The Lavender Scare is the first feature-length documentary film to tell the story of the U.S. government's ruthless campaign in the 1950s and '60s to hunt down and fire every Federal employee it suspected was gay.
While the McCarthy Era is remembered as the time of the Red Scare, the headline-grabbing hunt for Communists in the United States, it was the Lavender Scare, a vicious and vehement purge of homosexuals, which lasted longer and ruined many more lives.
Before it was over, thousands and thousands of Federal employees lost their jobs. Based on the award-winning book by historian David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare shines a light on a chapter of American history that has never received the attention it deserves.
It examines the tactics used by the government to identify homosexuals, and takes audiences inside interrogation rooms where gay men and women were subjected to grueling questioning. These stories are told through the first-hand accounts of the people who experienced them.
The Lavender Scare shows how the government's actions ignited an anti-gay frenzy that spread throughout the country, in an era in which The New York Times used the words "homosexual" and "pervert" interchangeably, and public service films warned that homosexuality was a dangerous, contagious disease.
While the story is at times infuriating and heartbreaking, its underlying message is uplifting and inspiring. Instead of destroying American homosexuals, the actions of the government had the opposite effect: they stirred a sense of outrage and activism that helped ignite the gay rights movement.
Act 1 "Gay Boomtown"
In the 1930s, thousands of men and women came to Washington D.C. to take jobs created by the New Deal. Many of those job seekers were gay -- eager to leave small town America behind in search of freedom and liberation in the growing metropolis.
And they found it, enjoying a comfortable work environment and a lively social scene. Some felt free enough to hold hands on the trolley or even kiss on the grounds of the Washington Monument.
And then it all changed.
Senator Joseph McCarthy set off the Red Scare with his charges that the U.S. State Department had been lax in preventing the hiring of Communists and other subversives.
Not so, retorted Deputy Undersecretary of State John Peurifoy, in testimony before a Senate committee. In fact, he said, the department had just expelled 91 homosexuals, who were deemed security risks.
Homosexuals! In the State Department! The revelation caused a sensation. Who hired them? What were they up to? Were there more?
Opponents of social programs of the FDR and Truman administrations, and Republicans eager to win back control of Congress and the White House, sensed a new and powerful political weapon.
Three top advisors to President Truman warned him in a memorandum that the country was more disturbed about the charges of homosexuals in government than about Communists.
The Republicans got the message. Vowing to protect the country against subversives and homosexuals, Dwight Eisenhower was elected president. In one of his first official acts on taking office, he signed an executive order banning homosexuals from working for the Federal government or any of its private contractors. Those already working for the government were to be fired.The hunt for homosexuals was on.
Act 2 "Under Siege"
With the Federal government on an urgent mission to seek out and fire homosexual employees, gay men and women were suddenly under constant pressure to hide their sexual orientation.
Friends stopped socializing. Gay people avoided one another. Men who lived together as a couple would sleep in separate beds, or split up altogether.
Even an anonymous tip could lead to a grueling interrogation by government agents. Who do you live with? Who are your friends? What bars do you frequent? Would you like us to call your family back home and ask these questions?" Most workers summoned to interrogations chose to resign immediately, rather than face continued pressure or further scrutiny.
For many, it represented not just the loss of a job, but a career. Private companies, even those not doing business with the government, followed Washington's lead and fired gay employees.
Many gay men and lesbians were unable to find work anywhere. Some chose suicide.
Unlike the investigations of Communists, which took place before television and newsreel cameras in Senate hearing rooms, the purge of homosexuals happened in the shadows.
There was no chance for a dramatic confrontation between accuser and the accused, no emotional exchange to capture public attention.
In 1954, Joe McCarthy was censured by the Senate, and the Red Scare gradually began to recede. But the Lavender Scare continued unabated. By 1957, more than 5,000 gay men and women had lost their jobs with the Federal government. Some were among the brightest minds in government service.
Act 3 "Fighting Back"
On October 4, 1957, America was stunned to learn that the Soviet Union had successfully launched Sputnik I, the earth's first artificial satellite.
Against the backdrop of the Cold War, Russian dominance of space was seen by many as a threat to the survival of the United States.
The U.S. needed astronomers, and there were few as qualified as Dr. Franklin Kameny, a Harvard Ph.D., who was working for the U.S. Army Map Service.
But while Sputnik was orbiting the earth, Kameny was being grilled by government agents about his sexual orientation. Like many before him, he was deemed a pervert. And fired.
But then he did something no one had ever done before. He fought back, both in the courts and in the court of public opinion.
In 1965, he organized one of the nation's first gay rights protests -- a picket line in front of the White House -- four years before the Stonewall rebellion.
He filed countless lawsuits on behalf of Federal workers who were fired because they were gay, eventually winning two decisions that would force the government to change its policy on the hiring of gay and lesbian workers.
He brought pressure on the psychiatric establishment to change its position that homosexuality was a mental illness and in 1973, in an announcement that made front-page news around the world, the American Psychiatric Association did just that.
Today, the Library of Congress includes in its collection Frank Kameny's archive of letters, papers and memorabilia, documenting his role as "the Grandfather of Gay Activism."
In 2009, when President Obama signed a memorandum extending some benefits to the same-sex partners of Federal employees, Frank Kameny was invited to the Oval Office to witness the event.
Had the United States not set out to get rid of its gay and lesbian employees, Frank Kameny might have had an illustrious career in the space program.
Instead, he helped ignite a movement that changed a nation and made life better for generations of gay and lesbian Americans.