Tag Archives: The Lavender Scare

November 27, 1950 (a Monday)

On this date, a Senate subcommittee released a report entitled, “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government”, that sanctioned homophobia by the federal government in harsh, offensive terms. After running through one stereotype after another and saying that gay people “must be treated as transgressors,” the report rendered the panel’s conclusion:

In the opinion of this subcommittee homosexuals and other sex perverts are not proper persons to be employed in Government for two reasons; first, they are generally unsuitable and second, they constitute security risks.

It’s true that gay men and lesbians in the closet of a homophobic world could be blackmail targets. But the Senate report went way beyond that possibility in rationalizing blatant discrimination:

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 espionage agent.

Lest one think this represents more bark than bite, the report says “that between January 1, 1947, and August 1, 1950, approximately 1,700 applicants for Federal positions were denied employment because they had a record of homosexuality or other sex perversion.”

Another report, from March 1950, was titled “Employment of Moral Perverts by Government Agencies.”

By March 1950 Republicans were calling for an investigation of the homosexuals in government problem. When President Truman's loyalty board refused, political cartoons like this one from the Washington Times-Herald,the city's most widely read newspaper, accused Truman of protecting "traitors and queers."

By March 1950 Republicans were calling for an investigation of the homosexuals-in-government problem. When President Truman’s loyalty board refused, political cartoons like this one from the Washington Times-Herald, the city’s most widely read newspaper, accused Truman of protecting “traitors and queers.”

Nineteen-fifty was also the year that Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed 205 communists were working in the State Department. The State Department responded by denying that it had uncovered any communists in its ranks, but Undersecretary of State John Peurifoy admitted that it had fired 91 homosexuals. To the public, this seemed to confirm McCarthy’s charges. In the popular imagination, communists and homosexuals were soon conflated. Both seemed to comprise hidden subcultures with their own meeting places, cultural codes, and bonds of loyalty. In the 1950s, fear of political and sexual deviance became intertwined.

McCarthy hired Roy Cohn — who some claim was a closeted homosexual — as chief counsel of his Congressional subcommittee. Together, McCarthy and Cohn were responsible for the firing of scores of gay men from government employment, and strong-armed many opponents into silence using rumors of their homosexuality.

U.S. security officials were concerned that many gay men and lesbians who were fired from the State Department were finding employment in the United Nations and other international organizations. They were afraid that McCarthy and his allies might expose this situation and so they put extreme pressure on these organizations to copy the anti-gay employment policies of the U.S. government. They also pressured America’s NATO allies to exclude homosexuals from sensitive positions within their governments.

However, although a congressional committee spent several months in 1950 studying the threat homosexuals allegedly posed to national security, they could not find a single example of a gay or lesbian civil servant who was blackmailed into revealing state secrets – not one. Subsequent studies have confirmed this. But the myth of the homosexual as vulnerable to blackmail and therefore a security risk endured for decades.

The term for this anti-homosexual persecution was popularized by David K. Johnson’s book on it, The Lavender Scare (2004) which drew its title from the term “lavender lads” used repeatedly by Sen. Everett Dirksen as a synonym for homosexuals. In 1952 he 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 Senate subcommittee’s report from November 1950, according to a Justice Department legal brief filed in July 2011 in the case of a federal court employee seeking health benefits for her same-sex wife, led President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953 to issue Executive Order 10450, “which officially added ‘sexual perversion’ as a ground for investigation and possible dismissal from federal service.””

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