The Lavender Scare

by Roger Walker-Dack

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday June 7, 2019

'The Lavender Scare'
'The Lavender Scare'  

Filmmaker Josh Howard's inspiring new documentary "The Lavender Scare," which he co-directed with Jill Landes, brings to our attention the story behind a difficult period in LGBT history: The most successful witch hunt in American history, in which thousands and thousands of federal workers lost their jobs. Even worse was that the fact that more than a few of them, with their careers in ruins and unable to find any work, committed suicide.

It all started in 1953, when President Eisenhower declared that homosexuals were a threat to national security -- a claim that was never backed up with a single fact. Even decades later, in 1991, when the CIA listed 117 cases of spying throughout our country's history, not one of them involved a gay man or woman. In ordering every single government official suspected to being gay to be fired, Eisenhower kicked off a vindictive and inhumane wave of anti-gay persecution that would last for the next 40 years.

Howard, working from a book with the same name by Dr. David Johnson, pieces together archival footage with interviews from both some of the FBI agents responsible for the investigations that got people fired, and with some of the lucky LGBT people that survived.

As the anti-communist fervor of the "Red Scare" started to fade in the 1950s, the politicians and the public wanted another scapegoat. This set the stage for the "Lavender Scare," as homosexuals were such an easy target. Every government official who was suspected of being gay was pulled aside and interrogated without being allowed any legal representation. Nor were they allowed to see evidence that any claims against them were based on, much less allowed to confront whoever had informed on them. They were not allowed any type of formal hearing -- they were simply fired on the spot.

Everybody accepted the situation, and thousands of LGBT employees jumped ship before they were caught and had their whole lives ruined by such public exposure -- that is, until 1957, when Dr. Franklin Kameny, a Harvard Ph.D. who had been working for the U.S. Army Map Service, was fired from his job for being gay, and he decided to fight back. There were hardly any organized LGBT groups at the time, and Kameny considered The Mattachine Society in L.A. too apologetic and weak, so he formed his own chapter in Washington, which he made much more pro-active and militant.

It was Kameny and his handful of supporters who very bravely, and publicly, came out and started the first-ever gay protests. In 1965 they even started picketing the White House. In fact, they were really the only LGBT people at the time willing to take a public stance and fight back, until the Stonewall Riots at the end of that decade.

Howard leaves us in no doubt that the 1950s were the worst time in history to be gay in the U.S., but he does at least finish the documentary by showing that the story had many happy endings, starting with President Clinton ending the employment ban in 1995. The film also covers some of the LGBT people that did so much more than survive, but went on to lead full lives.

In 2017 Secretary of State John Kerry offered an official apology to all the people who had been fired during the Lavender Scare. However, two days after Trump took Office, notice of this completely disappeared from The White House website.

Roger Walker-Dack, a passionate cinephile, is a freelance writer, critic and broadcaster and the author/editor of three blogs. He divides his time between Miami Beach and Provincetown.