BOOK REVIEW: The Lavender Scare

Author David K. Johnson breaks down the assumption that the purges of homosexuals from federal agencies began under Senator Joe McCarthy in 1950 and ended with his career in 1954. In The Lavender Scare, Johnson argues that purges of gays and lesbians from federal employment actually began in 1947. Drawing on a large body of recently declassified government documents such as congressional hearings, executive department records and court cases, Johnson constructs an exhaustive narrative that explains the reasons Washington D.C. had such a high gay and lesbian population, the unusual relationship of the gay community to the federal government, and the reasons for the federal government’s purges of homosexual civil servants in the late 1940s through the 1950s. Johnson argues that the idea of a “homosexual citizen” for gays and lesbians nationwide formed as a result of these purges, which helped launch the first gay rights movement.

After World War II, Washington D.C. became a boomtown. Washington attracted a disproportionate amount of single men and women, including a large population of gays and lesbians, into the city for work. Government agencies did not have such rigid restrictions on gender roles, as did other parts of the country, and gays and lesbians found work with the government including the State Department. Men and women lived in sex-segregated parts of town and as in other cities, a gay community formed. According to Johnson’s research, certain locations and neighborhoods became associated as gay spaces known to the gay community and also to the police. This meant that when the crackdowns on gays began the authorities knew where to begin making arrests.

In Washington, gays and lesbians held positions of authority within the federal government. This unusual power dynamic made Washington unique as a gay city when compared to other places. Throughout the 1940s, a person’s sexual orientation became increasingly used as leverage against political enemies. For example, Johnson writes about a man named Sumner Welles who had achieved a tremendous amount of power in the State Department under FDR. Welles remained one of the most influential men in D.C. until 1940 when he propositioned several men for sex. News of the sexual impropriety spread and his opponents forced him to resign. Critics quickly linked the presence of homosexuals in the State Department to corruption in the Roosevelt Administration and feared that homosexual diplomats exposed themselves to blackmail and therefore represented major security risks to the country.

Historians of American history likely know about the Red Scare, the 1950s federal government attempt to purge the State Department of suspected communists. Less is known about the Lavender Scare, the government’s attempt to purge the State Department of homosexuals. The year 1950 marked a turning point when government officials stated that homosexuality was a mental disorder that led people to become communists. A fear that communists had already infiltrated the State Department and had access to sensitive information plus a fear that homosexuals would pass secretes to the Soviets intensified when State Department officials announced that ninety-one homosexuals had been removed from their jobs in the State Department. Beneath the Red Scare anxiety that communists controlled the government lurked the Lavender Scare, the fear that effeminate, weak homosexuals left the country vulnerable to attack.

Johnson argues the federal government purges fostered a climate of political activism that created a homosexual citizen. Most importantly, Johnson links the organization of the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles directly to government purges of homosexuals in Washington. Johnson explains Harry Hay’s motivation to form the Mattachine Society as a direct response to federal purges. Hay perceived such actions as discriminatory but also threatened “androgens to secure employment” (170) in the Southern California economy that depended heavily on federal defense industries. Hay and other members of the Mattachine Society developed language to speak about themselves as an oppressed minority, which meant they saw themselves as American citizens who deserved rights and protections from the government. Johnson underscores the irony that severe repression actually fosters community development and political mobilization among the people targeted.

Like the Red Scare, the Lavender Scare ruined the lives and careers of many men and women. Yet the Lavender Scare is also a story of achievement, social change, and the origins of organizations that existed to defend gays and lesbians as citizens. The intersection of citizenship and homosexuality is an important contribution to the field of gay and lesbian history because it raises new questions about the Cold War, sexual repression, and federal policies that continued to shape the nature of the ideal American family and citizen. The focus of the book remains on the purges but sheds light on a historical moment of fear and paranoia about the sexualities of America’s citizens.

Director Josh Howard has made a film based on the book. This is the preview.

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  • Armando Bravo
    July 3, 2014

    Excellent review, Seth. Thanks.

  • chanson
    January 31, 2015

    This post has been nominated for a 2014 Brodie Award in the category of “Best Review”. Please go here if you would like to vote for it! 😀

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