The Lavender Scare: A Hidden Era of anti-LGBTQ+ Lies, Fear, and Persecution

by Ryan Pierson

Starting in the 1950s, in an unsubstantiated panic parallel to the Red Scare, known as the Lavender Scare, several thousands of LGBTQ+ people were fired or intimidated into resigning from jobs in the federal government. Because LGBTQ+ people were seen as “sex perverts” and security risks, they were banned from federal employment in 1953. What followed was years of persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation, ruining their careers, often outing them, and sometimes even driving them to suicide.  Given the lingering effects of the Cold War-era discriminatory practices, the federal government’s failure to compensate for its wrongdoing is particularly egregious.  It is important to come to terms with the implications of this witch hunt and its long-term effects on LGBTQ+ American lives. During the Lavender Scare, the United States government committed a blatant violation of the 14th Amendment by systemically targeting LGBTQ+ American government workers on the basis of their sexual orientation, setting the precedent for modern employment discrimination and lack of government protections for LGBTQ+ people. 

Figure 1: Perverts Called Government Peril.  19 April 1960.  New York Times.  https://www.nytimes.com/1950/04/19/archives/perverts-called-government-peril-gabrielson-gop-chief-says-they-are.html 

Although living in a heteronormative society has never been easy for LGBTQ+ people, the Lavender Scare represented a particular harmful manifestation of anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry fueled by fear that they were traitors.  During the Cold War, when tensions with the Soviet Union were at an all-time high, fear of Communism ran rampant in America.  Communism was seen as counter-culture in America, as was homosexuality, so the two were often linked.  Additionally, people believed that LGBTQ+ people were vulnerable to blackmail because they feared their sexuality being exposed (Gleason, 2017).  The first NSA defection proved to fuel the fire by acting as supposed evidence.  When cryptologists Bernon F. Mitchell and William H. Martin left the NSA to work with the Soviet Union in September 1960, they became symbols of one of Americans’ worst fears- disloyal Americans aiding the Soviet Union.  Because they were accused of being gay, the situation was further complicated.  Although there was no evidence for this accusation, the hatred Americans had for these two men extended to all LGBTQ+ folks (“The First NSA Defection,” 2013).  In keeping with a traditional facet of bigotry, all members of the marginalized group were held responsible for the actions of a few.  This fueled the assumption that all LGBTQ+ people were unfit to serve in the State Department or other government positions.  As demonstrated by the news article above, sensational headlines perpetuated these myths in an effort to try to convince Americans that the federal persecution of LGBTQ+ people was necessary for national security. 

Figure 2: C.D Bachelor.  31 March 1950.  Washington Times Herald.  https://pbs.twimg.com/media/Cgzgel0WYAAy4FF.jpg

As much as some government officials fed anti-LGBTQ+ narratives to the people, the people also put pressure on the government.  In the 1950s, the US government faced immense pressure from its citizens to expose information regarding findings of LGBTQ+ workers in the State Department.  The cartoonist who created the above political cartoon accused Truman of duplicity, claiming that he had extensive knowledge of “traitors and queers in [his] administration” but refused to share this information with the American people.  Americans largely viewed LGBTQ+ people as security risks so any action by the government seen as protecting them, such as not releasing information about their employment in the government, was viewed as support for a dangerous group. 

Additionally, there was also general hatred for LGBTQ+ folks, as there has been throughout the history of the world in certain cultures.  The artist uses the term “queers” to refer to LGBTQ+ people, which, although it has developed to have varying connotations, was distinctly a slur at this time.  This confirms the homophobic viewpoints of the author and the general approval of anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes in American society.  At some points in American history, LGBTQ+ people have found ways to live out their identities, albeit covertly.  However, the 1950s was a time when suburbs bloomed, as did conformity in America.  Because being LGBTQ+ subverted the norm, those within the community were hated and even their private relations were seen as a risk to the social and moral order.    Given the fear and anger that permeated American society, the government felt empowered to persecute LGBTQ+ folks as they wished.  After all, very few people would stand up for themselves or act as allies given the deeply homophobic culture, so the US government had no check on its power from the American people.  As a result, the Lavender Scare could bulldoze through the lives of LGBTQ+ people with very few obstacles in its path. 

Figure 3: If You Don’t Want a Man Let Him Go- Don’t Ruin His Entire Life in the Process.  17 April 1965.  ABC News. https://s.abcnews.com/images/US/ABC_first_gay_rights_protest_02_jef_150417_4x3_992.jpg

During the Lavender Scare, LGBTQ+ people were not just fired; their lives were ruined, as explained by the sign carried by a protester in a march in front of the white house against the mistreatment of LGBTQ+ federal workers.  After the passage of Executive Order 10450, which banned all people deemed security risks including “homosexuals” from working in the government or for government contractors, LGBTQ+ people found their lives forever changed.  The US government understood that LGBTQ+ people were deathly afraid of being out because it could mean institutionalization, rejection, ostracization, or violence.  Hence, those who were suspected or known to be gay were often interrogated and threatened, their strength broke down until they resigned out of fear and intimidation.  Others who did not resign were not only fired but sometimes outed to their families (Gleason, 2017).  Without due process, they were deprived of their lives as they had known them and their liberty to keep their personal relationships private.  They were also deprived of their economic well-being; many LGBTQ+ people found themselves unable to find a job in the government sector.  Those who were forced out of the military often received dishonorable discharges, impacting their abilities to find any well-paying job.  Even as American citizens, they were denied access to jobs, military service, and privacy, all of which are crucial aspects of life and liberty.  However, the US Government did not stop at simply violating LGBTQ+ people’s basic 14th Amendment rights; government officials also pushed some to suicide and then attempted to cover it up.

Figure 4: Find Victim in Gas Filled Home.  8 September 1954.  The Morning Herald, Uniontown, PA. 

Some LGBTQ+ folks, when faced with the decision between being outed or resigning to a life of economic difficulty and shame, chose the only way out they could see: taking their own life.  The number of suicides linked to the Lavender Scare is difficult to estimate because the circumstances of these people’s deaths were largely kept secret.  Media would sometimes report deaths of federal workers but the cause of death was often omitted or if it was reported, the circumstances that caused it were not revealed.  For example, in the case of Andrew Ference shown above, a thirty-four-year-old man who killed himself after two days of intense questioning that led to him admitting he was gay, his family was not made aware of the events that led to his death until two years after his passing  (Johnson 159).  Any common newsreader would find no indication of government involvement with the above death because it was very explicitly excluded from the story.  The fact that the government was averse to news of the reality of LGBTQ+ workers deaths being revealed, suggests that it knew on some level that its policies were partially responsible for them.  After all, while there was minimal mainstream resistance to the Lavender Scare, the grassroots movement against it could potentially grow if it was revealed that the government essentially blackmailed people into committing suicide.

Figure 5: State Maps of Laws and Policies: Employment.  28 January 2019.  Human Rights Campaign.  https://www.hrc.org/state-maps/employment

While the anti-LGBTQ+ bans in federal organizations were officially ended in 1995, LGBTQ+ workers are far from protected.  American homophobia has shifted away from anti-Communist fervor and towards general bigotry often with a religious veil.  Although the specific motives are different, it all comes from the same root: disgust or fear of those who are different.  This prejudice still has far-reaching effects for LGBTQ+ people and for some it may feel as if the Lavender Scare never really ended.  Only 21 states and DC, shown in dark purple, protect against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, while 8 states, shown in medium purple, protect against employment discrimination on these bases for public employees only, and 4 states, shown in light purple, protect against employment discrimination for public employees only on the basis of sexual orientation.  This means that in 17 states, shown in gray, there are no protections for any LGBTQ+ workers and workers in the private sector are not protected in 29 states (Human Rights Campaign).  In many places in America, LGBTQ+ people can still be fired for living openly.  This situation sounds eerily familiar to the days of the Lavender Scare in which LGBTQ+ people could only be open about their identities in largely underground groups.  Evidently, the fervor that created anti-LGBTQ+ legislation during the Lavender Scare has left a legacy of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in the realm of employment protections. 

State governments and employers across the nation continue to violate the 14th amendment similar to the federal government during the Lavender Scare.  Civil Rights law has improved since the Lavender Scare, but LGBTQ+ workers in the Midwest and Southeast have not been able to enjoy the fruits of these improvements.  The 14th Amendment guarantees that all people should be equally protected under the law.  Yet, LGBTQ+ people are denied employment protections under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which explicitly outlaws discrimination on the basis of, among other factors, sex  (History.com).  Given that the Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that discrimination on the basis of sex stereotyping is discrimination on the basis of sex, LGBTQ+ people should be protected (Gulati, 2003).  After all, the idea that a woman should love a man and vice versa is one of the most prevalent sex stereotypes, and LGBTQ+ people face discrimination for subverting that stereotype.  The law clearly spells out protections for many groups of people and LGBTQ+ people should be included.  States that refuse LGBTQ+ people protection under these laws are violating the 14th Amendment because they are denying them equal protection under the law, despite the fact that they are rightful citizens of the United States.  Clearly, the hatred and aversion to change that fueled the Lavender Scare and the 14th Amendment violations that resulted from it are still alive and well in present-day America, exemplified by the striking lack of employment protections for LGBTQ+ people.

During the Lavender Scare, the US government deprived LGBTQ+ workers of their life and liberty without due process by firing, blackmailing, and outing them, hence violating the 14th Amendment.  The anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment that fueled the Lavender Scare has evolved to cause continuing employment discrimination today.

References

“The First NSA Defection.” (2013). Cold War & Internal Security (CWIS) Collection. J.Y. Joyner Library, East Carolina University. Retrieved from https://blog.ecu.edu/sites/cwis/2013/09/first-nsa-defection-1960/  

Gleason, J. (2017).  LGBT History: The Lavender Scare. National LGBT Chamber of Commerce.  Retrieved from https://www.nglcc.org/blog/lgbt-history-lavender-scare.

Gulati, S. (2003).  The use of gender-loaded identities in sex-stereotyping jurisprudence. New York University Law Review.  Retrieved from https://www.nyulawreview.org/issues/volume-78-number-6/the-use-of-gender-loaded-identities-in-sex-stereotyping-jurisprudence/

Johnson, D.K. (2009).   The Lavender scare: The Cold War persecution of gays and lesbians in the federal government. University of Chicago Press. 

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