LGBTQ+ History Month: The Lavender Scare


The lavender scare refers to a witch hunt and the mass firings of homosexual people in the 1950s from the United States government. It contributed to and paralleled the anti-communist campaign known as McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare. Gay men and lesbians were said to be security risks and communist sympathizers, which led to the call to remove them from state employment. The term was popularized by David K. Johnson’s 2004 book “The Lavender Scare” which drew its title from the term “lavender lads”, used repeatedly as a synonym for homosexual males.

In 1950, the same year that Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed 205 communists were working in the State Department, Undersecretary of State John Peurifoy said that the State Department had allowed 91 homosexuals to resign. On April 19, 1950, the Republican National Chairman Guy George Gabrielson said that “sexual perverts who have infiltrated our Government in recent years” were “perhaps as dangerous as the actual Communists”. The danger was not solely because they were gay though. The homosexuals were considered to be more susceptible to blackmail and thus were labeled as security risks. McCarthy hired Roy Cohn (who, strong evidence produced suggest was a closeted homosexual) as chief counsel of his Congressional subcommittee. Together, McCarthy and Cohn—with the enthusiastic support of the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover—were responsible for the firing of scores of allegedly gay men and women from government employment and strong-armed many opponents into silence using rumors of their homosexuality.

McCarthy often used accusations of homosexuality as a smear tactic in his anti-communist crusade, often combining the Second Red Scare with the Lavender Scare. On one occasion, he went so far as to announce to reporters, “If you want to be against McCarthy, boys, you’ve got to be either a Communist or a cocksucker.” At least one recent history has argued that, in linking communism and homosexuality and psychological imbalance, McCarthy was employing guilt-by-association if evidence for communist activity was lacking.

Both homosexuals and Communist Party members were seen as “subversive elements in American society who all shared the same ideals of antitheism, rejection of bourgeois culture and middle-class morality, lack of conformity”; “were scheming and manipulative” and; “would put their own agendas above others in the eyes of the general population.” McCarthy also associated homosexuality and communism as “threats to the ‘American way of life’.” Homosexuality was directly linked to security concerns, and more government employees were dismissed because of their homosexual sexual orientation than because they were left-leaning or communist. Homosexuality (and by implication homosexuals themselves) were constantly referred to not only as a disease, but also as an invasion, like the perceived danger of communism and subversives.

Washington D.C. had a fairly large and active gay community before McCarthy launched his witch hunt campaign against homosexuals, but as time went on and the climate of the Cold War spread, so too did the negative views of homosexuals. Because social attitudes toward homosexuality were overwhelmingly negative and the psychiatric community regarded homosexuality as a mental disorder, gay men and lesbians were considered susceptible to blackmail, thus constituting a security risk. U.S. government officials assumed that communists would blackmail homosexual employees of the federal government to provide them classified information rather than risk exposure.

The Subcommittee on Investigations was a subcommittee of the Committee on Expenditures in Executive Departments. This subcommittee led by Senator Clyde R. Hoey from 1949-1952 investigated “the employment of homosexuals in the Federal workforce.” A related report, known as the Hoey Report, stated that all of the government’s intelligence agencies “are in complete agreement that sex perverts in Government constitute security risks.”

In 1952, Senator Everett Dirksen said that a Republican victory in the November elections would mean the removal of “the lavender lads” from the State Department. The phrase was also used by Confidential magazine, a periodical known for gossiping about the sexuality of politicians and prominent Hollywood stars.

The Lavender Scare persisted when, in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which set security standards for federal employment and barred homosexuals from working in the federal government and/or from entering the military. The restrictions resulted in hundreds of gay people being forcibly outed and fired from the State Department. The executive order was also the cause for the firing of approximately 5,000 gay people from federal employment; this included private contractors and military personnel. Not only did the victims lose their jobs, but also they were forced out of the closet and thrust into the public eye as lesbian or gay. (Executive Order 10450 stayed on paper and in effect until 1995 when President Bill Clinton rescinded the order and put in place the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy – only slightly less restrictive and almost as discriminatory – for admittance of gays into the military.)

The 1957 Crittenden Report of the United States Navy Board of Inquiry concluded that there was “no sound basis for the belief that homosexuals posed a security risk” and criticized the prior Hoey Report: “No intelligence agency, as far as can be learned, adduced any factual data before that committee with which to support these opinions” and said that “the concept that homosexuals necessarily pose a security risk is unsupported by adequate factual data.” The Crittenden Report remained secret until 1976. Navy officials claimed they had no record of studies of homosexuality, but attorneys learned of its existence and obtained it through a Freedom of Information Act request. As of September 1981, the Navy claimed it was still unable to fulfill a request for the Report’s supporting documentation

Another form of the Lavender Scare that persisted was the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, also referred to as the FLIC and the Johns Committee. The FLIC was founded in 1956 and was not disbanded until 1964. The purpose of the committee was to operate within Florida continuing the work of the Lavender Scare by investigating and firing public school teachers who were gay. During its active years the FLIC was responsible for more than 200 firings of alleged gay teachers. The FLIC was disbanded following the release of the Purple Pamphlet due to public outrage over its explicit and pornographic nature.

In January 2017, the State Department formally apologized.

The Lavender Scare, directed by Josh Howard, is a documentary film that recounts the events of the Lavender Scare.

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