At the height of the Cold War, politicians asserted that gay and lesbian people in the federal workforce were susceptible to blackmail by enemy agents and could be coerced into revealing government secrets. That false claim effectively banned gays and lesbians from working for the federal government for 40 years.
As part of our programming to commemorate LGBT Pride Month, WGBH is pleased to present The Lavender Scare, the first documentary film to expose the government’s unrelenting campaign to purge all gay and lesbian employees over four decades. Narrated by Glenn Close, the film shines a spotlight on this little-known moment of history and the unlikely hero who fought back and led the charge for equal rights.
US Sen. Joseph McCarthy, known for his Red Scare tactics targeting Communists, was among the first to use similar tactics to intimidate gay and lesbian people employed by the federal government in what came to be known as “The Lavender Scare.” In 1950, the Senate Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Departments cast an even wider net. US Sen. Clyde Hoey, a Democrat from North Carolina and committee chairman, issued a report, Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government, with recommendations about federal hiring practices. Preserved in the National Archives, the report concluded that gay people should not be employed by the federal government because they were "generally unsuitable" and constituted "security risks." The report also stated that gay people lacked “emotional stability,” had weak "moral fiber" and attracted others of their kind to government service.
The committee report laid the groundwork for President Eisenhower's 1953 Executive Order that effectively banned gay and lesbian people from all jobs in the US government—the country's largest employer. The results were devastating. Historians estimate that tens of thousands of gay and lesbian workers lost their jobs over the four decades it was in effect. Others faced continued unemployment or underemployment, rejection from their professions and emotional distress. Some even committed suicide.
But not all federal workers went quietly. A Harvard-trained astronomer working with the US Army’s Map Service became the first person to fight his dismissal. Instead of arguing against the prevailing opinion that homosexuality was immoral, Frank Kameny reframed the government-sanctioned harassment as a discrimination issue, and his attempts to regain his federal job evolved into a lifelong battle to affirm the civil rights of LGBTQ people, helping to ignite the gay rights movement.
In 1995, President Clinton signed an executive order ending the ban on security clearances for gay workers. In June 2009, John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, formally apologized to Kameny on behalf of the US government. Berry, who is out, presented Kameny with the Theodore Roosevelt Award, the department's most prestigious award.
The Lavender Scare premieres Tuesday, June 19 at 9pm on WGBH 2. Watch a preview below.