While the nation tore itself apart in the 50s and 60s under the threat of the Red Scare of communism, an equally frightening hidden attack occurred on another sub-section of society. This attack is little known, except for those who suffered through it and those who perpetrated the attack. As a warning of history repeating itself, comes the documentary The Lavender Scare from director Josh Howard, based on the book of the same name by David K. Johnson.
Shortly after World War II, the threat of communism would create paranoia amongst our nation’s leaders and peoples. Innocent citizens were publicly humiliated, and lives were ruined by the mere accusation of being a communist. But a particular fear would branch off from this threat when in 1948, President Eisenhower signed an executive order removing all homosexuals from public service from the post office to the military. The reason was simple yet insidious. Gays and lesbians were allegedly highly susceptible to Russian blackmail because of their orientation and easy targets to give away government secrets.
In The Lavender Scare, Josh Howard outlines life for gay men and women from the ’40s to today. He begins with how the government and society forced its citizens into the “closet,” and leads up to the small victories for gay rights that happened after over fifty years of oppression, due in part to activist Franklin Kameny.
“Gays and lesbians were allegedly highly susceptible to Russian blackmail because of their orientation and easy targets to give away government secrets.”
Let’s just start off by saying The Lavender Scare is essential to watch and an excellently produced documentary about a time the communist threat overshadowed the so-called “gay threat” from our history books. Howard was able to find many of the subjects from Johnson’s book to talk about their experiences first hand, and when a person was unavailable, he employs actors Cynthia Nixon, Zachary Quinto, T.R. Knight, and David Hyde Pierce to voiceover letters and testimonies. Let’s also add the gravitas of Glenn Close, who narrates the entire story from the beginning.
Ironically, World War II would become a fertile meeting ground for gays and lesbians in the U.S. In its wisdom, the military would segregate men and women. Through this separation, gay men and women from all over the country would meet, learn they were not alone through shared experiences from home, and ultimately hook up.
This joyous “celebration of discovery” would not last long. After the war, the government began hunting for homosexuals within its ranks. The FBI would expend valuable resources hunting them down. Once found, investigators would pressure him/her to out five others and the chain continues. The FBI would produce large files documenting the activities of these Americans. And talk about paranoia, straight employees were all too happy pointing out co-workers, who in one case did “not act at all feminine. Looks ‘mannish.’ Uses very little lipstick. And wears severely tailored suits.”
“…in spite of their innocence and lack of evidence, influential people felt emboldened to shame, investigate, and destroy lives…”
U.S. patriots were having their personal lives investigated, outed by friends and family, and hunted down in clubs, but ultimately relieved of duty regardless of how great they were at their jobs and without the courtesy of a hearing or a chance to face their accusers. Thank God, Facebook wasn’t around then. As a straight man, who grew up in the 80s, it’s not hard to see the origins of what I was taught and believed about homosexuality, plus add to that the dawning of the AIDS epidemic. It still haunts me to think, I was once caught up in this hysteria and felt morally justified in my attitudes and beliefs.
As the film calls out the government’s unfair treatment, the backbone of the film is the story of Franklin Kameny. A victim himself of the Lavender Scare, Kameny would be one of the few voices that spoke out against this unfair discrimination. He was indeed a lone voice, as his compatriots did not want to stand with him in the spotlight and the ridicule associated with it. Kameny fought and won small victories until President Clinton would ultimately reverse Eisenhower’s executive order fifty years later.
The Lavender Scare sheds light on the actions of the U.S. government that most people (gay or straight) never new happened and well worth your time to watch and learn. The sad tragedy is that no homosexual American citizen was either charged or convicted of colluding with the Russians. Hatred for gays and lesbians was so heated that in spite of their innocence and lack of evidence, influential people felt emboldened to shame, investigate, and destroy lives with the full backing of the government. Oh but surely this couldn’t ever happen again.
The Lavender Scare (2019) Directed by Josh Howard. Featuring Franklin Kameny.
8.5 out of 10 stars