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The Lavender Scare

On April 27th, 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order #10450. This order enabled his administration to orchestrate a witch hunt seeking out anyone in the federal government who might be homosexual. These employees were either encouraged to resign or outright fired. They were also denied employment in other branches and sectors of the government. Homosexuals were deemed a “security risk” and denied clearance. They were often threatened with exposure and coerced to name names much like the Communist witch hunt of the McCarthy era. This persecution, known as the “lavender scare”, continued for over four decades until the Clinton administration ended the ban. In the years in between, tens of thousands of employees lost their jobs. Careers ended and lives were forever changed. However in the midst of the Cold War paranoia of the lavender scare, the seed was planted for the gay rights movement. What originally was intended as a moral crackdown helped spur a rebellion against oppression.

Director Josh Howard’s new documentary The Lavender Scare examines a dark time in the history of our government and our culture. The film was inspired by David K. Johnson’s non-fiction book by the same name. Talking heads include Johnson himself, other historians, former government employees who were victims of the bans, their family members and even their persecutors. Notable figures include Joan Cassidy, who served as a captain in the Navy Reserve, and Frank Kameny, an astronomer turned activist. Kameny is by far the most interesting subject in the film. Known as the grandfather of the gay rights movement, he was the first person to fight back against the ban and organized a protest outside the White House in 1965.

“It’s a story that’s both tragic and triumphant. It tells of the heartbreak of those who lost their jobs and their careers – and even their lives – as a result of the government’s brutal tactics.
But it is uplifting as well. It shows how the policy of discrimination stirred a sense of outrage and activism among gay men and lesbians and helped ignite what was to become the gay rights movement.”

Director Josh Howard

Howard’s documentary is an interesting mix of first and second hand accounts, FBI files and other written documents as well as plenty of context about the era of the lavender scare. It’s narrated by Glenn Close and features the voices of Cynthia Nixon, Zachary Quinto, T.R. Knight and David Hyde Pierce.

I do wish there was a bit more information about the post WWII when the LGBT community moved to Washington D.C. in search of government work. There were some other bits of history I wanted to know more about (Kinsey Report findings, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, etc.) but I felt like the documentary did a surface level look and not a deep dive. There was perhaps too much going on and it lost focus. However, this film serves as an important primer on a lesser known aspect of our government’s history. The Lavender Scare doesn’t leave us in despair but fills us with hope that this dark history is behind us and we can learn from it for a better future.

The Lavender Scare released in NY and Los Angeles this month in time for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Visit the official website to check out dates for future screenings. It will have it’s nationwide PBS premiere on June 18th.

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