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The Government’s Gay Witch Hunt of Pat Patterson

According to previously unreleased documents, the Immigration and Naturalization Service worked tirelessly throughout the 1960s to have the legendary wrestler deported back to his native Canada — all because they suspected he was gay

Twenty-year-old Pat Patterson, born Pierre Clermont, was a rookie professional wrestler in Montreal when, in late 1960, Boston promoter Tony Santos came across the border on a scouting trip. One broken English conversation later, and Patterson had a job working for Santos full-time. 

As a young gay man of that era, Patterson’s career in professional wrestling was, in some ways, a refuge from the rest of the world, including his father’s rejection at home. Though homophobic in many ways — most visibly in its use of gay-baiting villains of various stripes, like national television star Gorgeous George — the business was more accepting behind-the-scenes than a lot of society at the time. In fact, when Patterson showed up in Boston for his big break in March 1961, most of the young wrestlers in the area lived in the same boarding house, so a tight bond developed, absent of prejudice. 

“I hadn’t known how I’d live my personal life among new guys in a new city when I’d come to Boston,” Patterson, who died in December 2020, wrote in his memoir, Accepted. “But being gay turned out to not be an issue at all. As long as I took $5 and $10 wrestling payoffs without complaining, the promoter couldn’t have cared less. There were even a few other wrestlers who were gay. I was lucky everyone liked me, and I was accepted right away for who I was.”

Patterson in the early days of his career.

All of that, however, would change a year later when he moved to Portland, Oregon. Patterson left Boston to sharpen his craft in a wrestling promotion that had its own weekly TV show. And while he was able to do that, it invited a host of other problems that have never before been revealed publicly. As it turns out, starting at the end of 1964, the Justice Department’s now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) spent years investigating Patterson, with the goal being to find evidence of “homosexual activity” that could be used to have him deported back to Canada. 

This was at the tail end of the Lavender Scare, a systematic persecution of government employees who were gay or perceived as gay. But as San Francisco State University history professor Marc Stein explains, “The deeper story goes back to the era when the U.S. government first formulated those kinds of immigration restrictions, going all the way back to Chinese exclusion in the 1870s and 1880s. From there — and throughout the first two decades of the 20th century — they developed a detailed set of exclusions.”

He adds that gay immigrants tended to attract the attention of the INS “if they got caught up in any kind of law enforcement problem.” “Then,” he continues, “the INS would step in and say, ‘You’re deportable on the grounds you were excludable at time of entry.’ In the early 20th century, there were exclusions that referenced ‘constitutional psychopathic inferiors’ and ‘crimes of moral turpitude.’” Two other categorizations were also used to deport queer immigrants — “afflicted with psychopathic personality” and “sexual deviation,” which the INS more or less alternated between as necessary.

“This investigation based on information received from the OFFICE OF SPECIAL INVESTIGATION, United States [redacted], furnishing information that the SUBJECT is a homosexual,” reads the introduction to one memo in Patterson’s INS file, dated April 14, 1965, which I obtained under the Freedom of Information Act after Patterson’s death in December 2020. “Object to locate and interview any persons who may be able to offer information of the SUBJECT’S possible homosexual activities.” 

Again, Patterson had moved to Portland to work for promoter Don Owen at the end of July 1962, with romantic partner Louie Dondero following several weeks later. “I like it very much around here,” Patterson wrote in a letter to promoter Jack Pfefer around late August of that year. “I felt bad to leave [Tony Santos] because he was very nice to me, but I think it was good for me to leave Boston because I was there a long time.”

“Harry Elliott was the promoter in Seattle, who worked for Don Owen,” Patterson wrote in Accepted. “He came up to me one day” — newspaper records suggest October 1962 — “saying that he had a great idea, that he was going to do something good with me. He knew that I had a ‘friend,’ so he came up with the character ‘Pretty Boy’ Pat Patterson. I would wear lipstick, use a long cigarette holder and wear sunglasses and a beret. Louie made me a flamboyant ring jacket, and he would also play the role of my chauffeur/manager.” 

A 1966 Wrestling Illustrated story about Patterson’s switch from the ‘Pretty Pat’ gimmick.

This wasn’t exactly unprecedented. Russell “Ron Dupree” Grobe, who introduced Patterson to Dondero and who served as something of a mentor for Patterson in terms of navigating the Boston gay scene, had portrayed gay (Golden Boy Dupree) and otherwise queer-coded (the “androgynous” Gorgeous Gi-Gi) gimmicks, though an actual gay man portraying such roles wasn’t necessarily the norm. It also worked with fans, as the gimmick helped Patterson become a bigger box-office draw, boosting his income in the process. Unfortunately, it would come back to haunt him when the INS started its inquiry. 

The documents in Patterson’s INS file aren’t 100 percent clear on the impetus for the investigation into his personal life. But an April 14, 1965 summary of witness interviews points to what appear to be the likely flash points — one of which was an investigation of the local gay community by the Portland Police Department’s morals squad. “The reports relate to an investigation conducted by Portland Police Department morals officers at homosexual parties in Portland,” the document reads. “These reports mention a wrestler named ‘PRETTY BOY JACKSON.’ Also included in the reports were the names of persons who were considered victims, witnesses or defendants. Two of the defendants named in the reports: [redacted] and [redacted] are presently serving sentences at Oregon State Penitentiary for conviction on charges of sodomy. Several other persons, known homosexuals, were also mentioned in the police reports.” 

The same document also alludes to the fact that the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigation was looking into a different wrestler — an Air Force veteran whose name was redacted — “to determine whether he is actually a homosexual and therefore subject to discharge from the air force.” This Air Force investigation is the most likely direct catalyst for the investigation into Patterson, as his name first came up in it just five days before the Portland INS Office requested his file from the central office in Washington, D.C.

After dispensing with the PPD and Air Force information, the aforementioned document delves into the interviews with various “Portland area homosexuals” about Patterson. Many of the details are mundane: One witness, who had “held ‘gay’ parties at his home” that Patterson and Dondero attended, “said he had never actually seen the SUBJECT engaging in homosexual activities with other persons at the parties” and that “the SUBJECT’S actions’ at the parties were the same as any other gay person.” The same witness also alleged that Patterson regularly picked up street hustlers, with the report repeatedly referring to them as “young boys.” (Given the time, context and different uses of the term “boy” in the gay community, as well as a lack of any kind of age range being given, it’s best not to take that phrasing too literally.) 

Another witness who attended the Portland area “gay parties” told the Portland Police that Patterson “acted gay, the same as the rest of the people at the parties” and “was known at the parties as ‘MISS PATTERSON.’” Yet another was listed on the morals squad reports as a “victim” because he was “the passive person on whom acts of sodomy were committed by homosexuals,” but he denied knowing Patterson. The INS’ subsequent interviews resulted in more of the same.

Less than a month later, on May 10, 1965, Patterson was interviewed by the INS in San Francisco, where he had relocated to work for promoter Roy Shire. But the interrogation was, going by the report, pretty uneventful. The case itself appears to have largely gone dormant for a while, likely due to the lack of clear evidence of “homosexual activity.” It did, however, pick up on November 18, 1966, when INS initiated deportation proceedings on the pretext of Patterson giving the agency a fraudulent work itinerary. According to the INS memo summarizing the hearing, Patterson freely admitted that he had no desire to return to Canada, citing his annual income as a rising star wrestler in the U.S. Patterson had made over $20,000 (about $165,000 adjusted for inflation) in 1965 and was on track to make over $25,000 (about $206,000 adjusted for inflation) in 1966, money he couldn’t make in his native Canada. 

As for the itinerary issues, Patterson argued that Shire handled all of that, even when sending him to other territorial promotions like the one in Portland. (It didn’t help the INS’ case that an H1 visa holder like Patterson didn’t need to submit a set schedule.) 

From there, the memo pivots back to the homophobia fueling the investigation. “Because of conversations that I have had with members of the Portland office,” the memo reads, “I asked [Patterson] on the record why he had dyed his hair blond and why he used some of the rather effeminate mannerisms which he affected. His response was that when he was starting out as a wrestler the promoters told him that he was colorless; that besides being a good wrestler he had to be different and that in his case they suggested the blond hair, cigarette holder and other effeminate mannerisms, saying that while the people would not like it, it would draw them to the bouts. He was asked point-blank if he was a homosexual and denied it. He was also asked if he molested little boys and denied that. He volunteered the information that because he was a ‘good’ wrestler, other people were jealous and were trying to get him into trouble. As I had no evidence with which to confront him, I let the matter drop there.”

Pending Patterson securing a letter from Shire indicating that he was accurately describing his employment situation, the hearing was continued for a later date. Since Patterson wasn’t deported as far as anyone knows and there’s nothing in his INS file about a follow-up hearing, the information starts to get murkier from here. In the interim, though, the INS definitely kept digging, starting three days after the hearing, when they asked the Air Force for the file of the aforementioned gay serviceman and pro wrestler who may have had some kind of sexual relations with Patterson. Just short of two weeks after that, on December 15, 1966, they were sent a memo summarizing the witness statements in that file and how they related to Patterson. 

After a long redaction — about half a page, the longest in Patterson’s INS file — they get down to what the unnamed wrestler and serviceman said about his interactions with Patterson. On November 3, 1964, the airman admitted in an interview to “homosexual relations,” including specifically naming Patterson as a partner while stressing that he had only been with civilians, not other servicemen. A sworn statement the next day wouldn’t name names, but the day after that, he admitted again to having sex with Patterson, even specifying “the recipient” of the sex acts, as well as that he “only associates with civilian wrestlers who stay at the [name of hotel redacted].” 

A few weeks later, on December 9th, Patterson would be interviewed, with details included in the Air Force investigator’s final report: “PAT PATERSON [sic] was contacted in Seattle on December 9,1964 and denied ever having any homosexula [sic] relations with [redacted]; that when [redacted] was interviewed later he too denied his previous admission of homosexual relations with Pat Paterson [sic] and explained the reason for such false admission was only because of ‘PATS’ [sic] reputation of being a homo, and his desire to be relieved from the [several words redacted].”

Five days after INS got the summary of the Air Force file, they sent Patterson a deportation notice stipulating that he must notify them of his plans by January 5, 1967 and leave on or before January 10th. Stamps on the notice saying that someone or something was “RECEIVED” at the Montreal airport on January 9th and then again on January 16th in Portland suggest that Patterson may have had to leave the U.S. for a week before returning. But it’s far from clear, especially because, according to results in the next day’s Arizona Republic, Patterson definitely wrestled in Phoenix on January 14th. ( lists him as being advertised for a show in Modesto, California the day before, but with no result confirming that he was there.) 

All the while, INS requested a psychological examination of Patterson on December 21, 1966. Here, it’s said that, at Patterson’s second hearing the previous day, he was granted voluntary departure by January 10th. “He makes quite a lucrative living in the United States and has advised that he will have his manager get papers ready so that he can return to the United States for permanent residence,” reads the letter, sent by airmail. “The subject is a well known homosexual. Although, as you can well imagine, we can not get a homosexual to admit having relations with him, nevertheless the file contains plenty of information to the effect that he is homosexual.” 

“Therefore,” the letter continues, “would it be possible for you, through the Embassy in Ottawa, to circulate the American Consuls in Canada so that when the subject applies for a visa they would demand a psychiatric examination for him. He is originally from [the] Quebec area but I do not know where he would apply for a visa. In the event the American Consuls want the contents of our file I will be only too glad to forward the file to you so that you could furnish them the appropriate information.” 

Basically, it looks as if the INS was attempting to trick Patterson into leaving the country with the expectation that he would be able to easily secure a green card, only to use a psychological exam to declare him unfit to enter the U.S. as a homosexual.

As far as the attempt to deport Patterson goes, that’s the end of what his INS file has. He would go to Australia for about three months in the spring of 1967, but that’s almost surely because he had become an elite, headlining pro wrestler and working for Jim Barnett’s Australian promotion was the best-paying gig in the wrestling business back then. The file picks back up in July 1971 with a green card application that Patterson submitted at the time. From that, there’s no indication that he ever had to go on a sojourn to Canada to clean up his work visa status. San Francisco was listed as his most recent place of residence (of six months or more) effective January 1965. The application also includes a recommendation letter from Barnett dated August 29, 1969, with Roy Shire and Don Owen also sending undated letters of their own. Aside from financial documents showing that he was continuing to make a very comfortable living, that was it as far as the file goes, with it barren until Patterson’s successful 2002 petition for U.S. citizenship.

Just how much did this affect Patterson’s life going forward? It’s hard to know. He never spoke about it publicly, and it also seems like he never told anyone else in the wrestling business about it. One longtime friend, retired wrestler and promoter Gerald Brisco, tells me that it never came up, although Patterson did say things that, in hindsight, may have been allusions to the INS investigation. “In a cryptic way, he did [talk about it],” Brisco recalls. “I remember Pat telling me about not wanting to do something crazy, telling me, ‘Man, I can’t get in trouble. I’m being watched.’ I’d always say, ‘What do you mean ‘watched’? He’d just say, ‘By people. I know I’m being watched.’ So maybe that was his way of telling me, and I’ve been around a million people who were the best of friends with Pat, and [you reaching out] was the first time I’d ever heard of it.”

Despite the acceptance of gay wrestlers, “discretion” was still the norm. The aforementioned Russell Grobe, for example, had met Charles Harris, then wrestling as Maurice Chevalier, in Boston in the early 1960s, and eventually, they became a couple. They blended in by becoming a tag team; that way, their traveling together and sharing hotel rooms wouldn’t raise any red flags. Similarly, in a 1985 deposition for an unrelated lawsuit, Shire, though admitting he was a homophobe, also laid out how he tolerated Patterson thanks to his “discretion” about his sexuality. “‘Oh, no. Pat, let me tell you something,’” Shire testified, recalling how he responded when his star wrestler came out to him. “‘I didn’t know whether you were a queer or not, but now I know you are a queer, and as long as you work for me, don’t ever mention your sexual acts to me, because if you do, I’m going to ship your ass out the same day. I’m going to tell you right now: I don’t even like queers. […] I don’t like queers, so let’s just pretend you never said this to me.’” 

A promotional image of Russell Grope (aka Ron Dupree) and Charles Harris (aka Maurice Chevalier) as the Dupree Brothers.

That discretion, though, was specific to public life, as it was far from a secret in the wrestling business that Patterson was gay. As Brisco recalls, though, Patterson was always hesitant to specifically use “gay” or “homosexual” to identify himself despite having no issues with his friends knowing that he was exclusively attracted to men, instead describing himself as “sexual.”

For all of these reasons, when Patterson officially came “out” publicly is tough to ascertain. Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer recalls seeing a Japanese magazine story about Patterson and Dondero as a couple that was published circa 1981, but it’s been exceedingly difficult to find. Meanwhile, as the 1980s went on — and after Patterson moved onto the administrative side of the wrestling business — announcers would sometimes make cheap homophobic jokes at his expense (e.g., about being an expert at teaching “go-behinds”). But that was about it until 1992, when Patterson was among the WWE personnel named in a slew of sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct allegations. Two of the most visible accusations, from announcer Murray Hodgson (a claim of quid pro sexual harassment) and retired wrestler “Superstar” Billy Graham (that he’d personally witnessed Patterson grope an underage boy), both turned out to be false. (Hodgson’s own lawyer later dubbed him “a lifelong con man,” while Graham copped to making up his allegation.) Other claims, like underage ring attendant Tom Cole’s allegations of groping and sexual gestures, are generally viewed as credible and WWE did settle Cole’s claim before it could enter a courtroom. (Patterson continued to work for the WWE well into the aughts, which given the company’s history, admittedly, isn’t a very high bar to clear.)

Patterson’s sexuality further became part of the public record in June 1998, when Dondero died suddenly of a heart attack, with WWE announcer Jim Ross giving condolences on the company’s flagship program Monday Night Raw and explicitly referring to the Boston native as Patterson’s “life partner.”

Patterson, however, never said a word about his sexuality in public until the finale of Legends House, a WWE-produced “reality” series that premiered in 2014. “Sitting here tonight, I’m gonna say something that I would never want to say… publicly. But being here with you guys? For once in my life, I’m gonna be me now. I survived all of this being gay. I lived with that for 50-some years,” he said through tears. “I lived with that for 50-something years. I had a friend with me for 40 years. And I lost him because he had a heart attack, and I ended up alone. I survived in this business. I did. I’m so proud of it. It’s tough, guys. It was tough.”

In a reality TV context, it felt stunt-y, especially since lip service was paid in talking-head segments to Patterson’s sexuality being something that the rest of the cast already knew about. But in the context of the persecution he faced from the U.S. government due to his sexuality, its meaning starts to feel much more authentic. Or as Brisco puts it, “I think it meant a lot to him to finally just say it.”