“Lavender Scare” Exposes The US Government’s Cold War Era Gay Witch Hunt

via The Lavender Scare

The Lavender Scare, a forthcoming film by Josh Howard, is the first feature-length documentary that looks at the United States government’s mass campaign to fire every gay person in government during the Cold War, ostensibly because they represented security risks.

According to the website:

“While the McCarthy Era is remembered as the time of the Red Scare, the headline-grabbing hunt for Communists in the United States, it was the Lavender Scare, a vicious and vehement purge of homosexuals, which lasted longer and ruined many more lives.

Before it was over, more than 10,000 Federal employees lost their jobs. Based on the award-winning book by historian David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare shines a light on a chapter of American history that has never received the attention it deserves.

It examines the tactics used by the government to identify homosexuals, and takes audiences inside interrogation rooms where gay men and women were subjected to grueling questioning. These stories are told through the first-hand accounts of the people who experienced them.

The Lavender Scare shows how the government’s actions ignited an anti-gay frenzy that spread throughout the country, in an era in which The New York Times used the words “homosexual” and “pervert” interchangeably, and public service films warned that homosexuality was a dangerous, contagious disease.

While the story is at times infuriating and heartbreaking, its underlying message is uplifting and inspiring. Instead of destroying American homosexuals, the actions of the government had the opposite effect: they stirred a sense of outrage and activism that helped ignite the gay rights movement.”

Brief history lesson time!

In the 1950s in the United States, Canada, and Britain, people did not think particularly highly of gay people. Gayness was still medically classified as a psychiatric disorder, which made the landscape for coming out and acceptance significantly worse than it is now (human rights legislation, anti-discrimination legislation, gay marriage, etc, when you start to look into them, are all depressingly recent developments). Because of this, and other reasons, governments believed that having gay people around was a potential breach of security.

According to Patrizia Gentile and Gary Kinsman in their book, The Canadian War on Queers:

“It was believed that homosexuals, who might otherwise have been considered loyal citizens, were unreliable. Therefore, homosexuals would continue to be viewed as security risks if they were put in compromising positions by Soviet agents interested in blackmailing public servants who had secrets to keep as well as access to Canadian, American, and British security information.”

In Canada, there was also an initiative called the fruit machine (I am not making this up), which was a “scientific” method for determining whether federal employees had “character weaknesses,” which was what they considered gayness. (The contemporary Czech Republic has one of these things, too).

While the height of the lavender scare, the Canadian war on queers, and whatever Britain calls their mass firings was in the 1950s, the impacts continue today. The United States government only stopped discriminatory practices (on paper) against hiring gay people in 1995, and only extended benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees in 2009. Frank Kameny, one of the men featured in the film, and who is believed to have organized the very first gay rights protest in 1965, went to the signing.

It is this contemporary presence that makes films like The Lavender Scare — of which there are very few — so important. Teachers have to fight to get gay history recognized in schools — and not even specific elements of gay history, such as, for example, the Stonewall riots, but generally, such as the fact that major historical figures can sometimes be queer. It is also incredibly easy to forget our own history, and to see the gay rights movement as something that has really only been effective in the last five, ten, twenty years. If it is easy for us to forget, it is even easier for everyone else.

The Lavender Scare is based on a book by the same name published by the University of Chicago, which is a good academic publisher that does peer-review, which makes the movie extra-promising, especially if you are into that. The book, which was written by David Johnson, was based on research in the National Archives, on government documents, and on interviews with former civil servants. The film will be released next summer. I am already excited.

Watch the trailer:

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Ryan Yates

Ryan Yates was the NSFW Editor (2013–2018) and Literary Editor for Autostraddle.com, with bylines in Nylon, Refinery29, The Toast, Bitch, The Daily Beast, Jezebel, and elsewhere. They live in Los Angeles and also on twitter and instagram.

Ryan has written 1142 articles for us.


  1. This is why I wish that queer history was taught in schools, because this is the first time I’d heard of this.

  2. Why was I not taught this in my two year study of the Cold War? This seems like it was definitely relevant to the Cold War.

  3. ARGH why do I have to wait until next summer to see this?! This is almost as bad as the feeling I used to have between Harry Potter films.

  4. I can’t remember if I learned about this in school or not. I think it was a sidenote in the textbook or something.

    Am I the only one whose history textbooks sometimes acknowledged gay people, even as a sidenote? It would be interesting to take a survey.

    I graduated in 09, by the way

    • Mine sure didn’t. Admittedly, I didn’t open them very often…

      Anyway, I think this is going to be super interesting

    • I don’t think mine did. I graduated in ’09, too.

      This is all really impeccable timing because I have the book The Lavender Scare checked out from the library right now.

  5. It should be noted that Frank Kameny died recently, on National Coming Out Day.

    As a current temporary hopefully soon to be future permanent federal employee, it’s really awesome to be able to be out in an office that explicitly wouldn’t have hired someone like me up until 1975…

    I’m really excited to see this movie!

  6. This documentary looks very interesting indeed. Does anyone have any idea where I can find more information on the aforementioned mass-firings that took place in the UK? Google is not helping much (although it’s possible that I’m just inept xD)

    • David Johnson has an excellent book with the same title as this documentary. It’s focused on the US, but you might mine the footnotes for others books/articles on the UK. Alternately, if you can find a few famous individuals (gay or otherwise) who were persecuted in the UK during the Cold War, you might be able to find articles and books and follow the trail from there.

  7. The first time I ever heard of this was on US Skins, which is embarrassing because this is obviously important and because I was watching US Skins.

    • Bad Television,that’s also my magical source of knowledge.

      admittedly I rather go with “I’ve read that somewhere … ” when contributing said knowledge to a conversation.

  8. I certainly didn’t learn about it in high school- I graduated in 1985. I *think* I first learned of it from a gay students group in college. Which is also where I first heard of the Kinsey scale.

  9. I actually did learn a lot about this in my literature and gender class, which focused on the Beat era, in college. Quite honestly, I didn’t even really learn about the Red Scare in my high school history classes, let alone the implications it had for gay people. I suppose, to many ill-informed Americans, who unfortunately seem to control a lot of what we’re taught in public schools, gay/Communist/Socialist/Anarchist/etc. history ISN’T American history. Black history is barely American history, in their books. It’s all kind of scary, the things we leave out, the things we’re privileged enough to ignore, which is why we’re doomed to repeat history’s mistakes.

  10. I wrote one of my major research papers in college on the Lavender Scare and used it as a foundation for the rest of my undergrad career. Researching and writing the paper was emotionally draining, and very difficult, but it is such an important topic to discuss. It is insane that denial of security clearance based on sexual identity was still in effect in the mid-90s! On a personal note, learning about this chapter of queer history helped me come out to a few close friends and sparked an insatiable thirst for queer history!

  11. I learned about this in my Gay and Lesbian history class, and that book was one of our readings.

    I think what was interesting was how prior the Lavender Scare, being gay wasn’t as much of a stigma and there was much less oppression. During WWII, women and men were generally isolated from each other, which… led to a lot of things, like women having industry jobs, and very close same sex relationships to form.

    But after the war, the country/gov’t felt like it needed more babies and a more stable family. Because there was a strong push for the nuclear family, within which men HAD to be masculine and women HAD to be feminine. Any thing which got in the way of that machismo dynamic, including gay behavior, was seen as a big problem & scandalous. Condemned.

    And this lead to the atmosphere that lead to the L. Scare.

  12. I learned about the ‘fruit machine’ from, of all things, Due South fan fiction. I think what I learned of the Lavender Scare was cobbled together from mentions in a couple of internet articles and… probably more fan fiction.

    It’s embarrassing, the amount of random knowledge I possess thanks to fandom. Not because it’s from fan-made short stories that frequently get two hot people to fuck where fucking was not textually happening but because these are better-researched and more informative than nearly any original source material I’ve ever picked up in school. (I’m pretty sure Jean Grey and Emma Frost were my introduction to F/F sex education.)

  13. For those of you who want to brush up on your queer history, I can recommend this book about (specifically women’s) queer history. They discussed the Lavender Scare, too.

  14. I spend a lot of my classes flipping through my history book in school looking for any sign of LGBT history, there’s nothing there.
    They actually manage to mention the AIDS epidemic without mentioning gay people (apparently it was spread solely by drug use, who knew?)
    I can’t wait to see this documentary, it looks fascinating.
    It’s so sad that Frank Kameny didn’t live to see it finished, what an incredible man. Did anyone see the segment Rachel Maddow did about him?

    • Rachel Maddow’s segment was wonderful. Yesterday, Barney Frank was on her show and mentioned that the picture of Obama, Kameny, and Frank in that segment was taken by his partner.

  15. Everyone should also read The Straight State, by Margot Canaday. Using examples from immigration policy, the welfare bureaucracy, and the military, she shows how not only did the American state regulate homosexuality, it in fact created the category during the 1920s to the 1980s. It’s also really well-written and incredibly interesting. I had to read it for class, but I couldn’t put it down.

    • Yes, this! That’s a really fantastic book. Other fantastic books related to queer history:

      – Regina Kunzel’s Criminal Intimacy (on the US prison system; like Canaday, she argues that fear of homosexuality in bureaucratic settings is central to the policing of heterosexuality)

      Nancy Cott’s Public Vows (this one isn’t as directly related to gay history, but it’s about the history of marriage and the implications for gender and gender norms, so it’s relevant and also super interesting)

  16. This makes me admire people who were out then even more. Like the composer Benjamin Britten, who was as openly gay as you could be back then in the UK, and in a relationship with tenor Peter Pears, who was basically Britten’s muse (he wrote a lot of his great tenor roles, like Peter Grimes, specifically for Pears). When Britten died, Queen Elizabeth II actually sent Pears a telegram of sympathy like you would with a spouse…

  17. “In the 1950s in the United States, Canada, and Britain, people did not think particularly highly of gay people.”

    Was this supposed to make us laugh? Because I did. “People did not think particularly highly of gay people” is one of the biggest understatements I’ve heard in a long time. Although I think you should replace “in the United States, Canada, and Britain” with “in the world.”

  18. One of the more prominent victims of state security persecution in the UK was Alan Turing, the computer science pioneer. There is a (sadly untrue) rumor that the Apple Computers logo is an oblique reference to his suicide.

  19. Pingback: I Saw The Sign: LGBT Symbols Then And Now – www.autostraddle.com - Shortlinker

Comments are closed.