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Lavender Scare: Banning Homosexuality in the Federal Government

Introduction

Molly’s history class is doing an activity where they pretend they are U.S. government officials, and they need to protect against enemy spies who could carry back damaging information. As the activity goes on, her class becomes increasingly more paranoid about anyone who differs from the group, and soon they are firing everyone who didn’t take the bus that day.

Explanation

In the late 1940s through the 1960s, the U.S. government got as paranoid as Molly’s history class. Like the class, the government removed many people from federal employment simply because they differed from the group. However, the distinguishing characteristic in history was homosexuality rather than not taking the bus.

Lavender Scare

The Lavender Scare was a federal government campaign to remove LGBTQ+ people from civil service positions, fearing that they were more susceptible to corruption and blackmail. Led in large part by Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Lavender Scare included congressional investigative hearings in 1950 and an executive order barring LGBTQ+ people from the federal government, ultimately resulting in thousands of people being fired and resigning. The campaign had lasting effects, with the executive order staying in place until 1995.

The History

In the mid 20th Century, the United States was engaged in political hostilities with Russia through the Cold War. In response, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy stoked the Second Red Scare, or McCarthyism, a time of fear and paranoia that Communists had infiltrated the government. He also fueled fears about LGBTQ+ people being a moral danger to society, and as a result, largely contributed to the Lavender Scare.

1947 is often marked as the beginning of the Lavender Scare. That year, the State Department began a program to eliminate Communists and LGBTQ+ people from the Department. The U.S. State Park Police also implemented the “Sex Perversion Elimination Program,” which targeted gay men, arresting at least five hundred people and charging seventy-six. 

On February 9, 1950, Senator McCarthy gave an infamous speech in which he claimed to have a list of 205 known Communists working at the State Department. On February 20, he went into more detail about the individuals. Only two of the people on his alleged list were gay, but in his speech to the Senate, McCarthy explicitly linked homosexuality to Communism. One week later, a State Department employee revealed that the Department had fired 91 gay people as security risks over several years. However, in close conjunction with McCarthy’s two speeches, the announcement sparked media and public outcry about the dangers of LGBTQ+ people in government positions.

From late March to May of 1950, Senators Kenneth Wherry and J. Lister Hill ran investigative hearings into homosexuality within the federal workforce. During the hearings, a police lieutenant testified that there were 3,500 gay federal employees in D.C., which led to a second congressional investigation led by Senator Clyde Hoey. Upon its conclusion, the committee published a report that argued the government must protect the public interest from “sex perverts,” and numerous people were fired. The term “Lavender Scare” comes from the term “lavender lads,” a phrase Senator Everett Dirksen, one of the senators involved in the hearings, repeatedly used to refer to gay men.

In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, setting security standards for federal employment and including “sexual perversion” as a basis of removal, essentially barring homosexual people from working in the federal government. The restrictions caused hundreds of people to be forcibly outed and removed from their jobs. Order 10450 covered every federal department, agency, and private corporation with a government contract, affecting over six million workers and armed forces personnel. As a result, around 5,000 people were fired, and by the mid-1950s, many state and local governments had adopted similar policies.

Estimates range from 5,000 to 10,000 people who resigned from federal employment, with many doing so quietly. The restrictions set in place could even find people guilty by association, and numerous people who were forcibly outed or fired died by suicide.

McCarthyism slowed after the 1956 Supreme Court Case Cole v. Young limited the government’s ability to fire people for discriminatory reasons, but the Lavender Scare continued with investigations into the 1960s. Executive Order 10450 remained until 1995 to bar gay people from the military. Even then, President Clinton replaced it with the mandate “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” rather than open acceptance. While some federal departments and agencies relaxed the restrictions in 1975, due to the Civil Service Commission announcing that gay people could no longer be barred or fired from federal employment because of their sexuality, non-civilians still faced discrimination. For instance, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, and the National Security Administration, or NSA, kept these restrictions until the government rescinded the Executive Order.

Applying It

From 1947 to 1961, more people were fired for their sexual orientation than for being a Communist. Despite this fact, the Lavender Scare often gets forgotten, while the Red Scare is a well-known event in American history. The Lavender Scare forced many into hiding their sexual preferences and gender identities. Thousands were fired, resigned, or gave up their dreams in fear. 

However, it also led to people fighting back. Frank Kameny was fired in 1956 and petitioned the Supreme Court. While they declined to hear his case, he became a major gay rights advocate. The Stonewall Riots happened in 1969, in part spurred on by the worsening treatment of LGBTQ+ people during the Lavender Scare. While it still has many issues, the U.S. government has come further than many thought possible in the 1950s. The 2020 Supreme Court case Bostock v. Clayton County extended the Civil Rights Act of 1964, making it illegal to fire someone because of their sexual preference or gender identity. The effects of the Lavender Scare are still felt and serve as a reminder of the wrongs the American government has inflicted on the LGBTQ+ community, as well as the ways the community fought back.

Think Further

  1. McCarthy claimed that if people opposed him and his policies, they were either a Communist or a homosexual. How do you think this rhetoric helped spread the Lavender Scare?
  2. Why do you think so many people supported McCarthy’s campaign to remove LGBTQ+ people from federal employment? What effect did fear have on their decision?
  3. Can you think of any groups of people that the federal government is attempting to turn the public against today, using similar tactics, like fear-mongering? What can the Lavender Scare teach us about these decisions and tactics? 

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  1. Heatley, Holly S. “Commies And Queers”: Narratives That Supported The Lavender Scare. The University of Texas at Arlington, 17 Sept. 2007. rc.library.uta.edu, https://rc.library.uta.edu/uta-ir/bitstream/handle/10106/584/umi-uta-1787.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.
  2. Johnson, David K. The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  3. The Lavender Scare: How the Federal Government Purged Gay Employees. CBS News, 9 June 2019. www.cbsnews.com, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-lavender-scare-how-the-federal-government-purged-gay-employees/.
  4. “‘These People Are Frightened to Death.’” National Archives, 15 Aug. 2016. www.archives.gov, https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2016/summer/lavender.html.
  5. Wills, Matthew. “The Lavender Scare.” JSTOR Daily, 18 Nov. 2019. daily.jstor.org, https://daily.jstor.org/the-lavender-scare/.