Filmmaker Josh Howard’s inspiring new documentary that he co-directed with Jill Landes plays a crucial role in bringing to our attention a difficult period in LGBT history that we really should all know about, and never forget that The Lavender Scare is the story of what became the most successful witch hunt in American history where 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 much later on when in 1991 when the CIA listed 117 cases of spying in our country’s history, not one of them involved a gay man or woman. Anyway after Eisenhower ordered every single government official suspected to being gay to be fired, he kicked off the start of this vindictive and inhumane homophobic witch hunt which would last for the next 40 years.
Howard, working from a book with the same name by Dr David Johnson, tells this rather chilling story piecing 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 1950’s, the politicians and public hostility wanted another scapegoat, so it all morphed into 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, or seeing the evidence that the claim was based on, or even being allowed to confront whoever had informed on them. They were not allowed any type of formal hearing, and 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 PhD 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 publicly ‘came out’ and started the first ever gay protests, and in 1965 even courageously started picketing The White House. In fact they were really the only LGBT people at that 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 1950’s were the worst time in history to be gay in the U.S., but he does at least finish the documentary with showing that the story had many happy endings. Starting with President Clinton ending the employment ban in 1995, and also with some of the LGBT people that did so much more than survive but went on to lead very 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.