The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government

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The Lavender Scare

The period—considered as targeted and as widespread as the concurrent Red Scare —is now known as the Lavender Scare. Between the late s and early s, an unknown number of LGBT employees, likely in the thousands, were driven out of their jobs. Historian David K. It was used by tabloids like Confidential and people like Senator Everett Dirksen, who was involved in public hearings related to the Senate purge, and it represented a wider societal tendency to mock and fear LGBT people.

At the time, homosexuality was a crime, and gay people had long hidden their sexualities. Despite the prevailing view of homosexuality as a mental illness and a sign of perversion or criminality, gay people started to find one another at underground bars and clubs.

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In the meantime, American culturebecame more sexually conservative even as more and more people became aware of homosexuality. This provoked a backlash, and cities began to more aggressively police sexual expression.

Section 8 of President Dwight D. Credit: The National Archives. So did the State Department.

As the federal government began to persecute suspected Communists, gay people found themselves being targeted. The film, narrated by Glenn Close, mixes interviews, photographs, archival footage and film clips, as well as reenactments, to present a handful of case studies of men and women who were impacted by the Eisenhower law that allowed LGBT people to be fired from government jobs because they were deemed potential risks to national security.

The lavender scare: How the federal government purged gay employees

However, the law remained in effect until , when President Clinton reversed it. Howard features scenes of Kameny — voiced by out gay actor David Hyde Pierce — writing letters that establish his personal feelings and activist position.

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The lavender scare: How the federal government purged gay employees - CBS News

These moments are encouraging, but they are juxtaposed with stories of victims like Madeleine Tress — voiced by out actor Cynthia Nixon — who describe the demeaning interviews and the campaigns FBI agents and investigators waged to identify and remove gays and lesbians from their jobs. Many individuals were asked to inform on coworkers.


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He was one of many victims of the Lavender Scare — a manifestation of Cold War paranoia and social bigotry that led to the dismissal of hundreds and possibly thousands of gays and lesbians from government jobs. Historian David K. Johnson sheds light on this forgotten episode in American history.

The Lavender Scare grew from the McCarthy persecutions of the s , but Johnson argues that its policies lasted far longer and became more institutionalized than the anti-communist hysteria.

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The government dismissed homosexuals on the grounds that emotional weakness and the likelihood of blackmail made them security risks. No evidence supported these accusations and medical experts challenged the idea that homosexuals were in any way different from the majority of employees, but to little avail.

Executive departments hurried to dismiss employees suspected of homosexuality, lest ambitious congressmen — already suspicious of the expansion of bureaucratic policymaking — target them for public scrutiny.