Pulling Back the Curtain on Discrimination

When most people hear the terms “Red Scare” and “McCarthyism” they generally associate them with horrific political repression and anti-Communism, but for University of South Florida history professor David K. Johnson, those associations were only the tip of the iceberg. Beginning in 1994, Johnson spent years uncovering the frightening, untold story of how, during the Cold War, homosexuals were considered as dangerous a threat to national security as Communists. McCarthy’s charges that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were havens for homosexuals proved a potent political weapon, sparking a "Lavender Scare" more vehement and long-lasting than the better-known Red Scare.

Most Americans know about Joseph McCarthy and his role in cultivating the Red Scare, but few know that Senator McCarthy also peddled the claim that homosexuals had infiltrated government offices and might be blackmailed by Soviet agents.

After spending years researching this dark chapter in U.S. history, his book “Lavender Scare”, was published in 2004.

Drawing on years of research in the records of the National Archives and interviews with scores of former civil servants, Johnson was able to highlight the security interrogations where thousands of Americans were questioned about their sex lives. He showed how the homosexual purges ended promising careers, ruined lives, and pushed many to suicide. But, as Johnson also shows, the purges brought victims together to protest their treatment, helping launch a new civil rights struggle.

The book won a number of awards, including the Randy Shilts Award for gay non-fiction. But the accolades didn’t stop there. It caught the attention of a New York film producer.

"It was not until I read the book “The Lavender Scare” by historian David K. Johnson that I learned of the systematic way in which federal agencies went about trying to purge all homosexuals from the government workforce, or that the policy was still being enforced as late as 1995," commented Josh Howard, a former producer with CBS TV's news program 60 Minutes.  "I felt this unknown chapter of our history was one that needed to be told."

Howard spent 8 years producing and directing the documentary film adaptation of “The Lavender Scare”, combining archival footage, recreated scenes, and historical commentary. Building on Johnson’s research, he toured the country interviewing fired government employees, security officials, and early gay rights activists.

The finished product has appeared at over 50 film festivals and won over a dozen best documentary awards. Narrated by Glen Close, the film features the voices of openly gay actors Cynthia Nixon, David Hyde Pierce, and T. R. Knight. Johnson is one of three prominent historians who also appear in the film.

Johnson and Howard got the opportunity to discuss the importance of the film on CBS Sunday Morning with Mo Rocca and on CNN with Don Lemon.

CBS Sunday Morning with Mo Rocca

For Howard, the film tells a story not only of discrimination but of activism. “Equality is not a given. People fought and sacrificed for those rights,” Howard pointed out, referring to fired gay employees such as Frank Kameny, who organized the first LGBT pickets in front of the White House in 1965.  When asked why more young people don’t know this history, Johnson responded, “gays and lesbians have been erased from the history books. The lesson we’ve been taught about McCarthyism is partial and distorted. We are trying to put us back in the history books.”

The film debuted in select theaters and a nationwide PBS television broadcast in mid-June, timed to coincide with Gay Pride festivities which this year honored the 50-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. 

The film’s debut also coincided with a new effort in congress to address the effects of the Lavender Scare. On May 1st, Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced a bill that would recognize what it called this “shameful purge.” The Lavender Offense Victims Exoneration Act (LOVE Act) would mandate that the State Department investigate all firings since 1950 that may have been caused by an inappropriate focus on sexual orientation. It would also establish a Reconciliation Board to collect oral testimony of employees (or their families) wrongly terminated. Best of all, according to Johnson, it would establish a permanent exhibit on the Lavender Scare in the U.S. Diplomacy Center "to ensure that the history of this discriminatory episode is not brushed aside."

The LOVE Act would go a long way toward not only in acknowledging these cases,” Johnson commented, “but educating the public about the fear and homophobia that permeated cold war Washington.”

A special film screening of “The Lavender Scare” will take place in the University of South Florida’s Oval Theater on October 28 for LGBTQ History Month.

Published on: 7/22/2019