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

Most America’s know the story of Senator Joseph McCarthy and how he set off a “red scare” when he famously charged in 1950 that the US State Department and other government agencies had been infiltrated by communist agents. But few Americans know that McCarthy also charged that the government had been infiltrated by homosexuals, and that they posed a threat equally as grave to national security. This fear that gay men and lesbians could be blackmailed into revealing state secrets resulted in a systematic campaign to identify and remove all government employees suspected of homosexuality. In this book, David Johnson argues that a parallel “lavender scare” permeated American cold war culture. But it also helped launch a new civil rights struggle.

When McCarthy made his unsubstantiated charges, the State Department at first denied that it employed any suspected communists. But under intense questioning from McCarthy’s Republican allies, they did admit that they had fired 91 homosexuals as “security risks.” This seemed to substantiate McCarthy’s otherwise wild charges and increase his popular support. Soon outraged citizens, newspaper editors, and members of Congress were calling for an investigation. In the summer of 1950, a committee of the US Senate investigated “the employment of homosexuals and other sex perverts in the government.” Although they could not uncover a single example of a homosexual American citizen who had betrayed secrets as a result of blackmail, they wrote a highly circulated and influential report that asserted that gay men and lesbians exhibited weak moral character and had a “corrosive influence” on their fellow employees. “One homosexual can pollute a government office,” the Senate report concluded. Based on little evidence, the attacks represented a way for Republicans, the minority party at the time, to attack the Democrats and the New Deal agencies they had created as centers of immorality.

In 1953, the pressure to strengthen security procedures became codified when newly elected President Eisenhower signed executive order 10450, which expanded Truman’s loyalty program to include issues of character and suitability. For the first time, “sexual perversion” was included in the list of behaviors that would exclude one from holding a job with the federal government or receiving a security clearance from a federal contractor. Agencies set up new policies and procedures for detecting and removing men and women suspected of being gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Applicants were personally interviewed to look for subtle signs of homosexuality, such as gender non-conformity. Invoking the notion of “guilt by association,” investigators checked whether an employee’s friends or roommates were gay. Some were placed under surveillance to determine whether they frequented gay bars or associated with “known homosexuals.” Local police agencies were encouraged to clamp down on local gay meeting places and then share their arrest records. Investigators vigorously interrogated civil servants about their private sex lives and offered a “lie-detector” test as one of the only means of establishing their innocence. Thousands lost their jobs or resigned under pressure. A small number were driven to suicide.

The level of fear and intimidation was so intense, particularly in Washington, D.C.’s gay community, that it spawned resistance. One of the first to fight his dismissal was Frank Kameny, who took his case all the way to the US Supreme Court and lost. Forced to write his own brief to the Supreme Court, he articulated the revolutionary idea that he was being treated as a second-class citizen. He argued that anti-gay discrimination was “no less illegal and no less odious than discrimination based upon religious or racial grounds.” This was not an issue of morality or national security, he argued, but of human rights. In 1961 he helped found a new type of gay organization dedicated to “secure for homosexuals the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Using his own name -- at a time when most gays and lesbians used pseudonyms – Kameny testified before Congress, led pickets in front of the White House, and helped other fired federal workers fight their dismissals in court. By 1969, several US federal courts had ruled in their favor, labeling the policies of the lavender scare an unconstitutional infringement on American freedoms. In highly sensitive agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and The National Security Agency, the ban on gay and lesbian employees would linger into the 1990s, when President Clinton finally signed executive orders banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in federal hiring practices and in the granting of security clearances.

In this book, Johnson concludes that the lavender scare, as it became routinized in the bureaucracy of the national security state, outlasted its more well-known cousin, the red scare. He demonstrates how, in the language of the 1950s, “security risk” became a virtual code word for homosexual. Although the famous question “are you now or have you ever been a member of the communist party” captured the attention of a national television audience during the McCarthy era, this book shows how government investigators were posing another question at least as frequently, if more discreetly, but with similarly devastating consequences: “Information has come to our attention that you are homosexual. What comment do you care to make?” Ultimately Johnson argues that we cannot understand McCarthyism or cold war politics without examining the fears of gender and sexual non-conformity that permeated the era.