Lavender Scare: A Look Back at LGBT McCarthyism - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Lavender Scare: A Look Back at LGBT McCarthyism

Lavender Scare: A Look Back at LGBT McCarthyism

By Lorena O'Neil


In the 1950s President Eisenhower sought to expel all LGBT people from federal government, and while we have come a long way, workplace discrimination is still a real thing.

By Lorena O'Neil

Remember when a president of the United States signed an order demanding that all gay and lesbian government employees be fired? Remember when this led to an anti-gay witch hunt conducted in the same era as the Red Scare? Remember when thousands of people lost their jobs because of their sexual orientation?


If you’re scratching your head because you have never heard about this time in history, don’t worry. Most people haven’t. But it’s all true.

BW portrait of Dwight Eisenhower looking into camera

Source Corbis

On April 27, 1953, President Eisenhower signed an executive order banning LGBT employees from working in the federal government. In the 1930s and ’40s, Washington, D.C., had actually provided a fairly hospitable environment to the gay community. But as Sen. Joseph McCarthy began to conflate communists and homosexuals, and Americans began to worry about the declining state of the country’s morality, things started deteriorating. 

Politicians who wanted homosexuals removed from all federal agencies said it was a matter of national security. They felt that LGBT workers were susceptible to blackmail and could be coerced into giving up government secrets.

Solution? Use government agents to hunt them down. Seriously. We couldn’t make this stuff up if we tried.

The homosexuals were sometimes referred to as “lavender lads,” and when author David K. Johnson published a book about this historical period in 2004 he dubbed it The Lavender Scare. Producer and director Josh Howard spoke with some of these government agents for his upcoming documentary movie inspired by the book. (Disclosure: I worked on the Kickstarter campaign for the film.)

“The people that I got rid of, they were faggots,” the former agent says. “I didn’t give a hoot; get rid of the son of a bitch. Put him on the bread line.”

To the bread line they did go. Thousands of federal workers lost their jobs, whether they were fired or resigned in fear. They were also asked to name their gay and lesbian friends. Some committed suicide.

Frank Kameny, an astronomer working for the U.S. Army Map Service, was fired for being gay in 1957. A few years later, in 1965, he led a group of men and women to picket the White House, in what might have been the country’s first gay rights demonstration. He was a well-known hero in the LGBT rights world, and in 2009 the Obama administration formally apologized to him for the dismissal and granted him the prestigious Theodore Roosevelt Award.

There are still 29 states where you can be legally fired for being gay.

Although President Clinton officially rescinded Eisenhower’s policy in 1995, and the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” law was repealed in 2010, LGBT workplace discrimination is not a story confined to the history books. There are still 29 states where you can be legally fired for being gay. And while the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — which could be a big step forward for gay rights — passed the Senate in November, it still hasn’t passed the House, and if it’s up to John Boehner it won’t pass this year either.

Following last week’s State of the Union speech, LGBT activists expressed frustration that Obama didn’t mention ENDA or an executive order banning LGBT employment discrimination against federal workers. It would have, of course, been the antithesis of Eisenhower’s order. 

Er, at least we don’t have witch hunts anymore. Right?

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