The Lavender Scare

By Kimberly Dennin

Important Note: This post includes sensitive content including: suicide, sex, discrimination, and accounts of homophobia.

How did we get to the Lavender Scare?

Many people are aware of the infamous red scare that swept America in the 1950s. The red scare emerged during a time of rising tensions between America and Communist Russia. It was based on the fear that Communists had successfully embedded themselves in American society, governments and were gathering intelligence for the Russians. What is less well known is that there was a second scare, the lavender scare, which targeted homosexual government employees and proved to negatively affect more people than the red scare and still has lasting consequences.

There are many factors that came together to create a situation in which the systematic denial of homosexuals from federal positions could occur. The first is the climate of post-WWII America. Men and women were leaving rural/small-town life for the first time during the war and moving to cities. Gay people were able to find each other and begin forming communities in the relative anonymity provided by the density of cities. Despite this relative anonymity, there was a growing public awareness of homosexuals which led to growing unease and the opportunity for the government to increase official repression with public support. With all of the social changes occurring after WWII, there were increasing anxieties over the effects on family life, sexual mores, and gender norms. In addition, the public view of homosexuals was very similar to that of Communists. Both were considered to be sinful and perverted, lacking both moral and mental strength. Homosexuals were so despised that even the American Civil Liberties Union would not stand up for them in the events leading up to and during the lavender scare.

During the 1940s, homosexuality became a lurking, subversive threat. Homosexuals were labeled as mentally ill because they were choosing to act sexually deviant, and there were laws and programs for the arrest and punishment of people who acted on same-sex desires. In 1946, the Appropriations Committee gave the secretary of state discretion to dismiss employees for the sake of national security. The State Department put more stringent security checks in place and began rooting out homosexuals.

Senator Joseph McCarthy

All of this was being done with little publicity until Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy gave a speech on February 9, 1950 where he claimed to have a list of 205 known Communists working at the State Department. Then, on February 20th he spoke on the Senate floor offering more specifics about some of the individuals, two of which concerned homosexuality. This was the first time that homosexuals and Communism were directly linked and one week later, John Peurifoy, Deputy Undersecretary of State, testified that the State Department had ousted 91 homosexual employees as security risks, sparking a press frenzy and public outcry. This brings us to the second main factor that created a situation in which homosexuals could be so explicitly targeted. McCarthy was a Republican, and the president during this time was Harry S. Truman, a Democrat. McCarthy, claiming that Communists and homosexuals had infiltrated the government, was a political tool to undermine Truman’s presidency and increase Republican political power. Unlike Communists, homosexuals were actually being uncovered, which only encouraged further pursuit.

Wherry-Hill Investigation

Eventually, dissatisfaction with President Truman’s administration’s response led to two congressional investigations into homosexuality in the federal workforce. The first was the Wherry-Hill Investigation, which lasted from March to May of 1950 with Republican Senator Kenneth Wherry and Democratic Senator J. Lister Hill beginning the investigation. Experts including military investigators and the D.C. morals squad (four men who detected and arrested homosexuals and could arrest up to 65 homosexuals in one night) claimed that homosexuals were security risks because of their susceptibility to blackmail on the threat of exposure. Historically, homosexuals were prevented from serving in the military, however security risk was never cited as a rationale for the ban on homosexuals. This only appears after the Senate hearings. Investigators also came forward claiming they had lists of known or suspected homosexuals. At this time there was anger over known homosexuals being allowed to resign without permanent blots on their records because it allowed them to be reemployed by other federal agencies. One of the results of the investigation addressed this concern. Agencies were required to submit detailed reasons for removals or resignations. The same was also required for moral arrests. The police departments had to provide a report with sufficient detail to the FBI, who then gave the information to the Civil Service Commission (CSC). The CSC used this information to remove employees and the FBI maintained the lists so job applicants could be screened against them.

Wherry-Hill via National Archives

To prove how effective the policies from the investigation were, in the 38 months before the hearing there were only 192 homosexual cases. In the 7 months since there were 382 homosexual cases. The FBI check prevented the employment of 1,700 homosexual applicants between January 1947 and August 1950. The use of arrest records and increased liaison between the police and FBI resulted in an increase in the arrests for homosexuality with Washington police averaging 1,000 gay-related arrests per year in the 1950s.

Hoey Committee Investigation

Hoey Committee via National Archives

The second investigation was the Hoey Committee Investigation. This investigation involved the further gathering of information from various experts and agencies. No known homosexuals spoke, however, some agency officials were more tolerant of homosexuals and many medical authorities pointed to the complexities of homosexuality. The most influential testimony, however, came from CIA director Admiral Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter. He gave a 38-page statement about why gays should not be allowed to work in the federal government. As previously mentioned, the main reason given for targeting homosexuals is that they were susceptible to blackmail. However, no one had been able to provide a single example of a homosexual giving up government information because they had been blackmailed. Hillenkoetter was the first, and he dedicated 10 pages of his report to the story of Alfred Redl. Alfred Redl was the head of counterintelligence in the Austro-Hungarian Army right before WWI. It was eventually discovered that he was a Russian spy and had been selling military information to the Russians for years. Redl killed himself, and it was later published in various books that he had been blackmailed by the Russians for being a homosexual. However, there is no evidence that this is true. Yet despite the clear lack of evidence, Hillenkoetter created a story of how the Russians hired a paperboy to get close to Redl. In his story, the Russians were able to catch Redl having sex with the boy and used this to blackmail him. This made-up story based on claims that have no supporting evidence became the primary piece of evidence that guided policy towards homosexuals for years. Hillenkoetter also listed 13 facts that he had learned about homosexuals that were offered as further evidence of their unsuitability for government positions. These included statements on homosexual’s lack of emotional stability, their attempts to seduce normal people, and their tendency to gather other perverts around them.

Report: Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government

Report via National Archives

On December 15, 1950, the Hoey committee issued a report titled Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government. The report selectively used evidence, leaving out testimonies that were more tolerant towards homosexuals, and cited Hillenkoetter’s report heavily, thus making his 13 principles and story of Redl official government doctrine. This report is what really launched the lavender scare with its conclusion that homosexuals should not be employed by the federal government and shaped government agency security manuals for years. This report also laid the groundwork for President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1953 Executive Order #10450, “Security Requirements for Government Employment”. This order explicitly added sexuality to the list of criteria used to determine a person’s suitability for federal employment. In response to this, private sectors and state and local governments started passing similar regulations, resulting in homosexuals being officially barred from at least 20% of the nation’s jobs.

In the CSC’s 1954 annual report there were 618 dismissals under the Executive Order and 837 cases by June 1955. It is estimated that the Order resulted in between 5,000 and tens of thousands of gay workers losing their jobs. All of this was also happening in private. People who had been fired did not want to reveal why because if a person revealed that they were gay, their life was essentially over. People being charged also were kept from bringing in an attorney and were blackmailed into quietly resigning. This resulted in financial strain/ruin and emotional distress and unfortunately suicide was very common. Unlike the red scare, there was no public naming of names, which probably saved lives from more suicides. However, this also meant that gay men and women were not viewed as real people. By only being numbers on a page the public perception of the scare tended to be skewed.

Franklin Kameny and the Mattachine Society

Out of the lavender scare, however, rose the grandfather of the gay rights movement, Franklin Kameny. Kameny was an astronomer and fired by the Army Map Service in 1957 because he was arrested a year earlier for consensual contact with another man in California. He fought back and appealed his dismissal to the Supreme Court, which failed in 1961. In response, he formed the Mattachine Society with Bruce Scott which battled anti-gay discrimination in general and the federal government’s exclusionary policies in particular. Kameny claimed that the issue was not about national security or morality, but civil rights. He also called himself and his followers homosexual American citizens and that people cannot forget either part of that. In 1963 he was the first openly gay person to testify on Capitol Hill and in 1965 the Mattachine Society organized picket lines in front of the state department and white house.

Kameny via The Guardian

End of the Lavender Scare

It was a long battle, but in 1975 the CSC announced new rules that homosexuals could no longer be barred or fired from federal employment because of their sexuality. This did not mean that the struggle for equal rights was over. The FBI and NSA’s bans on homosexuals lasted into the 1990s and was officially overturned by President Bill Clinton in 1995. It was not until 2011 that the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was repealed by President Barack Obama, allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. Following this, the Pentagon lifted the ban on transgender people serving openly in the military in 2016, however, in 2019 the Trump administration reimplemented the ban on transgender people serving, though this is still being contested. Most recently, this year (2020) the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian and transgender employees from discrimination based on sex. While we have made significant advances in LGBTQ+ rights since the lavender scare it is important to not forget this moment in history in order to prevent the continued erasure of LGBTQ+ history and a repeat of these disastrous events.


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