The renewed effort to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act launched last week came days before the 60th anniversary of a defining moment in LGBT history, when thousands of employees and contractors were purged from the federal government because they were gay or lesbian.
On April 27, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an executive order calling for the removal of homosexuals from all federal agencies. Gay and lesbian government workers were immediately fired or resigned out of fear of being publicly outed. Even LGBT people working in the private sector whose jobs required them to have a federal security clearance were also fired or resigned.
The supposed justification for the purge was that homosexuals were a godless, immoral group who would work with communists to overthrow the government, thereby posing an imminent threat to national security.
While many remember the “Red Scare” of the mid-20th century, the purging of LGBT government employees, dubbed the “Lavender Scare,” today rarely receives its due as a catalyst for the LGBT equality movement. In 2004, David K. Johnson helped bring the historical moment to light in his book The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government.
This summer, a documentary titled “The Lavender Scare” is set to hit theaters and film festivals. Gay Politics spoke with Producer/Director Josh Howard and Executive Producer Kevin Jennings about the making of the film and the importance of the Lavender Scare, both 60 years ago and today.
GP: What was your motivation in creating the film?
JH: Our aim is to shed light an important aspect of LGBT history that has never received the attention it deserves. There are many, many movies and books about the Cold War and the McCarthy Era, but the story of how gay men and lesbians were systematically driven from their government jobs during that time has never been fully told. Thousands and thousands of LGBT people fired; by contrast, only a couple of hundred suspected Communists lost their jobs. The history books don’t acknowledge this, and as a result few very people know about it. It’s a dramatic example of the ways in which the role of the LGBT community is often overlooked and marginalized in the telling of American history. The Lavender Scare will help to correct the historical record and bring this story to a broad audience. As we have learned all too well, if our community doesn’t speak out on its own behalf, nobody is going to do it for us.
KJ: We also felt that if we didn’t make this film now, it could never be made. Fewer and fewer people who lived through the witch hunts are still alive. In order to tell this story, we need the first-hand accounts of both the victims of the witch hunts and the government officials who were in charge. We have been successful in locating and interviewing enough key players to be able to construct a compelling film, but we knew our window of opportunity was closing. In fact, one of the key players in the story is Frank Kameny, who became the first person to fight back against the government’s policy of firing LGBT people, and went on to devote his entire life to the fight for LGBT rights. We spent three days filming interviews with Frank. Sadly, he passed away shortly thereafter.