but refuses to show the letter to Gayer, said Buttino.
“I was outed (forced out of the closet),” he said. “I don’t know by who and I don’t know why, but I would never do that to anyone.”
During the next two years, Buttino said, he repeatedly was interrogated by internal FBI investigators in Washington who pressed him for graphic details of his sex life and the names of other gays within and outside the bureau.
He said investigators refused to believe that his sexual conduct had not compromised his ability to do his job. He said he apparently failed the polygraph tests.
“I refused to give them the names of anyone else who was gay,” he said. “I don’t know, but I’ve heard that many gays--agents and support people--have been fired or resigned. And the note is irrelevant now because I acknowledge that I’m gay, so how can I be blackmailed?”
During the internal investigation, Buttino said he continued to be promoted and assigned sensitive cases by his San Diego supervisors, including the bombing of Sharon Rogers’ van in March 1989.
Buttino also said the FBI conducted an inadequate internal investigation in his case by not interviewing his co-workers, supervisors, neighbors, friends and relatives. He said his San Diego colleagues continue to support him.
“All they did was interrogate me and give me polygraphs. I encouraged them to talk to everyone,” said Buttino, who accused FBI administrators in Washington whom he has never met of lying about him.
“We’re going to expose them as being liars. It’s just so frustrating. Those people don’t know my character, and that is what they’ve done--challenge my trustworthiness and my character.”
More than losing his $70,000 annual salary and pension, Buttino seems particularly angered by what he perceives as a stereotype in FBI headquarters that gays are weak.
“They’re building on the myth that gays are open to blackmail, that we are weak and are easily coerced. But I won’t be intimidated, and I won’t back down.”
Without work, Buttino, a slim, athletic man, spends his days reading, jogging, volunteering at local community groups, traveling, visiting family and friends and waiting to be rehired.
“It’s a challenge mentally, but I’m making it,” he said.
A federal magistrate’s decision is due by Oct. 3 on Gayer’s request to question FBI Director William Sessions, the bureau administrator who revoked Buttino’s security clearance and the internal investigator who handled Buttino’s case, and to review the investigation file.
U.S. District Judge Eugene S. Lynch is scheduled to decide by Nov. 2 on the government’s request to dismiss Buttino’s suit.