Stella Maxwell
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How the Lavender Scare Created a Gay Work of Art

Fellow Travelers

The apology issued Monday by Secretary of State John Kerry concerning discrimination and the repugnant policies of our State Department from the 1940s through mid-1990s could not have come at a more appropriate time. It should serve us as a poignant reminder of a chapter in our shared history that we must never forget.

Overshadowed in history books by the Red Scare orchestrated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Lavender Scare was a lesser-known but equally deplorable McCarthy witch hunt. It was a purge of government employees just as destructive and perhaps even more so than the accusations directed at the targets of the McCarthy hearings.

The purge of gay State Department employees was largely carried out quietly and below the radar. It was hidden from the general public, as gay life generally was at that time. Nevertheless, countless men and women lost their jobs simply because they were seen in the wrong bar. Many of them couldn’t find employment for years afterward. Some of these men and women took their own lives rather than face the accusations of those leading this purge and the subsequent shunning by their former friends and coworkers. Some bravely stood tall and proud.

The essence of this time in the 1950s is captured in Thomas Mallon’s historical novel Fellow Travelers. When I first read it several years ago, I was deeply moved by the milieu in which these gay civil servants lived in the Washington, D.C., of the times. I wanted deeply to tell this story in a way that all Americans would understand. And so I began the work of conceiving and developing this novel into a work of art that would touch the heart and soul of all who saw it.

I was convinced that the best way to do this was to frame the story as a love story between the older State Department diplomat and the younger Fordham graduate hired as a speechwriter for an influential senator. And I firmly believed that music and specifically opera could best convey the emotional impact these horrid policies had on those whose suffered under them.

After reading the book, director Kevin Newbury, composer Gregory Spears, and librettist Greg Pierce — all extremely talented young gay men in their 30s — became as excited as I was about telling this love story and the impact the policies of the McCarthy period had on the characters of Hawk and Tim.

After years of work and preparation, Fellow Travelers premiered last June as part of the Cincinnati Opera’s 2016 season. Set in Washington, D.C., during the McCarthy Era, the opera opens in DuPont Circle, where a naïve young Tim sits after covering McCarthy’s wedding as a reporter for a D.C. paper. With Tim in his sights, Hawk breaks the ice with a line mocking McCarthy, and a conversation ensues. Their attraction to each other is electric, and thus begins their shadowed romance. But when young Tim is eventually outed, he’s immediately shunned and his Washington career shattered.

The reception given to Fellow Travelers was heartbreakingly beautiful. Audiences and critics alike were effusive in their praise of the opera, and many were in tears as they left the theater. I’m sure those who have seen Fellow Travelers and those who will see it in the future will never forget the hauntingly beautiful story told there, an unabashedly gay love story.

Likewise, all of us should remember the thousands of men and women who lived through the purge of the Lavender Scare 65 years ago and honor their memory by never allowing such a shameful chapter as this to be repeated in our country. Considering the current political climate, we cannot ignore our past. Each of us must remain vigilant to ensure that these oppressive policies never again see the light of day.

When we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Stonewall in 2019, we cannot forget the brave individuals of the Mattachine Society and activists like Frank Kameny who led the charge. But we also must not forget the thousands of the brave women and men who, much like the character Tim in Fellow Travelers, endured the Lavender Scare and yet carried on with their lives, setting the stage for the protest against future oppression.

While a little more than half of our states have some form of law prohibiting discrimination against the LGBTI community, federal legislation seeking to offer protection nationally has never passed Congress. Meanwhile, legislators in several states that currently offer protection to our community are pushing to rescind those laws, as was the case in Kansas in 2015.

As a young man, I lost my job in the Texas Senate and was shunned for being gay. This period is an important part of our history as gay citizens and as Americans. Secretary Kerry’s apology and acknowledgement of the wrongs done to so many is a major recognition of how far our society has come.

This is an important moment for all of us to work to ensure that further antidiscrimination laws are enacted on the local, state, and federal levels. And this effort should move to the top of our community’s political focus list.

G. STERLING ZINSMEYER conceived, commissioned, and developed the chamber opera Fellow Travelers and executive-produced the acclaimed film Latter Days. He served two terms as president of NYC Stonewall Democrats. He and his husband, Louis Bixenman, reside in Santa Fe, N.M.

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