May 20, 2021

The Lavender Scare

The Lavender Scare: a panic that captivated the United States during the Cold War and at the height of the Second Red Scare. The Lavender Scare gripped the US in the late 1940s until the 1960s and ran parallel to the Second Red Scare in the US after World War II. 

But what was it? It was the interrogation and firing of thousands of government employees because they were gay.

The Lavender Scare took place during the Cold War and at the height of McCarthyism—the practice of making public, indiscriminate allegations over unsubstantiated charges to defame a person’s character or reputation—which is named after Senator Joseph McCarthy, who practiced McCarthyism during the Cold War. 

McCarthyism was a tactic primarily used to identify communists and spies but was also used to out people, mainly government officials and employees, as gay during the Lavender Scare. At the time, being sexually attracted to a person of the same gender was considered a “sexual perversion”.

The Lavender Scare, in addition to being a widespread panic that gay people were vulnerable to becoming spies for foreign powers during the Cold War, was also a moral panic, similar to the moral panic of the Second Red Scare. 

According to the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, gay people at the time were thought to be “sinful and perverted.” Additionally, the public viewed gay people as similar to how they viewed communists from a moral standpoint: both were viewed as “lacking in both moral and mental strength” (National LGBT Chamber of Commerce). 

The Lavender Scare targeted government officials and employees because the federal government believed that gay people posed a national security risk. 

The government’s rationale for calling its employment of gay people a national security risk was that since gay people were leading double lives, they were either unloyal or mentally unstable, both of which made gay people unreliable to hold government secrets as well as vulnerable to become easily manipulated by and spies for foreign powers. 

David K. Johnson, a historian and author of The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, said in an interview with the University of Chicago that the government’s “official rationale wasn't that homosexuals were communists but that they could be used by communists.” 

The Second Red Scare and the Lavender Scare were very intertwined, and the general sentiment of the American public was fear, which led to the persecution of communists, and consequently, gay people, simply because of their sexuality.

The federal government fired 162 government employees in March of 1952 alone on the suspicion that they were gay. The practice of interrogating and firing gay government employees was only worsened by Executive Order 10450, which was signed by President Eisenhower. 

Executive Order 10450 specifically authorized the exclusion and termination of federal employees suspected of being or confirmed to be gay because of national security concerns. 

As a result of this executive order, it is estimated that more than 10,000 government employees were fired, many because of suspicions that they were gay.

Similar to the Second Red Scare in which people were stigmatized and faced backlash for even associating with people who were outed as communist – most without substantial evidence – those who associated with people outed as gay faced backlash, and some were even fired because of it.

The Lavender Scare dissuaded many people from coming out as gay publically for fear of facing both federal employment discrimination and discrimination in general. 

Furthermore, the bans on employing gay people as federal government employees lasted until the 1990s for a few government organizations, including the Federal Bureau of Investigations. 

In fact, it wasn’t until 1993 that President Bill Clinton officially ended the policy of discrimination based on sexuality with Executive Order 12968, which put in place the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding sexuality for people in the military.

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