Many people have heard of the Red Scare, an episode of persecution of suspected communists in the 1940s and 1950s, but they’re less familiar with a scare of a different hue. Over the same period, and into the 1990s, officials investigated and fired government employees for being gay or lesbian—a phenomenon that has become known as the “Lavender Scare.”
Thousands of people were pushed out of government jobs, whether they worked at the State Department or other agencies, as federal contractors, or in the military, because of their perceived sexuality—and, in some cases, because of guilt by association. Most remain anonymous, part of a chapter in LGBTQ history that is frequently ignored.
"The Pervert File"
The Lavender Scare was the product of a perfect storm of circumstances. During the Great Depression and World War II, many gays and lesbians left their rural communities in search of opportunities elsewhere, including in Washington, D.C. Government jobs provided excellent pay and benefits, and in a city, people could build community. But trouble lay ahead.
The first rumblings began in 1947, when the U.S. Park Police instituted a “Sex Perversion Elimination Program” explicitly targeting gay men in Washington, D.C. public parks for harassment. Patrols focused on Lafayette and Franklin Parks, where any men deemed suspicious could be picked up regardless of their intentions. Men were arrested and intimidated, pushed to pay fines to resolve their arrests and go home—but not before their information, including fingerprints and photographs, was collected for inclusion in a “pervert file.” By February 1950, 700 men had been apprehended, 200 of whom were arrested. According to historian David K. Johnson in his book The Lavender Scare, the typical detainee was a 25-year-old government clerk.
The parks program appeared against the backdrop of “sexual psychopath” laws. Passed across the country starting in the 1930s, these laws criminalized LGBTQ people and promoted forcible treatment [PDF] for their sexual expression, which was viewed as a mental disorder. Nebraska Republican Arthur Miller, who authored D.C.’s now-repealed “sexual psychopath” law in 1948, became one of the most vitriolic individuals in attacking gay federal employees: “There are places in Washington where they gather for the purpose of sex orgies, where they worship at the cesspool and flesh pots of iniquity,” Miller said in a blisteringly homophobic floor speech in early 1950.
Miller wasn't the only one speaking out about the perceived menace. In his now-infamous speeches on the Senate floor in February 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy explicitly linked communism and homosexuality, arguing that LGBTQ people were particularly susceptible to communist recruitment because of their "peculiar mental twists."
McCarthy's speeches—and a revelation by deputy undersecretary of state John Peurifoy that the State Department had recently fired 91 employees for being gay—led to a public outcry. Within a month of McCarthy taking to the Senate floor, a Congressional investigation led by senators Kenneth Wherry and J. Lister Hill laid the groundwork for hearings on the issue. Those ultimately resulted in a bipartisan December 1950 report: “Employment of homosexuals and other sex perverts in government,” led by Democratic senator Clyde R. Hoey.
The report, which drew upon extensive interviews with federal agencies and the military, concluded that gay people should not be employed by the government because they were "generally unsuitable" and because they constituted a security risk. The unsuitability was said to stem from the fact that "overt acts of sex perversion" were a crime under federal and local laws, as well as the assertion that "persons who engage in such activity are looked upon as outcasts by society generally." Furthermore, the report said, gay people "lack the emotional stability of normal persons" and "indulgence in acts of sex perversion weakens the moral fiber of an individual to a degree that he is not suitable for a position of responsibility." This lack of moral fiber was said to make gay people, who might be blackmailed for their activities, particularly "susceptible to the blandishments of the foreign espionage agent."
In a callback to the park stings of the 1940s, the report successfully recommended changes to D.C. criminal procedure that forced men suspected of “perversion” into court when they were caught by law enforcement, effectively outing them. The report also pushed government entities to develop clear policies and procedures for terminating gay and lesbian employees—a recommendation that would have tremendous consequences.
"As Dangerous as the Communists"
The government seized on the idea that being gay was a security risk. As Senator Wherry put it, "Only the most naive could believe that the Communists' fifth column in the United States would neglect to propagate and use homosexuals to gain their treacherous ends." In a 1950 newsletter, Republican National Chair Guy George Gabrielson cited “sexual perverts” as a government peril that was "perhaps as dangerous as the actual communists" [PDF].
Inspired in part by the Hoey Report, President Dwight Eisenhower signed executive order 10450 in 1953, listing “sexual perversion” as grounds for identifying someone as a security risk. The document made it possible to aggressively pursue people like Airman Second Class Helen Grace James. James has described being followed and watched during her days in the Air Force, even during activities as innocent as eating a sandwich with a friend or going to the bathroom. The feeling of constant scrutiny affected her mental health and her sleep. "We were scared all the time," she told the Criminal podcast.
Once James was arrested in 1955, the Army threatened to go to her parents and friends with news of her sexuality, saying James was "a threat to the nation and a bad person," she explained to Criminal. "I finally said, just write down whatever you want to write down and I'll sign it."
After being discharged, James fled the East Coast. "[I] had no money, no support at all. I couldn't tell my family, I couldn't tell my friends," she said. "I had hoped to make a career of the Air Force, I loved it." Being kicked out of the Air Force, she felt, was a stain on her military family. She fought for years to change her undesirable discharge to an honorable one; she was finally successful in 2018.
James suffered in silence for years, but Frank Kameny took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1957, he was fired from his job as an astronomer with the Army Map Service for being gay. In his Supreme Court petition three years later, he called the government's policies on homosexuality “nothing more than a reflection of ancient primitive, archaic, obsolete taboos … an anachronistic relic of the Stone Age carried over into the Space Age—and a harmful relic!” His case may have been the first explicitly involving LGBTQ rights to make its way before the court, which denied his appeal. Kameny went on to become a prominent member of the gay rights movement, and was a founder of the Mattachine Society, an activist organization that collects and preserves important archival material related to LGBTQ history.
All in all, an estimated 10,000 people lost their jobs in the Lavender Scare. President Clinton effectively overturned parts of Executive Order 10450 in 1995, but the government didn't apologize for the discrimination until the administration of Barack Obama.
Although not a well-known period in history, The Lavender Scare has had a cultural afterlife. It was the subject of a 2017 documentary, and a key element of a 2007 novel, Fellow Travelers, which followed a youthful civil servant, a forbidden affair, and the terror of living a double life in 1950s Washington. The book was adapted into an opera first staged in 2016, complete with a set inspired by the overbearing style of 1950s brutalist architecture.
“The piece wants to memorialize those people whose lives were lost, or jobs were lost,” Peter Rothstein, who directed the Minnesota Opera production, tells Mental Floss. Many members of the LGBTQ community aren’t aware of the Lavender Scare, or don’t know about its full extent, something Rothstein discovered when he started to research in preparation for the production. “I thought I was kind of up on my queer history. I was like 'whoa!' The scope of it.”
While stereotypes about gay men and musical theater abound, Rothstein notes that musicals play an important role in America’s cultural history and climate. Many recent works, including Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, have explored historical and cultural identity—and with Fellow Travelers, Rothstein says, the medium was particularly apt. “There’s a huge subtext of men not able to articulate for themselves, because they haven’t really been given language to describe their emotional, sexual specificity," he explained.
This neglected piece of queer history reflects a time when shame kept many people silent. Thankfully, historians such as Johnson are collecting stories before survivors of this generation fade away. As they uncover more tales of careers—and lives—ruined, perhaps the Lavender Scare will begin to take on more of a role in mainstream history books.