(619) 505-7777

60th anniversary of federal government’s gay purge

The renewed effort to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act launched last week came days before the 60th anniversary of a defining moment in LGBT history, when thousands of employees and contractors were purged from the federal government because they were gay or lesbian.

On April 27, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an executive order calling for the removal of homosexuals from all federal agencies. Gay and lesbian government workers were immediately fired or resigned out of fear of being publicly outed. Even LGBT people working in the private sector whose jobs required them to have a federal security clearance were also fired or resigned.

The supposed justification for the purge was that homosexuals were a godless, immoral group who would work with communists to overthrow the government, thereby posing an imminent threat to national security.

While many remember the “Red Scare” of the mid-20th century, the purging of LGBT government employees, dubbed the “Lavender Scare,” today rarely receives its due as a catalyst for the LGBT equality movement. In 2004, David K. Johnson helped bring the historical moment to light in his book The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government.

This summer, a documentary titled “The Lavender Scare” is set to hit theaters and film festivals. Gay Politics spoke with Producer/Director Josh Howard and Executive Producer Kevin Jennings about the making of the film and the importance of the Lavender Scare, both 60 years ago and today.

GP: What was your motivation in creating the film?

JH: Our aim is to shed light an important aspect of LGBT history that has never received the attention it deserves. There are many, many movies and books about the Cold War and the McCarthy Era, but the story of how gay men and lesbians were systematically driven from their government jobs during that time has never been fully told. Thousands and thousands of LGBT people fired; by contrast, only a couple of hundred suspected Communists lost their jobs. The history books don’t acknowledge this, and as a result few very people know about it. It’s a dramatic example of the ways in which the role of the LGBT community is often overlooked and marginalized in the telling of American history. The Lavender Scare will help to correct the historical record and bring this story to a broad audience. As we have learned all too well, if our community doesn’t speak out on its own behalf, nobody is going to do it for us.

KJ: We also felt that if we didn’t make this film now, it could never be made. Fewer and fewer people who lived through the witch hunts are still alive. In order to tell this story, we need the first-hand accounts of both the victims of the witch hunts and the government officials who were in charge. We have been successful in locating and interviewing enough key players to be able to construct a compelling film, but we knew our window of opportunity was closing. In fact, one of the key players in the story is Frank Kameny, who became the first person to fight back against the government’s policy of firing LGBT people, and went on to devote his entire life to the fight for LGBT rights. We spent three days filming interviews with Frank. Sadly, he passed away shortly thereafter.

GP: What is the purpose of making the film now, and what message do you want to send to your audience?

KJ: As William Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” When it comes to The Lavender Scare, that is unfortunately very true. When President Eisenhower institutionalized anti-LGBT discrimination in 1953 with his Executive Order 10450, which prohibited anyone who was LGBT from working for the Federal government, it established a pattern of employment discrimination that is still quite evident today. There are 29 states in which it is perfectly legal to fire people merely because of the sexual orientation or gender identity. Our goal is to show how employment discrimination in the past ruined the lives of thousands of people, and explain how that history is directly related to the battles still being fought today. To paraphrase the Faulkner quote, anti-LGBT discrimination isn’t past and it certainly isn’t over.

JH: Another message we want to send is one of hope. While this story is at times infuriating and heartbreaking, it is also inspiring. The earliest public gay rights protests (which happened in 1965, four years before Stonewall) were initiated in response to the government’s anti-LGBT witch hunts. In trying to get rid of homosexuals, the actions of the government had the opposite effect: they stirred a sense of outrage and activism that helped ignite the LGBT rights movement. Finally, the message is: be vigilant. The repressive policies that targeted gay men and lesbians in the 1950s came about as a backlash against the more permissive years of the Great Depression and World War II. Most Americans – even LGBT Americans and particularly young LGBT Americans – are unaware of the extent of the brutal and systematic discrimination faced by our community in the 1950s and beyond.

Since the dark days of the 1950s, we have made enormous progress. That’s terrific. But we must protect our hard-won victories. In order to do that, we have to understand our history, acknowledge the sacrifices and successes of generations before us, and make sure all Americans know our story and understand what we are fighting for.

GP: What kind of impact do you expect the film to have (e.g. raise awareness, create change, etc.)?

JH: Beyond its relevance to the historic struggles of the LGBT community, The Lavender Scare shines a light on the broader issue of discrimination in our society, particularly during times when people feel threatened — whether by Communism during the Cold War or terrorism today. It can inform and encourage a discussion about the delicate balance between freedom and national security, and serve as a cautionary tale about the ease with which any minority group can become the target of a politically motivated witch hunt.

KJ: Specifically, we believe this film can be a powerful tool to win hearts and minds and effect social change. We envision using the film as part of an extensive community- and campus-based organizing tool that will educate audiences about the roots of anti-LGBT employment discrimination and its continuing pervasiveness today.

GP: What is your plan for promoting the film and where will it be screened?

JH: The film will be screened at LGBT and general interest film festivals. There will be a theatrical release, and a DVD. We’re also optimistic the film will be shown on cable TV and be available on VOD.

KJ: As we alluded to earlier, we will create a variety of resources to accompany the film, designed for use by schools, community groups, and businesses, to insure that the message reaches as many people as possible. For educators, we will create a curriculum guide containing detailed lesson plans and a discussion guide highlighting key issues. We will provide access to a comprehensive collection of primary source government documents that will be available for download from our website. The award-winning book The Lavender Scare, upon which the documentary is based, is the work of nationally known historian David K. Johnson, and is now required reading in history classes at scores of colleges and universities around the country, and our film will be a perfect companion.

For community groups, we will create a comprehensive tool kit that will provide social service organizations and gay-straight alliances the resources they need to easily and efficiently use the film as a catalyst for effective social action. We will particularly target the 29 states where efforts are underway to pass anti-discrimination legislation.

Additionally, we will work with private businesses and employee groups to spread the word that diversity and respect for the individual is not just the right thing to do it’s also good business. In partnership with organizations that target workplace discrimination, we will provide companies with the tools they need to set up screenings and panel discussions tailored to their unique situations. Through the stories of LGBT Americans whose lives were ruined by workplace discrimination, The Lavender Scare can empower businesses to effectively communicate a message of dignity and respect for all their employees.

GP: How difficult was it to get information?

  • Were victims willing to give interviews?
  • Were statistical data on the firings of LGBT people readily available?
  • Were the identities of the “witch hunt” enforcers available?

KJ: Much of the film is based on the research of David Johnson. He began to work on this subject in the early 1990s. He spent years and years tracking down people with first-hand accounts of the time period, filed dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain government documents, and was able to access a large amount of material had recently been declassified. All this work became the basis for his doctoral thesis, and was published as a book The Lavender Scare. That gave us a huge head start. We then sought out additional people to help us tell the story.

We had varying experiences with victims. Some were very excited to talk about what happened to them. Other than David Johnson, nobody had ever approached them before to discuss this subject, and they were thrilled somebody cared. Somewhat surprisingly – or maybe not – a number of people wouldn’t talk to us, or allow us to use their names. Some said the memories of those days were too painful. Other still did not feel comfortable being publicly identified as LGBT.

JH: Information about the numbers of people who were fired – or chose to resign – is not easy to come by. One of the reasons this story is largely unknown is that when the anti-homosexual purges were going on, it was in just about everybody’s interest to keep them secret. Most of the targets were low level civil service workers. They didn’t have the resources to fight back, and they didn’t want to draw any attention to the reason they lost their jobs. More than anything else, they wanted to stay in the closet, so they could find other jobs. The government was also uncomfortable talking about the issue. Whenever information about the number of people being fired leaked out, the public was newly outraged – not that “perverts” (the common word for LGBT people in those days) had been fired, but that they had been hired in the first place! So both sides were engaged in a conspiracy of silence.

KJ: We used a number of methods to find the identities of the government workers who carried out the purges. It was fairly easy to come up with the names of higher-ranking officials who developed the anti-LGBT policy and directed the investigations of federal employees. What was harder to do was to actually find them – or, more importantly, to find them alive. Remember, these policies were put in place in the 1950s, and so the people involved would today be quite elderly, or no longer living. But we were very lucky to find more than enough key people who were in good health and willing to talk to us.

We identified some of the lower-level federal agents who conducted investigations by going through old lawsuits. Beginning in the 1960s, with the help of Frank Kameny, several individuals who were fired for being LGBT sued the government. Often, their court documents would include the names of the government agents who were responsible for conducting the investigations that identified them as being LGBT. We found a number of interesting government people that way.

GP: What were the reactions of people involved (interviewees, current federal employees, enforcers, etc.) when you approached them about making the film?

KJ: Many of the victims were amazed to find out from us that they were part of a vast group of people – thousands and thousands – who had been victimized in the anti-LGBT witch hunts. They had thought all along that they had been part of an unlucky handful. In fact, even Frank Kameny, who became the go-to guy when it came to employment issues, hadn’t realized how systematic and widespread the anti-LGBT witch hunt had become until he read David Johnson’s book.

JH: Almost every former government official we approached for an interview agreed to go on camera. This surprised us. But they were very eager to talk – for two very different reasons, as it turned out. Some of them saw it as an opportunity for a mea culpa; they were sorry for what they had done and wanted to say so. One man looked into the camera and said, “I just want to apologize to all those decent people whose lives we ruined.” On the other hand, some wanted the chance to defend what they had done. They believed them – and still believe now – that LGBT people pose a security risk. As one former investigator said, “If you’re hiring for a government position, I’m sure it is possible to find a competent person who doesn’t have this psychological defect.”

GP: The opening interview for the trailer reveals tactics of intimidation and violence from the enforcers. How often did these tactics occur?

JH: Investigators used all of the usual techniques of police work to identify LGBT people. They would interview friends and co-workers of the target of their investigation, and they would reward government employees who provided useful information. We have the actual handwritten letter some people sent to the FBI and other agencies, suggesting possible targets for investigation. “Investigate so-and-so, he has a weak handshake, he must be a fairy.” Or, another letter said, Miss so-and-so doesn’t shave her legs. I have a bad feeling about her. Investigate her.” And the government did! These letters would be hilarious if the consequences hadn’t been so tragic.

Additionally, the government would use undercover agents, pretending to be gay men, to infiltrate offices and befriend suspected LGBT people. Other times, they would wait outside a gay bar; if two men left together, investigators would follow them home, wait a few minutes, and then bang on the door. They’d say, “You guys live here together? Where do you sleep? We only see one bed.” Or: “You say you don’t live here? Then what are you doing here?” In many cases these were young people scared out of their wits, and remember, these were the days before Miranda warnings and the right to remain silent. When the FBI — or even the local police — asked you a question, you answered. If the person admitted to being homosexual and turned out to be a government employee, he or she would be fired the next day. Many just resigned on the spot.

KH: One of the questions that was usually asked during interrogations was, “Do you know any other LGBT people? We’ll go easy on you if you give us the names of five other people you know are LGBT.” Some people refused. But others named names. And the next day, those people got a visit from investigators. One person told us: “You couldn’t trust your closest friends. You never knew who might be coerced into giving up information. There was constant fear that your name would be mentioned.”

GP: Do you believe national security was a realistic concern of the architects of these policies, or an excuse to remove LGBTs from the federal government?

KJ: There were certainly people who sincerely believed that LGBT people were a threat to national security, because they could presumably be blackmailed by foreign agents – even though there wasn’t a single case on record of that ever happening. And there were people who felt that LGBT people were immoral law breakers who were unfit to work for the federal government.

JH: But it is also quite clear that much of the anti-LGBT rhetoric was politically motivated. In 1952, with the presidential election approaching, Republicans were eager to regain control of the White House and the Congress. The Republican claim that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were “honeycombed with homosexuals” proved to be a potent political weapon.

It resonated with many conservative Americans who were already resentful of the New Deal policies and felt antagonism for Washington bureaucrats. To many Americans in the postwar era, Washington D.C. was a white-collar town full of what they called “long-haired men and short-haired women” and the demonization of gay and lesbian civil servants was part of this larger attack on the liberal policies of the Democrats.

In the 1952 campaign, issues of gender and sexuality were evident. The Republican campaign slogan “Let’s Clean House” alluded to the allegedly immoral behavior in the incumbent Democratic administration, including communism, corruption, and homosexuality. Eisenhower and Nixon called themselves as “regular guys” who were “for morality,” while Adlai Stevenson was portrayed as an “egghead” with a “fruity” voice — the sort of man most Americans wanted to remove from Washington, not send there. He was, after all, a wealthy, divorced former State Department official who was rumored to be homosexual.

GP: What challenges do people who identify as LGBT face as employees, or potential employees of the federal government today? Do outside agitators now play a similar role?

KJ: In 1995, President Clinton wiped out the last vestiges of the 1953 executive order that prevented LGBT people from working for the government. Since that time, we have seen only a limited number of cases of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in the federal government. In fact, LGBT employees of the State Department and other diplomatic agencies now have their own organization — GLIFFA, Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies — which is very active and influential in LGBT and government circles. I only wish some of the people who were driven out of their jobs during the dark years of the witch hunts could see what tremendous progress has been made.

JH: While the Federal government is a much more hospitable place to work than it ever was, we still have a lot of work to do with private employers. Each day seems to bring another story about a competent worker fired from a private company or a local government agency simply because of their sexual orientation. It underscores the need for the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which unfortunately has been stalled in Congress for some time.

To visit Gay Politics, click HERE.