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The Lavender Scare's New Relevance

lavender scare

The Human Rights Campaign is calling on the State Department to apologize for all the gays and lesbians it fired in the 1950s. 


The Human Rights Campaign is asking Secretary of State John Kerry to apologize to the thousands of LGBT federal employees who were harassed, threatened, and fired during the so-called Lavender Scare of the 1950s and '60s before he leaves his post January 20.

The timing of the HRC's letter is no doubt in reference to another letter, which was written by Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, who asked the incoming administration to consider religious liberty (as defined by the far right) a priority and to fire LGBT employees who push an "extreme agenda." The Family Research Council has been designated a hate group by the progressive Southern Poverty Law Center.

President Obama signed two executive orders in 2014 that banned anti-LGBT discrimination in the workplace. One made it illegal for companies that have contracts with the federal government to fire, decline to promote, or refuse to hire somone because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity. Another barred the federal government from taking such actions against its own employees because of gender identity; sexual orientation was already covered.

It is currently legal in 28 states to fire employees on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation. In 32 states, it is legal to do the same to transgender people.

The only problem with President Obama's executive orders is that they can be repealed by President-elect Donald J. Trump. At least one congressman has signaled that Trump may repeal federal protections for LGBT workers.

The protections put forth by President Obama are a stark difference from the situation in the 1950s, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who led the Red Scare, hunting for suspected communists during the Cold War, also directed a lesser-known crusade against gays and lesbians working in the State Department. It was an effort that came to be known as the Lavender Scare. McCarthy was convinced that gays and lesbians could not be trusted because they were potential victims of blackmail and therefore might share government secrets with other countries. Thousands of them lost their jobs in the 1950s after President Eisenhower signed an executive order that barred gays and lesbians from working for the federal government.

Not a single case of a gay or lesbian federal employee giving out confidential information to a foreign government was found during McCarthy's witch hunt. Instead many of those who lost their jobs during this era committed suicide.

David K. Johnson, the author of The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government and associate professor at the University of South Florida, told The Advocate he sees several similarities between the Lavender Scare and the manipulative use of religious liberty by people such as Tony Perkins as a way rid the State Department of LGBT employees.

"It's important to remember that the Lavender Scare of the 1950s, in which thousands of LGBTQ Americans lost jobs, was a reaction to what many perceived at the time as a growing openness and visibility among LGBTQ Americans, particularly in the wake of World War II, when gay bars and other social settings flourished. So yes, the threat of some form of backlash is very real," Johnson wrote in an email.

"Civil rights progress in this country nearly always encounters backlash," he continued. "The current version is being couched in the rhetoric of 'religious freedom.' But it is also important to remember how far we have come. The State Department has progressed from a center of homophobia during the Cold War to one of the greatest advocates for LGBTQ civil rights around the world under Secretaries Clinton and Kerry. Homophobes like Tony Perkins can no longer attack people for being gay, but they can try to contain what they see as LGBT activism. And that could have devastating consequences for LGBTQ people around the world."

In his original letter, Perkins refers to pro-LGBT policies as an "extreme agenda" pushed by President Obama that has "systematically filled the ranks of State with LGBTQ and abortion activists." "The incoming administration needs to make clear that these liberal policies will be reversed and the 'activists' within the State Department promoting them will be fettered out and will be replaced by conservatives who will ensure the State Department focuses on true international human rights like religious liberty which is under unprecedented assault," Perkins wrote.

Perkins, who is a Trump supporter, didn't receive support from Trump on this issue. Jason Miller, a spokesman for the Trump transition team, told the Washington Blade, "President-elect Trump campaigned on a message of unity in order to bring all Americans together."

"To think that discrimination of any kind will be condoned or tolerated in a Trump Administration is simply absurd," Miller added.

Along with asking for an apology from the State Department, the Human Rights Campaign hopes Kerry will establish a permanent exhibit in the National Museum of American Diplomacy to honor the victims of the Lavender Scare and to make sure such a tragedy doesn't occur again.

"While it may not be possible to make up for the damage that was done decades ago, these small but crucial gestures would help to set the right tone at your Department as it enters a new and uncertain time in our country," wrote HRC government affairs director David Stacy. U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland has also written a letter to the State Department seeking an apology to victims of the scare.

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Yezmin Villarreal

Yezmin Villarreal is the former news editor for The Advocate. Her work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Mic, LA Weekly, Out Magazine and The Fader.
Yezmin Villarreal is the former news editor for The Advocate. Her work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Mic, LA Weekly, Out Magazine and The Fader.