On this date in history, February 28, 1950, amidst the paranoia of red scare created by Sen. Joe McCarthy, Deputy Undersecretary of State John Peurifoy revealed that the State Department had dismissed 91 homosexuals in an ongoing purge that eventually came to sweep the entire Federal government.
(iii) Any criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct, habitual use of intoxicants to excess, drug addiction, sexual perversion.Every LGBT American now had a target on their back, courtesy of their President.
Above is the trailer for The Lavender Scare, a new film by Josh Howard, a former executive producer of 60 Minutes. Howard chronicles this era with archive footage and interviews of the survivors. It is based on a book of the same title by David Johnson, an Associate Professor at the Department of History at University of South Florida. The film will be making the rounds at film festivals this year.
The witch hunts that were "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" investigations can only be seen as a vestigial policy of this era. The gay witch hunts in the 1950s and 60s lacked any repudiating "At long last, have you no shame?" moment, and as a result, the questioning of the patriotism, worth and value of LGBT soldier's service continued as Federal policy right up until 2011. It still remains suspect to many, like to some in the Oklahoma legislature.
Then, the "threat" of homosexual community was a convenient boogeyman used to distract from the popularity and success of the New Deal era Democrats. Today, we see a similar dynamic at play. Conservatives find themselves unable to compete in the marketplace of ideas on their economic platform, so they are seeking to turn the conversation to demonizing their fellow Americans, including women, ethnic minorities and gays.
In California, the legislature passed a bill that would encourage educators to include LGBT history where appropriate, and this is certainly a chapter of note. But even now foes of the LGBT community are working to ensure that bill never becomes law, seeking to overturn it at the ballot in 2012. This is precisely a story they'd like to remain hidden and forgotten. They don't want their children to know of this, lest they feel empathy and horror at the crimes America has committed against its own LGBT citizens, crimes they'd reintroduce in a heartbeat given the chance. In fact, National Organization for Marriage claimed in 2010:
(Gays and lesbians) are not being repressed, discriminated against. There is no and never has ever been a homosexual man hunt for them. Jews, Christians, and Blacks were hunted down and murdered. Homosexuals have nothing in common with the three.Their willful ignorance of this episode, Nazi Germany and the current hate crimes statistics allows them to live in a revisionist history version of America where the Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery (even as they wrote it into the Constitution) and the Holocaust never really happened, and Japanese internment camps weren't so bad—just an all-expense paid vacation really.
After the fold, a letter from David Johnson on the occaision of this anniversary.
In the last few months Freedom To Work brought to the country's attention the case of a government contract employee who experienced egregiously hostile work environment, being called "faggot" and other anti-gay slurs daily at work. Ultimately, the company, DynCorp, ended up updating its personnel policy to include non-discrimination protection on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity.
On a Tragic Anniversary, Obama Can End Government-Sanctioned Anti-LGBT Discrimination
Like thousands of government workers and contractors during the Cold War, Madeleine Tress lived in fear for her job. One day in 1958, she was summoned to an interrogation room in Washington and asked, “The Commission has information that you are an admitted homosexual. What comment do you wish to make?” When she refused to answer, the officials pressed her about her visits to a Washington gay bar and asked invasive questions about her sex life. The next day she submitted her resignation, her career in the Foreign Service over.
The witch hunt that claimed the livelihoods of thousands of gay men and women, known as the “Lavender Scare,” began sixty-two years ago this week. Madeleine Tress was just one of its many victims. This anti-gay crusade did far more than deprive these men and women of jobs – it drove many to suicide, and cemented homophobic stereotypes that persisted for decades in the American consciousness.
The Lavender Scare is long over, but today, President Obama has the opportunity to end the federal government’s role in anti-LGBT discrimination once and for all. And as we look towards the future, we must also look back at our government’s past.
“Mr. Secretary, what do you consider a security risk?” So began the questioning of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, as he confronted the growing concern about Senator Joseph McCarthy’s charges that his department was riddled with communists. In an attempt to quell fears of political subversion within the government, one of Acheson’s assistants, John Peurifoy, set off a panic of a different sort when, on February 28, 1950, he revealed that ninety-one homosexuals had been uncovered and fired as part of a search for “security risks.”
While the McCarthy era is more widely known for purges of suspected Communists, it was homosexuals who were the primary victims of the witch hunts; in fact; most Communists in federal government had already been purged by 1950. The seeming “infiltration” of homosexuals into the federal government, as revealed with Peurifoy, perfectly fit not only with concerns over “security risks,” but also with public concerns of a postwar decline in American values. Puerifoy’s revelations kicked off a national outcry for a new effort to remove these “sex perverts” and “moral degenerates” from public service – and the government complied. It began a systematic campaign to ferret out and remove all suspected gay men and lesbians from the military, the civil service, and security clearance jobs – the “Lavender Scare.” In the midst of a cold war with the Soviet Union, gays and lesbians, who engaged in “immoral” behavior, were supposedly vulnerable to blackmail and thus a threat to national security. Tens of thousands lost their jobs, though none of the Lavender Scare’s proponents could point to any examples of gay men or lesbians being blackmailed into spying for the Soviets.Starting in the last 1950s, a handful of gay men and lesbians began fighting back; among the first of these pioneers was the late Frank Kameny, who had been fired from his job at the Army Map Service in 1957 for his sexuality. These early gay rights activists lobbied, picketed the White House, and filed lawsuits charging they were being discriminated against and made to be second-class citizens. And they ultimately won, both in the courts of law and the court of public opionion. The government could never prove that there was any connection between their off-duty conduct and their ability to perform their official duties.White House protest organized by Kameny, 1965 (photo courtesy The Lavender Scare)
Thanks to the courage of Kameny and other founders of the modern gay rights movement, Washington is a very different place for gay men and lesbians today. Rather than leading a witch hunt for homosexuals, the federal government is one of the most progressive of employers. In 1998, President Clinton signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination in federal employment on the grounds of sexual orientation. One of the last gasps of this government witch hunt only ended last year, with the final demise of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Yet today, in the era of privatization and outsourcing, much of the federal government’s work is done not by its own employees, but by private contractors. And a great many of these contractors lack nondiscrimination policies; thus, the government still has a hand in many businesses where LGBT employees are at risk for being fired for their sexuality.
Pressure has heightened on President Obama to sign an executive order barring the government from doing business with contractors that discriminate. The Williams Institute at UCLA has found that such an executive order would protect 400,000 to 600,000 LGBT workers beyond those contractor employees already protected by state and private anti-discrimination policies. This would prevent thousands of LGBT Americans who live in states and cities lacking nondiscrimination policies from being fired simply for their sexuality.
In 2009, Frank Kameny, who years earlier had marched outside the White House in protest of the firings, stood with President Obama inside those very halls. Obama praised Kameny’s 1965 protest as “an act of conscience, but also an act of extraordinary courage.” Today, Obama has the opportunity to fulfill Kameny’s legacy by closing the book on the federal government’s involvement in anti-LGBT employment discrimination once and for all.
David Johnson, an Associate Professor at the Department of History at University of South Florida, is the author of the 2004 book The Lavender Scare. The book is currently being adapted into a documentary film, scheduled for release later this year; more information is available at www.thelavenderscare.com.
The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission was helpful in that case, but their hands are tied in many cases as LGBT employment discrimination is legal and hostile work environments unactionable in most of the country. It's time to change that and undo the wrong that President Eisenhower did when he made LGBT Americans suspect targets by executive order in 1953, time to roll the ball in the opposition direction.
We can't rewrite history, but we can right it.