Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Gay and Lesbian, Gender & Sexuality, History

Five Questions with David K. Johnson, author of “The Lavender Scare”

On April 27, 1953, President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, “Security Requirements for Government Employment,” which authorized investigations to determine whether the “employment or retention of employment in the Federal service of the person being investigated is clearly consistent with the interests of the national security.”

Among the list of suspect behaviors covered by the order as criminal, immoral, or unethical was “sexual perversion.”

Thus began a devastating but little-known sibling of the Red Scare: The search for and removal from government service of gays and lesbians. In The Lavender Scare, David K. Johnson reveals the history of this dark moment in the American government and its consequences, for individuals and for the nation. On its original publication in 2003, the book was heralded for shining a light on a mostly forgotten chapter of American history. This new edition offers a new epilogue that brings the story up to date. David was kind enough to answer some questions about the book, its subject, and its continuing resonance today.

Mainly black and white book cover with red type featuring a photo of McCarthy in glasses and a suite jacket and tie pointing with a pencil at a red photograph of picketers.

While educated Americans are broadly familiar with the McCarthy era hunt for and purge of Communists (and suspected Communists) in government, the similar efforts against gays and lesbians in government are comparatively little known. Are people surprised when you tell them this story?

People are not only surprised when they learn about the lavender scare, but they are often angry.  “Why was I not taught this in my high school or college!” they will complain in exasperation.  And since the lavender scare lasted longer than the McCarthy-era red scare, and affected at least as many people, they have reason to be angry. 

Traditional histories of the McCarthy period follow the narrative laid down by traditional political historians–mostly straight men—who all noticed that there was a sexual component to McCarthy’s attacks but considered it unremarkable.  They considered anti-gay discrimination as normal and natural and in need of no explanation.  But what my research shows is that the 1950s anti-gay purges represent an unprecedented level of attention and concern about homosexuality at the federal level.

The good news is that the lavender scare is slowly being integrated into the curriculum, both at the K-12 level and in college survey textbooks. Several states have mandated that the contributions and experiences of LGBT people be included in K-12 curricula. California, which led the pack, now has an entire 33-page lavender scare lesson plan integrated into 11th-grade US history.

In the book you discuss an editorial in the Washington Post during the McCarthy era which argued that “there is, as far as we know, no reason for supposing that a person of homosexual bias is psychologically any more predisposed to the Communist ideology than a heterosexual person.” Were there more examples of public defense of gays and lesbians in the media at the time? Were there any groups publicly advocating for them?

You’ve picked out one of the very, very few examples of writers willing to question the moral panic that was happening in Washington at the time.  But even seemingly progressive editorials like this one would go on to say that “the problem” of homosexual government employees should be handled by competent psychiatrists, not security officials. So they were not making the kinds of civil rights claims we are familiar with today.

Columnist Max Learner, journalist Eric Severeid, and diplomat George Kennan all came out and questioned the alleged link between homosexuality and national security issues.  But no organization, not even the American Civil Liberties Union, was standing up and saying gay people deserved equal employment rights, not even most gay people.

How did the concern that homosexuals could pose security risks finally come to an end?

It was a long, slow process, led by a few brave LGBT government workers and holders of security clearances that were fired from their jobs or denied security clearances and who took their struggles with the federal government to court.  Frank Kameny, who was fired from the Army Map Service in 1957, led this campaign. Their first major victory was in the summer of 1969, right around the time of the Stonewall Riots in New York, which many see as the beginning of gay liberation. That 1969 court victory in Norton v. Macy forced the U.S. Civil Service Commission to end its blanket exclusion of LGBT people from government jobs a few years later. But the fear that gay people in highly classified agencies such as the CIA and the FBI, or those working in private industry, might betray government secrets lingered for decades.

As I outline in the new epilogue, it took three major changes to finally bring the lavender scare to an end.  First, the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union made the national security arguments about gay people less salient.  Second, by the 1990s you had openly gay members of Congress that could hold hearings to call attention to the lingering discriminatory effects of the lavender scare.

But the most important change was the rise of a powerful LGBT political movement, which, by the 1990s, was playing a central role in presidential politics. Bill Clinton was the first successful presidential candidate that openly embraced the LGBT community.  The 1992 election saw unprecedented fundraising and voting efforts by the gay community—overwhelmingly in support of Bill Clinton. Although he famously disappointed that community by initiating the disastrous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” compromise policy in the U.S. military, Clinton did fulfill his promise on the civilian side of the government. Through two executive orders—strokes of the presidential pen that received little fanfare at the time—he ended anti-gay discrimination in the civil service and in the granting of security clearances. So it was arguably the rising political clout of the LGBT community that put an end to the lavender scare in 1995.

Many American politicians in the McCarthy era spread the idea that Communist societies were more tolerant of homosexuality than the United States. Was there truth to these claims?

I’m not a historian of the Soviet Union, but my understanding is that after the 1917 Revolution, there was a period of openness with regard to issues of sexuality, a brief “window of freedom,” but that the rise of Stalin in the 1930s led to a crackdown against LGBT visibility and its recriminalization. So by the 1950s, communist societies were no more tolerant of homosexuality than the US.  It was a myth, just like the notion that gay people were particularly vulnerable to blackmail by Soviet agents.

With the 70th anniversary of Eisenhower’s executive order that launched the purge of gay and lesbian government officials coming up, it’s worth reflecting on how the acceptance of LBGT people in government positions has changed over the years. Do you see any contemporary resonances to a Lavender Scare?

There are always sectors of society that want to roll back the gains that the LGBT community has made, particularly with regard to the rights of the trans community.  And we have certainly seen lots of continuing fear-mongering around the effects of trans people on the military and women’s sports and elsewhere.

But the more remarkable thing is the incredible transformation over the last 70 years.  The government that once tried to purge its ranks of all those suspected of homosexuality now protects the rights of same-sex couples to marry in all fifty states. The State Department, once the center of federal anti-gay witch-hunts, now is a fierce advocate for LGBT rights around the globe.  Even a decidedly conservative Supreme Court has ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects the rights of LGBT people.  So a federal government that was once a prime purveyor of homophobia is now a global leader in LGBT rights.

These changes, of course, are not irreversible. Indeed the history of LGBT rights in the US has been one of advances followed by backlash.  But I see more change than continuity, more reason to hope than to fear.

The story of the lavender scare and the men and women who fought against it is now part of American history. Frank Kameny’s papers are in the Library of Congress, and the picket signs he and his fellow activists carried outside the White House in 1965 are in the Museum of American History. This story cannot be erased.

David K. Johnson is professor of history at the University of South Florida and the author of Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement.

The new edition of The Lavender Scare is available now from our website or your favorite bookseller.