Lavender Scare: The Government’s Gay Witch Hunt

Demonstrators Protesting Treatment of Homosexual in the Military
May 21, 1965. Demonstrators protest "the issuance of less-than-fully honorable discharges to homosexuals in the Armed Forces;" "total exclusion of homosexuals in the Armed Forces;" "offensively-worded military regulations on homosexuals;" and, "continuing refusal by the Departments of Defense, Army, Navy, and Air Force to meet with spokesmen for the homosexual community to engage constructive discussion of the policies and procedures at issue.".

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The “Lavender Scare” refers to the identification and mass firings of thousands of homosexual people from the U.S. federal government during the 1950s. This gay witch hunt grew out of the post-World War II Red Scare and its subsequent McCarthyism era campaign to purge communists from the government. The call to remove gay men and lesbian women from government employment was based on the theory that they were likely to be communist sympathizers and thus security risks.

Key Takeaways: Lavender Scare

  • The term Lavender Scare refers to the identification and firing of some 5,000 homosexual people from the US government between 1950 and 1973.
  • The Lavender Scare was connected to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare hearings intended to purge communists and communist sympathizers from government. 
  • The interrogations and firings of the Lavender Scare were based on the belief that like communists, homosexuals posed a risk to national security. 
  • The Lavender Scare was instrumental in advancing the gay rights movement in the United States.

Background

After World War II, thousands of young gay people moved to large cities, where the anonymity of numbers facilitated same-sex relationships. In 1948, sexuality researcher Alfred Kinsey's bestselling book "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" made the public aware that same-sex experiences were far more common than previously believed. However, this new awareness failed to make homosexuality any more socially acceptable. At the same time, America was gripped by a fear of communism, homosexuality was seen as another—perhaps even interrelated—lurking subversive threat. 

The Subcommittee on Investigations

In 1949, the Senate’s Special Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Democratic Senator Clyde R. Hoey of North Carolina, conducted a year-long investigation of “the employment of homosexuals in the Federal workforce.” The Hoey Committee’s report, Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government, found that from 1948 to 1950, nearly 5,000 homosexuals had been identified in the military and civilian government workforces. The report went on to state that all government intelligence agencies were “in complete agreement that sex perverts in Government constitute security risks.”

McCarthy, Cohn, and Hoover

On February 9, 1950, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, told Congress that he was in possession of a list of 205 known communists working at the State Department. At the same time, Undersecretary of State John Peurifoy said that the State Department had allowed 91 homosexuals to resign. McCarthy argued that because of their often secretive lifestyles, gays were more susceptible to blackmail and thus more likely to pose a threat to national security. “Homosexuals must not be handling top-secret material,” he said. “The pervert is easy prey to the blackmailer.”

McCarthy often associated his accusations of communism to accusations of homosexuality, once telling reporters, “If you want to be against McCarthy, boys, you’ve got to be either a Communist or a (explicative).”

Based on the findings of the Hoey Committee, McCarthy hired his former personal attorney, Roy Cohn, as lead counsel to his Permanent Senate Subcommittee on Investigations. With the assistance of controversial FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, McCarthy and Cohn orchestrated the firing of hundreds of gay men and women from government employment. By late 1953, during the final months of the Harry S. Truman presidential administration, the State Department reported that it had fired 425 employees who had been accused of homosexuality. Ironically, Roy Cohn died of AIDS in 1986, amidst accusations of being a closeted homosexual. 

Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450 

On April 27, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450, establishing security standards for government employees and banning homosexuals from working in any capacity for the federal government. As a result of these regulations, the identification and firing of gay people continued. Ultimately, some 5,000 gay people—including private contractors and military personnel—were forced from federal employment. Not only were they fired, but they also suffered the personal trauma of being publicly outed as gay or lesbian.

Associating Communism With Homosexuality 

Communists and homosexuals were both viewed as “subversives” during the 1950s. McCarthy contended that homosexuality and communism were both “threats to the ‘American way of life.’” In the long run, more government employees were fired for being gay or lesbian than for being left-leaning or actual communists. George Chauncey, professor of history at Columbia University, once wrote that “The specter of the invisible homosexual, like that of the invisible communist, haunted Cold War America.”

Resistance and Change

Not all fired gay federal works went away quietly. Most notably, Frank Kameny, an astronomer fired by the Army Map Service in 1957, appealed his dismissal to the U.S. Supreme Court. After his appeal was rejected in 1961, Kameny co-founded the Washington, D.C., branch of the Mattachine Society, one of the nation’s first gay rights organizations. In 1965, four years before the New York City Stonewall Riots, Kameny picketed the White House demanding gay rights. 

In 1973, a federal judge ruled that people could not be fired from federal employment based solely on their sexual orientation. When the federal government began considering job applications from gays and lesbians on a case by case basis in 1975, the Lavender Scare officially ended—at least for civilian government employees. 

However, Executive Order 10450 remained in effect for military personnel until 1995, when President Bill Clinton replaced it with his “Don't ask, don't tell” policy for conditional admittance of gays into the military. Finally, in 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010, allowing gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to serve openly in the military. 

Legacy

While it eventually contributed to the successes of the American gay rights movement, the Lavender Scare initially fractured the nation’s LGBTQ community and drove it even deeper underground. Though most federal agencies reversed their policies on LGBTQ discrimination in employment after the 1973 court order, the FBI and National Security Agency continued their bans against homosexuals until President Clinton overturned them in 1995.

In 2009, Frank Kameny returned to the White House, this time at the invitation of President Barack Obama for a ceremony observing the signing of an executive order extending the rights of gay federal employees to receive full federal benefits. “Extending available benefits will help the Federal Government compete with the private sector to recruit and retain the best and the brightest employees,” said President Obama. 

On January 9, 2017, then Secretary of State John Kerry apologized to the LGBTQ community for the federal government’s Lavender Scare interrogations and firings of gays. “In the past—as far back as the 1940s, but continuing for decades—the Department of State was among many public and private employers that discriminated against employees and job applicants on the basis of perceived sexual orientation, forcing some employees to resign or refusing to hire certain applicants in the first place,” said Kerry. “These actions were wrong then, just as they would be wrong today.”

In concluding his comments, Kerry stated, “I apologize to those who were impacted by the practices of the past and reaffirm the department’s steadfast commitment to diversity and inclusion for all our employees, including members of the LGBT community.”

After nearly 70 years of demonstrations, political pressure, and court battles, the Lavender Scare spoke to the hearts and minds of Americans, helping to turn the tide in favor of acceptance and equal rights for the LGBTQ community.

Sources and Further Reference