Last night, as part of their celebration of Queer Pride, PBS showed a fascinating documentary called The Lavender Scare, produced and directed by Josh Howard and with some familiar names to me (including former Zenger’s cover boy Kevin Jennings of GLAAD and Andrew Tobias, multi-millionaire financier and author of The Best Little Boy in the World, a memoir of growing up Gay which he signed with the name “John Reid”) on his production staff, based on a book of the same title by David Johnson which would be worth reading. The film apparently premiered in a theatre in New York’s Greenwich Village on June 7, 2019 (in a 77-minute version, longer than the one we got on TV), but according to imdb.com was actually made two years earlier.
The story really begins in the 1930’s, when under the Franklin Roosevelt administration and its New Deal response to the 1929 Depression, the size of the federal government zoomed upward and Washington, D.C. attracted a lot of America’s best and brightest with the promise of making good livings and serving the public good. A lot of those people were Gay, Lesbian or whatever in the ridiculous alphabet-soup identifier our community now goes by (I’ve seen “LGBT,” “LGBTQ,” “LGBTQ+” and even “LGBTQQIAA” — the last came from the Queer student group at UCSD and means “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual and Allies” — the last being the current term of art for straight people who support Queer rights), and freed from the social and sexual constraints of their small towns and adrift in the big city, they found out that there were others like them, met, hooked up, formed relationships and did the other things adult humans do together regardless of their sexuality.
Then in 1941 the U.S. got involved in World War II and a lot of people who hadn’t necessarily known they were Queer before ended up in military service, rigidly segregated by sex, and being in single-sex environments brought out their natural inclinations and they started to act on them. (As late as the 1980’s and 1990’s Queers in the U.S. military were telling me when I interviewed them that they hadn’t realized they were Queer until they were in the single-sex environment of the military — the obvious comeback to the homophobes who asked people in the days of the military ban and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy which followed, “Why did you join the military when you knew we wouldn’t accept you?”)
But these advances were threatened and ultimately stopped by the highly repressive political, social and sexual climate of the Cold War and the so-called McCarthy era, which began an era of witchhunts not only against actual or suspected Communists (or liberals who could be framed as Communists, since part of the Right’s objective in the McCarthy era, as now, was to ensure themselves permanent dominance of American politics by demonizing their opponents and putting them “beyond the pale” of acceptable political discourse) but against Queers as well. In 1953 newly elected Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an executive order banning all “homosexuals” from federal employment — no exceptions, no ifs, ands or buts.
Josh Howard’s narration, delivered by actress Glenn Close, is undecided as to whether President Eisenhower issued this order out of genuine conviction that Queer people constituted a security risk or to provide political cover to the Right of his party. But an earlier PBS documentary mentioned that when Eisenhower was supreme Allied military commander during World War II he had tried to issue a similar order to fire all Gay and Lesbian members of his immediate staff — and, in a rare display of courage, the woman he told to compile the list of Queers on his staff for him to fire said to him, “If you order me to make that list, my name will be the first on it.”
The Cultural Context
In 1953, sex between two partners of the same gender was illegal in every U.S. state. Homosexuality was defined as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the official guide of the psychiatric profession as to what constituted diseases of the mind. The very term “homosexual” had been coined by a Hungarian researcher in 1865 as a definition of a mental illness, and that had been considered a step forward since previously homosexuality had been defined as a sin against God that deserved the death penalty. Anyone caught having Gay sex or declaring him- or herself Gay risked not only imprisonment but social disgrace and unemployability. Anyone growing up and realizing their sexual attractions ran towards people of their own sex would hear nothing but a chorus of condemnation; the church would say they were immoral, science would say they were “sick,” the economy would say they shouldn’t be allowed to work and the law would say they were criminals.
And yet Queer people and their straight allies actually stuck their toes into the pool of activism in ways sometimes subtle and sometimes surprisingly bold. At the end of the 19th century German physician and sex researcher Magnus Hirschfeld organized a group called the Scientific Humanitarian Committee and started a petition calling on the German government to repeal its laws against Gay sex. The first Queer rights group in the U.S., the Society for Human Rights, was founded in Chicago in 1924 by Henry Gerber, a German immigrant inspired by Hirschfeld’s example. “I had always bitterly felt the injustice with which my own American society accused the homosexual of ‘immoral acts,’” Gerber wrote. His organization lasted less than two years.
The continuous history of Queer rights activism in the U.S. began in 1950, when Harry Hay — who, more than any other single person, deserves the title of founder of the movement — and four of his friends held a private meeting in Los Angeles. The group they founded was called the Mattachine Society, after a tribe of traveling jesters in medieval Italy whom Hay had discovered in his researches and believed had been Gay. Hay and some of the other Mattachine founders had been members of the Communist Party and the Progressive Party, which ran former vice-president Henry A. Wallace for president in 1948 under a platform of reconciliation with the Soviet Union and an end to the Cold War. Hay adopted a secretive cell-like structure for Mattachine and scored an early victory when one of its founders, Dale Jennings, was arrested for crusing an undercover police officer in a restroom. Jennings challenged the charges in court and was acquitted.
Like much of the “official” history of America’s Queer rights movement, The Lavender Scare gives short shrift to Mattachine and denounces it as accommodationist and not radical enough. Part of that reputation was earned; in 1953, Hay and the founders were purged in a sort of internalized version of the Cold War, and the people who took over at the time largely adopted the mainstream psychiatric view that homosexuality was a mental illness. They pleaded for legalization and equal rights on the ground that Queer people, like people with physical disabilities, shouldn’t be discriminated against because they were sick. But, as John D’Emilio (who’s briefly interviewed in The Lavender Scare) pointed out in his book Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, his 1983 history of the pre-Stonewall Queer rights movement, visibility was a two-edged sword for the early Queer movement. Queer activists in the 1950’s realized they needed to be visible to overcome the prejudice against them — but that very visibility meant they risked being targeted for being arrested, fired and disgraced.
Kangaroo Courts and Gay Inquisitors
So when Eisenhower declared his intention to fire every last homosexual from the federal government, there was virtually no public opposition. The witch-hunting Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) is shown here in film clips joining the public denunciation of “perverts” and calling for their total elimination for federal employment. Eisenhower gave the task of ferreting them out to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and people interviewed in The Lavender Scare recalled the kangaroo-court nature of these “investigations.”
Pairs of FBI agents just showed up at their offices and called them in for interrogation on the spot. They were not allowed legal counsel or any sort of due process. They weren’t allowed even to know what information was being used as the basis of firing them, much less the chance to confront their accusers. Also, like witch-hunters everywhere, they hounded the people they targeted to give them more names and keep the witch-hunt going. Navy Captain Joan Cassidy recalled, “They said, ‘We have your friend in the next room, she’s already told us you are Gay. You give us the names of others and we’ll go easier on you.’”
Ironically — and, oddly, unmentioned in The Lavender Scare — some of the officials carrying out the anti-Gay witchhunt in the federal government were Gay themselves. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and his assistant, Clyde Tolson, were a deeply closeted Gay couple who lived together. Joe McCarthy’s chief of staff, Roy Cohn, was also a closeted Gay man who, after McCarthy was censured by the U.S. Senate in 1954 and died in 1957, became a legendary attorney in private practice in New York City. One of Cohn’s clients was a young real-estate developer named Donald Trump who had inherited a business building and renting properties in the outer boroughs of New York.
Cohn masterminded Trump’s ascension to Manhattan and became so important, powerful and influential that after his death from AIDS complications in 1987 — just months after the New York State Bar had disbarred him for ethics violations — that ever since Trump, frustrated when his later attorneys were either too incompetent or too ethical, has often asked rhetorically, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” So when Trump accuses Robert Mueller, his investigators and the Democrats on the House Judiciary, Intelligence and Oversight Committee of using “McCarthyite tactics” against him, bear in mind that it’s Trump who has the direct one-degree-of-separation connection to McCarthy himself.
Dr. Kameny Fights Back
Most of the government workers who were targeted by the Lavender Scare left government service in shame and tried as best they could to rebuild their lives. Some, including one diplomat profiled in The Lavender Scare, committed suicide. A few managed to keep their jobs. San Francisco postal worker Carl Rizzi, who performed part-time as a drag entertainer in a Gay bar, wasn’t fired because his supervisor stuck his own neck out and told the inquisitors that he knew Rizzi was Gay, but he was doing his job properly, so what was the problem? Captain Cassidy was able to stay in the service but decided to maintain a low profile and not apply for the promotions she probably deserved.
The man who stood out and not only organized a resistance to his own firing but began a movement against the policy was Dr. Franklin Kameny. Born in New York City, the son of Jewish immigrants, he decided at an early age to make astronomy his life’s work. After the war, he studied at Harvard University, where he earned a Master’s degree in 1949 and a Ph.D. in 1956. He got a teaching job at Georgetown University for a year and was then hired by the U.S. government. But Kameny’s government job lasted only a few months before he fell victim to the anti-Gay witchhunt; investigators dredged up an old case in San Francisco and used it as the pretext to fire him.
Rather than go gently into the not-good night of depression and disgrace, Kameny fought back. First he sued the government and lost when, after a three-year legal battle, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his case. Then he started a Mattachine Society chapter in Washington, D.C. and made the group’s top priority to support other victims of the federal government’s anti-Queer policy. Along with his colleague Jack Nichols, Lesbian activist Barbara Gittings, and a few others, Kameny tried to move Mattachine back to a more confrontational stand. In 1963 the group began a drive to repeal Washington, D.C.’s anti-sodomy law — which finally passed in 1993, 30 years later.
In 1965 Kameny did something even more radical. He decided to mount public protests against the anti-Gay policy, picketing the White House on April 17, 1965. At first he was only able to recruit 12 people for his pickets, but the demonstrations eventually grew to about 100 — remember, at a time when being Gay or Lesbian was itself illegal. Kameny imposed a strict dress code on the protesters; the men on his picket line had to wear suits and ties, and the women had to wear dresses, pump shoes and makeup. Kameny’s logic was that to demand the right to work for the federal government, his activists had to look employable. One Lesbian who marched with him recalled on The Lavender Scare that she’d never before worn pumps in her life.
Kameny’s powerful story was told in The Lavender Scare mostly in his own words. He was extensively interviewed for various documentaries on the Queer rights movement and was ultimately invited to the White House by President Barack Obama. In 2010, a year before Kameny’s death, a short stretch of street in Washington, D.C. was named for him; The Lavender Scare contains footage of the renaming ceremony.
Josh Howard’s script for The Lavender Scare dates the end of the federal government’s anti-Queer witchhunt as 1995. Though president Jimmy Carter had issued an executive order as early as 1977 ending discrimination in federal hiring on the basis of sexual orientation, there was an important loophole in it. It did not end discrimination in the granting of security clearances.
Part of the justification for Eisenhower’s original order had been the possibility that Queer people in the government would be subject to blackmail by hostile foreign powers if their sexual orientation was revealed. No one in the social climate of 1953 was about to make the obvious (to us today) counter-argument that if you eliminated the legal penalties and social opprobrium attached to being Gay or Lesbian, that would also eliminate the potential for blackmail.
So, though after 1977 Queer people could still work in branches of the federal government that didn’t require clearance, it was not until 1995 that President Bill Clinton signed an executive order banning discrimination against Queer people in granting or maintaining security clearances. And, of course, the ban on Queer people serving in the U.S. military was not finally lifted until 2010, when a Democratic Congress passed, and Democratic President Barack Obama signed, the law repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy Clinton had been forced to settle on in 1993 when he tried to end anti-Queer discrimination in the U.S. military by executive order.
Vote for Democrats!
One important object lesson of The Lavender Scare is that, contrary to the ridiculous and factually unsustainable position of people in what I call the “alt-Left” — the ones who proclaim that “there’s no difference between the Republican and Democratic parties” — there are deep and profound differences between them, especially on Queer rights. It was a Republican President, Eisenhower, who imposed the ban on Queer people in the federal government in the first place, while Democratic Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama took it down step by step.
When the final credits of The Lavender Scare flashed that Dr. Frank Kameny had died on October 11, 2011, my immediate thought was, “At least he has been spared President Trump.” Under Trump and the Republicans in his administration, particularly his evangelical Christian vice-president Mike Pence, Obama’s executive orders protecting the rights of Transgender people have been reversed, as have been Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regulations banning anti-Queer discrimination in federal housing projects. Trump has also banned Transgender servicemembers from the U.S. military. One New Yorker report on the Presidential transition said that Mike Pence actually lobbied Trump to repeal the executive orders Carter and Clinton had issued ending discrimination against Queer people in federal employment, though thank goodness for small mercies that Trump hasn’t — not yet, anyway — gone that far.So one lesson from The Lavender Scare is that it’s crucial that Queer people and their straight allies in the U.S. need to vote for Democrats and not waste their votes on at best powerless and at worst counterproductive alternative parties. The Democrats haven’t always been our friends, but the Republicans — especially today, with their heavy reliance on the votes of Right-wing evangelical Christians and moral reactionaries in general — are our relentless and implacable enemies.