Shameful Echoes of the 1950s Lavender ScareRoundup
tags: McCarthyism, LGBTQ history
David K. Johnson is professor of history at the University of South Florida and author of The Lavender Scare and Buying Gay.
The White House has proclaimed April 27 the 70th Anniversary of the Lavender Scare, the systematic firing and banning of LGBT people from the federal government. By signing executive order 10450 on April 27, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower took a wild, unsubstantiated conspiracy theory from a far-right backbench U.S. Senator, Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), and turned it into a federal government policy that endured in some form for over four decades.
Based on the unfounded fear that LGBT Americans might be coerced into revealing state secrets to the enemy, that executive order ended the careers of thousands of loyal citizens. It offers a cautionary tale about the current spate of anti-trans and anti-woke proposals that similarly began as partisan political positions — as red meat for the MAGA-wing of today’s Republican Party. As with McCarthy’s claims, such political posturing and fearmongering can easily become law, initiating decades of unfreedom.
McCarthy rose to power in 1950 with claims that he held a list of communist “Reds” who had infiltrated the State Department and were passing secrets to the enemy.
But McCarthy’s charges kept changing and several on his list of purported “security risks” were not suspected communists but “homosexuals.”
At first the State Department denied harboring any communists, but later admitted to firing 91 “homosexuals.” This admission seemed to confirm McCarthy’s charges about “sex perverts” and “lavender lads” in high government positions. Mail poured in to the Capitol thanking McCarthy for exposing “sex depravity” in Washington. Journalists given a peek at the 25,000 letters concluded that the vast majority of writers were alarmed more by the presence of gay men and lesbians than communists. All this set off a moral panic we now call “the lavender scare.”
In the wake of McCarthy’s revelations, three different congressional committees held hearings on the question of “homosexuals-in-government” and whether they posed a danger. Military intelligence officials and local vice squad officers unanimously testified that gay men and lesbians posed a threat to national security because they could easily be blackmailed. But they offered no proof. They could not point to a single example of a gay American citizen who had betrayed classified information. But facts mattered less than preconceptions.
With no existing LGBT organizations to protect their interests, no openly gay witnesses were asked to testify. Nor were Democrats or the ACLU willing to defend the rights of LGBT employees, still a novel concept. All they could do was suggest that homosexuality was more a matter for mental health professionals than national security experts.
With bipartisan support, a congressional committee issued a report in December 1950 declaring “the lack of emotional stability which is found in most sex perverts and the weakness of their moral fiber makes them susceptible to the blandishments of the foreign agent.” It called for a wholesale purge.