Weird History How America's Lavender Scare Targeted Gay Government Officials  

Genevieve Carlton
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What do LGBTQ+-identifying people and communists have in common? According to the United States federal government in the 1950s, both groups were mentally weak, perverted, and ultimately posed subversive threats to America. During the Lavender Scare, which lasted from the late 1940s to the 1970s, the US federal government hunted down LGBTQ+ federal employees and banned them from their jobs, using national security as an excuse. 

Homosexuality has been acknowledged throughout history, and even embraced; however, the Lavender Scare was not one of those times. Gay employees faced Senate interrogation, and a Senate committee even issued a report declaring LGBTQ+-identifying individuals as "sex perverts." Meanwhile, President Eisenhower issued an executive order effectively banning gay people from working in the government. The Lavender Scare timeline paralleled the first half of the Red Scare, during which Senator McCarthy famously prosecuted alleged communists. 

The ruthless Lavender Scare led to multiple suicides among people pushed out of their jobs. In 2017, The Lavender Scare, a documentary film, told the story of the legal pursuit of LGBTQ+ government workers, including Frank Kameny, who led the fight for gay rights for decades. Sadly, Kameny didn't live to see the monumental Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage across the country. But that doesn't mean that the Lavender Scare is over — in more than half of the 50 states, LGBTQ+ employees can still be legally fired simply because of their sexual orientation.

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Photo: Catechetical Guild/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The US Government Began Targeting LGBTQ+ Americans After WWII


In the wake of WWII, Americans entering the Cold War had a collective public fear of communism. Like the First Red Scare after WWI, Americans worried that the Soviets would infiltrate the US government and turn the country into a communist or dictatorial state. The period later became a time for what is perhaps best known for the McCarthy hearings, designed to root out communist sympathizers in the Army, the State Department, and later, Hollywood. 

However, from the late 1940s through the 1970s, the government also targeted another group: the LGBTQ+ community. The Lavender Scare, spurred by congressional investigations, turned gay-identifying Americans into national security threats and advocated firing LGBTQ+ employees from federal government positions.

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Photo:  The Lavender Scare/Full Exposure Films LLC

In 1950, Homosexuality Was A Crime In Every State


In the early post-war period, identifying as LGBTQ+ was a crime. But, as in other repressive eras, an underground gay culture flourished. Rather than defining homosexuality as a mental illness or a perversion, these communities accepted it as natural. 

Attitudes toward sexuality more broadly remained conservative in the 1950s, but some challenged that. In 1948, Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male reported that "perhaps the major portion of the male population... has at least some homosexual experience between adolescence and old age." The bestseller shocked conservative Americans, but proved to gay communities that identifying as LGBTQ+ was not abnormal.

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Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Homosexuality And Communism Were Both Seen As Subversive Threats


Starting in 1947, the US Park Police began a "Sex Perversion Elimination Program" in Washington, DC. The program targeted gay men, using intimidation tactics and arrests to drive them further underground. The decision was followed in 1948 by a Congressional law "for the treatment of sexual psychopaths," ordering the arrest and punishment of gay residents of DC. The law also claimed homosexuality was a mental illness.

The repression of homosexuality coincided with a period of intense anxiety about national security. Homosexuality, like communism, was defined as a subversive threat to the country, and it was only a matter of time until the two threats merged. 

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Photo: US Senate/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Senator McCarthy Kicked Off The Lavender Scare With Scant And Faulty Evidence


On February 9, 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy announced he had a list of 205 known communists who were currently working in the State Department. A few days later, he reported that some of those suspected communists were also LGBTQ+-identifying individuals, at the time loosely using the term "homosexual." 

Speaking on the Senate floor, McCarthy claimed the State Department had fired, and then rehired, an employee publicly identifying as gay. McCarthy also claimed an intelligence officer reported "practically every active communist is twisted mentally or physically in some way." McCarthy used rumors about employees' sexual orientation to claim they were susceptible to recruitment by the Soviets, simply because those who identified as gay or transgender had "peculiar mental twists."