The Phone Call That Almost Outed Us To The FBI

When I answered my fellow agent's phone, his boyfriend spoke. I was the only one who could keep his secret.

I became an FBI special agent on May 1, 1980.

To be more specific, I became a closeted lesbian FBI special agent who successfully made it through an extensive background investigation in 1980. If my sexual orientation had become known, I’d have been fired.

In the New York City field office, my workspace was comprised of four desks, each belonging to a special agent. Sitting beside me was a man named Frank, and two women, Barbara and Anne. Frank was a strong, no-frills guy. When he went to the bank to cash his paycheck, he had four guns on him—just in case there was a heist. Barbara, a platinum blonde with an upbeat confidence, worked hard to date Frank. She’d flirt and forcefully catch his eye, but Frank never showed any interest. Barbara complained to Anne, who’d indulge her antics in a smooth Texan drawl.

It went on like this—Barbara and Anne tugged for Frank’s attention; Frank remained convincingly oblivious.

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Regardless of the intensive training we were put through, no degree of discipline could prepare us for matters of the heart. I learned this when I was alone in the office and Frank’s phone rang. We dealt with national security threats and the Bureau wanted calls responded to as quickly as possible, so we were instructed to answer each other’s lines. So I picked up.

A young man was on the other line—his voice airy, with a slight lisp. “Can you let Frank know the shower isn’t working?”

It was midday and the man didn’t identify himself as a roommate. When Frank returned a few moments later, I relayed the young man’s message. His face turned white. He looked at me—knowingly—but said nothing.

We both silently understood it was good thing I was the one who’d answered that call. I have no doubt that if Barbara or Anne had picked up, chaos would’ve ensued. Even FBI agents gossip and, every day, gay special agents risked losing the jobs they worked so hard to get.

Frank and I never became friends. He was uncomfortable around me and there remained an unconquerable distance between us. The reason for our divide was never articulated, but it was felt: On the surface, we only had our jobs in common, beneath the surface, much more. The telephone call was never mentioned again.

Fifteen years later, after I left the Bureau, gay and lesbian special agents finally received some protection: On August 2, 1995, President Clinton signed an executive order barring the federal government from denying security clearances to agents on the basis of sexual orientation. Today I can look at the FBI’s website and see a photo of LGBT special agents holding a rainbow Pride flag.

I’m relieved, thankful even. The next generation can do their jobs without lying about who they are.

Robert A. Reeder/The Washington Post/Getty

Our current president cares only about his conservative base, and our vice president is a fierce opponent of the LGBT community. We have a Republican Congress that can’t wait to confirm another Supreme Court justice and tip the scale back to 1957.

I fear Christopher Wray, Trump’s nominee for FBI director, could return the Bureau to the way it was when I was an agent, to a time of fear and hiding. Though LGBT agents may find themselves targets again, I hope the FBI will remain steadfast in its mission—“to protect the American people”—in every sense.

Former FBI agent Susan Surftone is a surf music guitarist, singer, and musician. Her EP "Making Waves Again" is out now.
@SusanSurftone