Film Review: THE LAVENDER SCARE (2019) DIR. JOSH HOWARD
Perfectly timed to coincide with Gay Pride Month and the 50 th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, this look back at our government’s history of aggression and oppression of homosexuals is a stunning revelation to me. Beginning with the Cold War era, a time of rampant fear and paranoia about the dangers posed by Communist Russia which fostered the McCarthy era. Investigations, accusations and hearings of private citizens for Communist sympathies, threatened their jobs and their reputations, creating informants through blackmail or punishment, extracting incriminating information by any means possible. All of this was aided and abetted by a bullish FBI under the zealous leadership of J. Edgar Hoover.
While this dark period is a fairly well-known period of American history, far less known, and equally lethal to the victims, was a similar assault on homosexuals serving in any part of the government. Eisenhower was somehow convinced that homosexuals were a natural target for enemy blackmailers and therefore could not be trusted with any important state secrets or inside information. Under the guise of protection of national security in 1953 he signed an executive order mandating the removal of all homosexuals in all government positions. All known members of the military were discharged. The process was ugly, invasive, and dirty, performed with righteous fanaticism by those prosecuting and persecuting their targets. Lives and careers were ruined or de-railed, some permanently. It is ghastly and appalling, as cruel and hateful as the tactics which were used.
The film gives us some thumbnails of particular targets of the purge. These are promising, educated, patriotic and talented professionals proud to be working for their government, punished with infuriating acts of rampant, toxic intolerance by that same employer. Some of them came through altered, but stronger, others were slowly destroyed and others took matters into their own hands, committing suicide. Molded out of his fury and refusal to accept the injustice of it, a leader was born. Dr. Frank Kameny, an astronomer with a Harvard PHD, working for the State Department was one of the first to actually fight back after being fired. In Washington DC he started a more vigorous branch of the the Mattachine Society, the national gay rights organization, which became extremely active, staging robust marches and protests nationwide. Kameny became an expert on all the cases being brought before the government and realized the only way to fight the injustice was as a group too big to be ignored. Thus was born an activist and a movement. It became recognized as a civil right.
It’s hard to accept how institutionalized this was so recently. Fortunately, things have moved. Laws were challenged and changed, new policies were implemented, and the Stonewall Riot was a watershed moment. Clinton finally signed an order reversing Eisenhower’s in 1998. Obama invited Dr. Kameny to the White House. In 2017, Secretary of State John Kerry made an official apology to those unfairly terminated. As soon as Donald Trump took office, the notice was removed from the State Department’s website. It’s all too real. Vigilance is required.