The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government

"Every once in a long while, a work of unprecedented scholarship comes along that promises to change the way America thinks for the better. By bringing to light a virtually unknown moral wrong, a national disgrace, David Johnson's meticulously researched and documented The Lavender Scare does just that."—Chris Bull, Washington correspondent for The Advocate and author of Perfect Enemies

"After this remarkable book, we will never be able to view the McCarthy Era the same way again."—George Chauncey

An interview with
David K. Johnson
author of The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government

Question: From the 1930s to the end of the Second World War, Washington D.C. offered a fairly benign, if not hospitable, environment for gays and lesbians to live and work. The city was growing rapidly, thousands of jobs were being created in the federal government, and gay men and women were taking advantage of these opportunities. And then what happened?

David K. JohnsonDavid K. Johnson: By 1940 Washington D.C. was being called "America's Number One Boom Town." Roosevelt's New Deal agencies drew thousands of young men and women to the city looking for work, especially clerical and administrative jobs. This created an urban environment that allowed a gay and lesbian subculture to flourish. The city was home to several gay bars. Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, was a well-known cruising area for gay men. World War II accelerated the urbanization—thousands of servicemen and women streamed through the city, fostering an "anything goes" mentality. The memoirs of gay civil servants from the period describe a work environment within federal agencies that turned a blind eye toward employees' private lives.

But after the war a concern began to grow throughout the nation that American morality was in a state of decline. Publication of the Kinsey report fed these fears, particularly Kinsey's statistics that suggested widespread homosexual behavior. Congress responded by passing a tough sexual psychopath law for the District of Columbia to crack down on deviant behavior. At the same time the U.S. Park Police initiated a "Pervert Elimination Campaign" for D.C. parks frequented by gay men. With the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his charges that communists and homosexuals had infiltrated the federal government, the men arrested in Washington's parks on sex charges seemed to threaten not just the morality of the city but the national security. Their arrest records were forwarded to the executive agencies and hundreds began losing their jobs.

Question: Your title The Lavender Scare evokes the much better known Red Scare. How were the efforts to root out communists on the one hand and homosexuals on the other related?

Johnson: The Lavender Scare helped fan the flames of the Red Scare. In popular discourse, communists and homosexuals were often conflated. Both groups were perceived as hidden subcultures with their own meeting places, literature, cultural codes, and bonds of loyalty. Both groups were thought to recruit to their ranks the psychologically weak or disturbed. And both groups were considered immoral and godless. Many people believed that the two groups were working together to undermine the government.

Much of the extension and strengthening of the national loyalty/security system in this period, I argue, was motivated as much by the perceived need to ferret out homosexuals from the government as it was by the pressure to remove communists. We cannot understand the Red Scare unless we also understand the Lavender Scare.

Joseph McCarthy is remembered as a great anti-communist crusader, but at the time many of his senior Republican colleagues were pressuring him to drop his claims that the State Department sheltered "card-carrying communists." They knew those charges were dubious and based on outdated information. Instead, they suggested that he focus on the problem of homosexual infiltration.

A survey of McCarthy's mail suggests that his supporters were more concerned about allegations that the federal government was harboring sexual deviants than they were about political deviants. President Truman's aides also thought the homosexuals-in-government issue posed a more dangerous political weapon than the communists-in-government issue. But McCarthy largely resisted this pressure, so it fell to his more senior but less publicity-savvy colleagues, such as Senators Styles Bridges and Kenneth Wherry, to hold hearings on the threat posed by homosexuals.

Question: Why were homosexuals considered a threat to national security?

Johnson: The politicians behind the Lavender Scare asserted that homosexuals were susceptible to blackmail by enemy agents and so could be coerced into revealing government secrets. In other words, the official rationale wasn't that homosexuals were communists but that they could be used by communists. A Senate subcommittee spent months investigating this claim and came up empty-handed. They found no evidence that even a single gay or lesbian American civil servant had ever been blackmailed into revealing state secrets. The only proof they offered was the well-known case of Colonel Alfred Redl, an Austrian double agent who was exposed just before World War I. Nevertheless, the subcommittee's final report stated emphatically that homosexuals posed a threat to national security and called for their removal from all federal agencies.

A variation on the blackmail rationale—one expressed in many tabloid journals of the 1950s—held that communists promoted "sex perversion" among American youth as a way to weaken the country and clear the path for a communist takeover. In this line of reasoning, homosexuals (especially effeminate gay men) acted as a fifth column, by preventing family formation and fostering moral decay.

Question: If there was no proof that homosexuals posed a threat to national security, why did politicians insist that they had to be purged from the federal payroll?

Johnson: The Republican claim that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were "honeycombed with homosexuals" proved to be a potent political weapon. It resonated with many conservative Americans who were already resentful of the New Deal and Fair Deal bureaucracies and felt antagonism for Washington bureaucrats. To many Americans in the postwar era, Washington D.C. was a white-collar town full of long-haired men and short-haired women—social scientists and other experts—who were imposing their ideas on the country. They felt this smothering bureaucracy threatened American traditions of individualism and self-reliance. Large government programs, they argued, limited personal initiative and weakened moral fiber. Fearful that America was in a state of moral decline, they pointed to the New Deal as well as New Deal bureaucrats as the source of the problem. So the demonization of gay and lesbian civil servants was part of this larger attack on the New Deal.

Question: In 1952 the Republicans finally won the White House, campaigning under the slogan "Let's Clean House." What role did the Lavender Scare play in the presidential contest between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson?

Johnson: The 1952 election was the first presidential election since the beginning of the Lavender Scare, and issues of gender and sexuality permeated the campaign. The Republican campaign slogan "Let's Clean House" alluded to a slew of allegedly immoral behavior in the incumbent Democratic administration, including communism, corruption, and homosexuality.

Republican rhetoric emphasized that Eisenhower and Nixon were "regular guys" who were "for morality." Republicans portrayed Stevenson as an "egghead" with a "fruity" voice, the sort of man most Americans wanted to remove from Washington, not send there. He was, after all, a wealthy, divorced former State Department official who was rumored to be gay.

The rumors were so widespread that tabloid magazines published articles about "how that Stevenson rumor started." Some gays and lesbians have even considered Stevenson the first gay presidential candidate.

Question: How many gays and lesbian were purged from the federal government?

Johnson: We will never know for sure, but partial statistics show that at least several thousand gay men and lesbians lost government jobs. The real number is probably much higher, because most government workers who endured brutal interrogations about their sex lives chose to voluntarily resign rather than face further publicity,. In addition, thousands of gay and lesbian private-sector employees whose jobs required them to have a federal security clearance also were fired or resigned. The federal government did not reveal the reason someone was denied a security clearance, so private companies generally fired such employees. As the nation's largest employer, the federal government set the tone for employment practices in many industries, and its anti-gay policies were widely copied by the private sector.

Question: Did gays and lesbian offer any organized resistance to these federal policies that excluded them from government service?

Johnson: Yes. In 1950 and '51, just as Republicans began making charges that homosexuals threatened national security, Harry Hay founded the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles, the first sustained gay organization in the United States. He was motivated by the rising tide of homophobia emanating from Washington and the fear that, as these federal employment policies spread, gay men and lesbians would find it impossible to find employment. Hay worked in the defense industry and understood the powerful influence federal policies had on the private sector.

But it was not until 1961, and the founding of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. by a fired federal worker, that gays and lesbians began in earnest to confront the federal government. By 1965 the MSW was lobbying government officials, testifying before a congressional committee, initiating court challenges, and organizing public pickets in front of the White House and other government buildings. In its attempt to overturn the ban on gay and lesbian civil service employment, the MSW developed the rhetoric and tactics that the GLBT movement would deploy for the next several decades. They helped turn an issue that had been couched in terms of national security, morality, and espionage into an issue of civil rights.

A series of court victories starting in 1965 limited the federal government's ability to fire employees suspected of homosexual behavior. By 1975, under continued pressure from the courts, the Civil Service Commission formally reversed its discriminatory policy.

Question: What about today? Is there workplace equity for gays and lesbians in the federal government now, outside of the armed forces? Do the current restrictions of civil liberties in the name of national security recall the Lavender Scare?

Johnson: In 1995 President Clinton issued an executive order forbidding the government from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation in the granting of security clearances. In 1998 he signed an executive order banning anti-gay discrimination against any federal civilian employee. Both executive orders still stand. Therefore, at least on paper, there is workplace equity on the civilian side of the federal government for gay men and lesbians.

But we should not forget that the Lavender Scare was a reaction to an earlier time of openness and visibility for the gay community. Such periods of progress are always subject to a backlash.

I hope the Lavender Scare is read as a cautionary tale, one that documents the extreme measures the federal government has taken in the not-too-distant past against innocent citizens who were perceived, without any evidence, to pose a threat to national security. The targets may change, and the methods may be refined, but the practice of scapegoating continues. I hope that an example of how it happened before, will make it easier to recognize it when it happens again.

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David K. Johnson
The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government
©2004, 312 pages, 18 halftones, 4 line drawings
Cloth $30.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-40481-3
Paper $20.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-40190-4

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for The Lavender Scare.

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