Inside the shameful history of the 'Lavender Scare,' when the US government embarked on an anti-gay witch hunt and purged thousands of employees
James PasleyMay 27, 2023, 01:13 IST
The focus of the Lavender Scare was finding and purging gay government employees. According to the National Archives, its impact was actually greater and longer lasting than the Red Scare.
Lavender is a color often associated with the queer community. Back then, certain newspapers and politicians, including Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen, called gay men "lavender lads."
The campaign began in the late 1940s. As the public's general awareness of homosexuality increased, discrimination against the community was on the rise, including within the US government.
In 1950, GOP Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin claimed to possess a list of 205 communists working for the government. Less than a fortnight later, he went further and outlined a number of cases, including two who he said were also homosexual.
But that didn't matter. When Deputy Undersecretary of State John Peurifoy told the Senate a week later that 91 homosexual employees had already been fired, the damage was done.
In 1953, then-newly-elected President Dwight D. Eisenhower continued the trend when he described gay people as a threat to the country's security.
Former Navy Lieutenant Joan Cassidy, who was fired because of her sexuality, spoke about her experiences in the documentary "The Lavender Scare."
About 2,200 women and men were documented as having lost their jobs due to the Lavender Scare. But David K. Johnson, a history professor at the University of South Florida, estimated that the number was as high as 10,000.
A key difference between the Lavender Scare and the Red Scare was that in this campaign, no one was named — meaning there were no famous Hollywood directors to tie to the cause.
In 1957, astronomer Frank Kameny was fired by the Army Map Service for his sexuality. He'd been job working on a classified missile project. After his dismissal, he became one of the key figures who fought the discrimination.
In 1965, Kameny led a protest of 10 people outside the White House. The protest was against systematic discrimination but was triggered by reports that gay people were being forced into labor camps in Cuba.
Despite Kameny's hard work, it wasn't for another decade until the ban against gay people working for the government was lifted in 1975.
Gay government employees continued to be fired from the State Department until the 1990s due to security concerns. In 1995, President Bill Clinton explicitly ended the order.
On the 70th anniversary of the Lavender Scare, President Biden issued a presidential proclamation to acknowledge the harmful impact of the campaign.