‘The Lavender Scare’ documents early LGBTQ resistance to McCarthyism
Frank Kameny leads a picket line in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1965. Forty activists joined the protest, making it for its time the largest public demonstration for LGBT rights in world history.

Following a theatrical release in New York, Los Angeles, and other major cities, the award-winning documentary The Lavender Scare will have its PBS premiere nationwide on Tues., June 18 at 9:00 pm, re-airing throughout June on digital channels. (For more details check local listings or pbs.org.) The movie house feature documentary is 75 minutes, and the television version is 54 minutes. Not mentioned in the shorter version is the explanation for the title (perhaps it is in the feature): Lavender is the color traditionally associated with the LGBTQ movement.

The Lavender Scare was produced and directed by Josh Howard, based on an award-winning book by David K. Johnson. Howard recruited well-known voices to narrate the story, including Glenn Close, Cynthia Nixon, Zachary Quinto, T.R. Knight, and David Hyde Pierce. The main sources, however, are the courageous gay and lesbian people who fought for their careers and the civil rights of LGBTQ people in the years leading up to the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion.

The film has won over 20 Best Documentary awards.

Historians John D’Emilio and Lillian Faderman, among others, relate how the post-World War II phobia against Communists meshed with the fear and hatred of homosexuals in the McCarthy period. Both groups were suspected of disloyalty, spying for the Soviets, and capable of being blackmailed.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and his running mate, California’s Richard M. Nixon, rode into office in 1952 under the slogan “Let’s clean house with Ike and Dick,” ending a 20-year period of Democratic control over the White House. The GOP played up the homosexual issue as a national security threat. Among Eisenhower’s first executive orders was one committing to root out all homosexuals from federal jobs both civilian and military.

In every federal bureau and department, down to the local post office, informants called out fellow employees based on what they knew or suspected of their private lives. Investigations and surveillance involving stalking movements, interviewing friends and associates, taking unauthorized photographs and threatening public disclosure, forced thousands of people to quietly resign.

For some, the disgrace was too much to bear and resulted in suicide. For others, being fired and blacklisted from further employment meant a ruined life.

Over the course of four decades, regarded by some as the longest witch-hunt in American history, tens of thousands of government workers would lose their jobs for no reason other than their sexual orientation. The documentary includes numerous clips of politicians such as Eisenhower, McCarthy, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk vehemently defending this policy. To think otherwise was, well, almost unthinkable.

Ironically, the post-war repression followed a relatively open time for LGBTQ Americans. World War II was for many of them a period of emancipation, as both men and women entered the military, or flocked to urban centers for war jobs, where they met for the first time in their lives people like themselves. They could imagine a happier, freer future in peacetime.

The mass firings went on apace, with a noticeable absence of due process and the inability to face one’s accusers. But without an organized LGBTQ movement oriented toward fighting back, there was no resistance, only a quiet outrage. The irony (surprise!) is that not a single case of disloyalty or espionage was ever uncovered.

Eventually, one man who refused to bow down to oppression, Frank Kameny, took the lead at the forefront of the fight for equality. A Harvard PhD in astronomy who might have had a stellar career in the American Space Age, perhaps even becoming an astronaut, he was denied government work for his sexuality. After his last appeals petered out in defeat by 1961, he decided to become an open activist.

The film helps to shine a light on this little-known chapter of American history and serves as a timely reminder of the need for vigilance and social action when civil liberties are under attack.

The fight to obtain and exercise the full rights of American citizenship is perhaps the single most salient theme of our nation’s life. Not a single group that has won legal and social advances in the past is guaranteed them permanently. It remains a constant battle to maintain and further expand these rights.

Aside from Frank Kameny, director Josh Howard fills out the story with a number of moving stories of men and women who were fired or blocked in their career paths during the lavender hysteria. In some cases, such as postal employee Carl Rizzi, his boss defended him to the investigators, and Rizzi managed to hold onto his job and advance. NSA employee Jamie Shoemaker tells a similar story of his lost security clearance regained, the first government decision of its kind.

Although Kameny was not successful in his own case, his arguments for the community’s civil rights found echoes in the larger civil rights movements, for African Americans, Mexican Americans and other communities of color, as well as for women, the disabled and others. The 1960s were also years of protest against the Vietnam War. The time was right for considering American civil rights in a broader context. Yet it was not until 1995 that President Bill Clinton finally by executive order barred the government from routinely denying security clearances to gay and lesbian people.

Kameny lived long enough to be invited to the Obama White House, where the president thanked him for his stubborn, far-sighted activism, noting that Kameny had demonstrated in front of it as far back as 1965. He is sometimes referred to as the “grandfather” of the LGBT movement.

The musical score to the documentary includes such appropriate classics as “The Times They Are A-Changing” and “True Colors.”

Howard came to this project with more than 25 years of experience in news and documentary production. He has been honored with 24 Emmy Awards, mostly for his work on the CBS News broadcast 60 Minutes. He also produced a series of award-winning documentaries focusing on American business. His 90-minute film Big Brother, Big Business explored the ways in which corporate America works hand-in-hand with the government to collect information about the personal habits of private citizens.

The Lavender Scare trailer can be seen here.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.