LGBT History Month: The Gay Man Charged In The Assassination Of JFK

Clay Shaw, President Kennedy
Clay Shaw, President Kennedy

John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s assassin was gunned down before he could be held accountable for the murder of the president. Only one person was ever tried for complicity in the events of November 1963: a gay man named Clay Shaw.

Clay LaVerne Shaw was born in small-town Louisiana in 1913 and grew up 100 miles south of there, in the big city of New Orleans. Following exemplary service in World War II (Bronze Star, Legion of Merit), Shaw returned to the Crescent City and devoted the next two decades to French Quarter historic preservation and the founding and directing of the New Orleans International Trade Mart, forerunner of today’s World Trade Center of New Orleans.

When the 46-year-old president was assassinated in Dallas, 50-year-old Shaw was nowhere near the Texas School Book Depository Building, but through an odd series of happenstance and conspiratorial allegations cobbled together out of not much more than thin air by the inexact New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, Shaw in 1967 was charged with participating in a CIA- and/or FBI- and/or Cuban-backed right- and/or left-wing conspiracy to assassinate the president.

DA Garrison rejected the findings of the Warren Commission’s “lone gunman” theory and believed, according to investigative journalist James Phelan, that the Kennedy assassination involved a complex conspiracy that included Clay Shaw and a possible “homosexual plot” or “homosexual thrill killing” — whatever that is. In a press conference about the case, Garrison replied with a curt “no comment,” without further elaboration, when asked if he believed that “homosexuality or coercion to homosexuality was a factor in the planning or the assassination of John F. Kennedy.”

The indictment brought enormous media attention to the participants in the case, including a long-form interview for Garrison on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Early in the fall of 1967, Shaw sat for a filmed interview about the charges against him. He denied involvement in any assassination conspiracy. He “admired” Kennedy, he claimed. He himself was “a Wilsonian FDR liberal” with “progressive ideas” similar to those of the assassinated president. JFK’s death, he asserted, was “a tragedy,” the “most heinous crime of our time.” Shaw denied knowing Lee Harvey Oswald and he denied even the possibility that a conspiracy to kill the president “could exist.” He concluded the interview by applying to himself and his predicament a warning from President Kennedy himself: “All men’s rights are diminished when any man’s rights are threatened.”

It was good news for Shaw that by the time the month-long trial commenced in late January 1969, most observers believed that DA Garrison was grasping for non-existent straws in a futile effort either to make a name for himself or to bring justice, as he saw it, to President Kennedy. Whatever the motive or the rationale — or Garrison’s mental state — the trial went forward and was turned over to a jury that saw through Garrison’s charade and took only one hour to find Clay Shaw not guilty.

Bruised and battered, Clay Shaw lived out the remaining years of his short life in his beloved New Orleans. Lung cancer killed him at 61 in 1974. He’s buried next to his parents in the Woodland Cemetery on the outskirts of his Kentwood birthplace.

It’s likely Shaw would have slipped from public consciousness except for Oliver Stone’s grotesquely unbalanced conspiratorial rewriting of history, the 1991 film JFK. Unfortunately, while Stone’s Jim Garrison was portrayed (by Kevin Costner) as an indefatigable hero in search of truth, Stone’s Clay Shaw — played by Tommy Lee Jones — was twisted into a dark and perverted man, “an effeminate, fastidious, limp-wristed gay man who enjoyed homosexual orgies while watching films of the Hitler Youth engaged in exercise,” according to one JFK debunker.

Former DA Jim Garrison appeared in cameo in the flawed film — ironically as Earl Warren, the head of the investigation into the assassination of the president that pinned responsibility for the president’s murder on one man acting alone, Lee Harvey Oswald. This cameo would be Garrison’s final brush with fame. He died the following year at 70. He’s buried in New Orleans.

Interest in the Kennedy assassination has waned in recent years, but a devoted group of conspiracy theorists still weave unsubstantiated tales about the tragic events of 1963. A fringe of the conspiratorial fringe remains convinced that Clay Shaw helped set in play the president’s murder. The comment section in the YouTube link above makes that frighteningly clear: “Fuckin homosexual assassin”; “What a homo…Hope killing JFK was worth it fag”; “This closet fag is lying through his fuckin teeth!”; “Fuckin faggot.”

For his part, Clay Shaw, born more than a half century before Stonewall, never publicly addressed his homosexuality.

—Rodney Wilson was a high school history teacher in St. Louis when he founded LGBT History Month in 1994. A previous LGBT History Month essay — “The Uncle I Never Met” — was published earlier this month.

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