The 1950s saw the US State Department persecute its public servants indiscriminately by methodically scanning personnel files, going through personal correspondences and interviewing potential threats all purportedly to root out ‘scandalous’, ‘immoral’ and ‘dangerous’ behaviour.
One would think that the 1950s was the decade of the Cold War and the Red Scare was at its peak, however the LGBT were not targeted because they were communists but were unabashedly bullied and supposedly considered unfit to serve due to their sexual perversions as “they could become an easy target for Communists to ensnare”.
This period from the mid-40s all through the 50s and early 60s came to be known as the Lavender Scare. It ran concurrent to the Red Scare to systematically target, interrogate and subsequently purge suspected gays and lesbians, in the thousands. Some of them were so badly shamed and depressed with losing their jobs and personal dignity that they even took the extreme step of ending their lives.
The Lavender Scare was a horrible time for lavender boys and lavender girls (gays and lesbians, as they were then known) in the USA as homosexuality was until then considered a crime, perceived as a mental illness and a sign of perversion. But as cities grew, gay culture began to flourish and gay people began to find each other at underground bars and pubs. As a natural reciprocation, American culture started getting more and more conservative and stricter policing of sexual expression became the norm.
Many people began equating Communism with homosexuality—people like Senator Joseph McCarthy, linked what he considered to be the madness of Communists to the supposed mental imbalances of gay people. “Many assumptions about Communists mirrored common beliefs about homosexuals,” noted National Archives archivist Judith Adkins. “Both were thought to be morally weak or psychologically disturbed, both were seen as godless, both purportedly undermined the traditional family, both were assumed to recruit, and both were shadowy figures with a secret subculture.”
The official rationale wasn’t that homosexuals were Communists, but that they could be used by Communists. A variation on the blackmail rationale held that Communists promoted “sex perversion” among American youth as a way to weaken the country and clear the path for a Communist takeover.
Under the guise of locking down National Security the State Department actively began pursuing, targeting and interrogating public servants who were suspected of sexual perversions. They were then pressured hard and bullied to put in their resignations. Investigators looked for supposed signs of homosexuality, like being unmarried, and scrutinized employees’ and potential hires’ voices, mannerisms and dress for stereotypical markers that they might be gay.
As the search for gay State Department employees intensified, so did the pressure. People were questioned, publicly humiliated and mocked by investigators. They were encouraged to denounce others and report suspected homosexuals. And in 1953, President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which defined a laundry list of characteristics as security risks, including “sexual perversion.” This was interpreted as a ban on homosexual employees, and even more firings took place.
Many committed suicide but others like Frank Kameny, fought back. Fired in 1957, he petitioned the Supreme Court for relief in recognition of his civil rights. They declined to take the case, so he picketed the White House. He fought to counter workplace discrimination for the rest of his life. Kameny wasn’t the only person galvanized by the public targeting of LGBT people—in 1969, the Stonewall Riots made gay rights a front-page issue and the movement Kameny helped start and the Lavender Scare helped foment, has flourished ever since.
The Lavender scare lasted until the 1960s, when investigations slowed. Only in the 1970s was the ban on gay intelligence community members relaxed, and it took until 1995 for another executive order, signed by President Bill Clinton, to explicitly state that the government may not discriminate based on sexual orientation when it comes to granting access to classified information. By then, countless gay people had been reminded for years that their participation in the State Department was not wanted—and that they would be treated as second-class citizens if they tried to serve their country.
Shortly before leaving office, Secretary of State John Kerry made a public apology on behalf of the State Department for the persecution of LGBT employees. “These actions were wrong then, just as they would be wrong today,” he said. The apology has since been removed from the State Department’s website—a reminder that struggles over LGBT rights are anything but relics of the past.
Today, memories of the Lavender Scare are fading as the people it targeted grow older. The experiences of others, who never told their stories for fear of being kicked out of their jobs, too, will never be known.
Written by:- Delshad Master