Queer Collective Trauma: The Lavender Scare and the Stonewall Rebellion
What do you know about Cold War Era politics? Have you heard of the Red Scare? What about Senator Joseph McCarthy? What do you know about American culture in the mid-1900s?
Have you ever heard of the Lavender Scare?
If you haven’t, you’re not alone. I have met very few people who know the details of the homophobic crusade, including a recent “Deviance in Contemporary Society” Professor who was shocked to discover a widely politically upheld definition of deviance missing from her textbooks. The Lavender Scare marks the period of systemic interrogation, persecution, and dismissal of thousands of queer government employees in mid-twentieth-century America. Part of the larger cultural “Red Scare,” the Lavender Scare, and the policies associated with it, were based on the unfounded notion that non-heterosexual individuals posed a threat to national security due to their “weak moral characters” and purported susceptibility to blackmail. The Lavender Scare served as a state-sanctioned limitation on queer social mobility; common perception, fear, and hatred of queerness also saw a sharp increase, and soon, an entire community was plagued with lasting anxieties, fears, and traumas that would follow generations to come. By understanding the events of the Lavender Scare, we can broaden our perspective and understanding of overt queerness, as well as trace a linear path of prevailing queer PTSD in an effort to uplift, heal, and support communities that have been historically targeted, oppressed, and disregarded in a variety of ways by dominant cultural values.
Pre-Lavender Scare America
Following the New Deal and the close of World War II, the increased density and relative anonymity of many urban cities drew many young, queer individuals to flourishing cities, including Washington, D.C., where government jobs offered attractive pay and benefits. This increased congregation of queer identities made the pursuit of same-sex relationships more possible than ever; however, the country was also engaged in a more general sex-crime panic, and “greater public awareness of homosexuality coincided with growing unease and an increase in official representation.”
Despite the relative acceptance of queer life in the 1930s, in part due to the visibility of queer icon Eleanor Roosevelt and the success of the Jewel Box Revue (the first integrated drag performance company founded by Storme DeLarvie), the late 1940s transformed the public perception of gay, lesbian, and trans individuals into the belief that queer people were moral abnormalities, a threat to personal and national safety/security, and a general strain on society. By the mid-40s, the military (specifically the Women’s Army Corps) had begun investigations into “homosexual and lesbian activity” in training barracks across the country and called for more aggressive screening policies for new recruits.
In 1947, the U.S. Park Police in Washington, D.C. issued the “Sex Perversion Elimination Program,” targeting queer individuals in public parks for arrest, intimidation, and legal action. The program focused much of its efforts on Lafayette and Franklin Parks, where “any men deemed suspicious could be picked up regardless of their intentions” and were “arrested and intimidated, pushed to pay fines to resolve their arrests and go home– but not before their information, including fingerprints and photographs, was collected for inclusion in a ‘pervert file.’” By the end of 1947 alone, at least 700 men had been apprehended, with about 200 of them being formally arrested and charged.
The following year, on June 9, 1948, Congress passed an act for the Treatment of Sexual Psychopaths, continuing the federally mandated arrest, punishment, and ‘treatment’ of anyone suspected or known to participate in queer relationships, labeling them mentally ill in the process. This marked homosexuality as a lurking subversive threat in a country already plagued by fear of sex crimes and socially defined ‘others,’ and, thus, further convinced Americans that queer people were not to be trusted, opening the doors for further discrimination. Also in 1948, however, queer scholar Alfred Kinsey published his report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which claimed “50 percent of American men and 28 percent of American women have ‘homosexual tendencies.’” The report was the first of its kind, shocking the American public, and, unfortunately, paving the way for more overt and domineering practices of queer persecution to develop in the decades to come.
Early 1950s: The Beginning of the Lavender Scare
On February 9, 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy delivered his infamous “Enemies from Within” speech in Wheeling, West Virginia. In his initial speech, McCarthy claimed to have a list of 205 known communists working for the State Department, specifically noting that two of which were suspected homosexuals, and deliberately linked “communists and queers” by asserting that homosexuals were “unsafe risks” due to their susceptibility to communist recruitment and blackmail. In fact, McCarthy’s final remarks included his firm belief that “homosexuals must not be handling top-secret material” because the “pervert is easy prey to the blackmailer.”
In a second speech on February 20, 1950, Senator McCarthy stubbornly reiterated his claims, this time focusing primarily on two alleged cases of homosexuality and communism in the State Department. According to McCarthy, one of these men, Case 14, was a “confessed homosexual” who had been dismissed from federal employment but had later been rehired. McCarthy continued to use the terms “communists and queers” together, furthering the idea that both were “morally weak or psychologically disturbed, godless, undermined the traditional family, were assumed to recruit, and were shadowy figures with a secret subculture.” The senator’s suggestion that queer people had inherent “peculiar mental twists” is considered to be the official beginning of the Lavender Scare.
However, little over a week later on February 28, 1950, Deputy Undersecretary of State, John Peurifoy, testified before a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Appropriations and revealed the State Department had dismissed 91 homosexual employees prior to McCarthy’s speeches, calling the dismissed civil servants “moral weaklings” in the process. After his testimony, public and federal anxieties continued to rise, inspiring Congress to demand further action, eventually forming two investigative committees tasked with uncovering and removing any remaining queer employees, as well as developing and instituting new, more restrictive policies surrounding federal employment of queer individuals moving forward.
March-June 1950 (The Wherry-Hill Committee)
The Wherry-Hill Committee was soon formed and conducted its investigations in the months between March and May 1950. The committee, made up of Republican Senator Kenneth Wherry and Democratic Senator J. Lister Hill, was specifically entrusted with determining which of Peurifoy’s “91 moral weaklings” had been rehired by the State Department. Unfortunately, beyond press coverage and two published reports, little to no records from this investigation have survived. The Wherry-Hill Committee determined that 13 civil servants had indeed been rehired and “concluded no coordinated system existed to guarantee that the files of personnel separated for homosexuality were appropriately flagged,” ultimately sending suggestions for a “routine procedure to rid the offices of Government of moral perverts and guard against [their] admission.” The committee also suggested that if such a small-scale investigation had uncovered over 100 queer employees, a more thorough and extensive investigation would surely find even more, and was therefore in the public interest.
On June 7, 1950, the Senate announced a plan to undertake a more comprehensive investigation and formed the Hoey Committee to extend the work of Wherry-Hill.
July-December, 1950 (The Hoey Committee)
The Hoey Committee Investigations, a much larger examination of federal employment policies, held their opening statements on July 15, 1950. The committee held closed testimony hearings and collected information from federal agencies, law enforcement, judicial authorities, and medical communities with the initial intent to create a central name index of known and suspected homosexuals in the federal government. After inquiring about each individual agency’s policies regarding queer employment, The Hoey Committee requested the CIA draft legislation or create a “special agency” to continue specifically investigating this concern with more frequency and diligence. The committee also consulted a variety of psychiatrists and medical professionals to “ascertain whether homosexuals could be detected through psychiatric examination, whether and how they could be cured, whether they lacked the emotional stability necessary for government service, whether they tended to seduce younger men and women, and whether it would be helpful to have psychiatrists on personnel boards charged with identifying homosexuals.” Committee member Sen. Margaret Chase Smith was notably disappointed by the lack of instant clarity and simplicity gained from these medical testimonies, and is quoted as asking, “So there is no quick test like an X-Ray that discloses these things?” The Hoey Committee was far more aggressive, intrusive, and antagonistic in their pursuit of queer employees; they even began accepting anonymous submissions of suspected homosexuals and scrutinized individuals marked “guilty by association” for simply knowing a queer individual, often resulting in their dismissal from government employment, as well.
In September, after collaborating with the Hoey Committee, D. Milton Ladd, the assistant director of the FBI, reported that the bureau had distributed its list of known homosexuals to all relevant government agencies and had instructed all police departments in D.C. and neighboring states to formally notate a person’s federal employment status and sexuality on any arrest records and fingerprint cards. Ladd’s announcement also included updated court procedures and penalties for any apprehension made on the basis of homosexuality (then commonly called “sexual perversion”); the new judicial order now “prohibited forfeiture in disorderly conduct cases of a sexual nature” and required either $300 cash or $500 bond be posted before the person’s release. This ruling also meant detainees were forced into court trials, where they either had to stand trial or enter a plea, costing extreme sums of money and publicly outing an individual in the process.
On December 15, 1950, the Hoey Committee published its troubling report, Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government, concluding that LGBTQ+ individuals were indeed unfit for government service, again citing their alleged susceptibility to blackmail and diluted “moral fiber.” The report, written by Flannigan and approved by the entire committee, claimed that queer individuals were a poor influence on young Americans and recruited “others of their kind” into government service. Further, the report selectively chose which evidence was included in the publication, generally disregarding many contrasting ideals, “[characterizing] these alternative perspectives as ‘unrealistic’ views of the problem, relying on the ‘false premise’ that what employees did on their own time was their own business, and as a ‘head-in-the-sand’ attitude.” While the report did not call for any significant changes in legislation, it did urge federal agencies to aggressively enforce their existing policies and suggested sex crime laws in D.C. and across the country should be just as diligently enforced. The report included only one minor revision written by Senators Mundt and Schoeppel, adding the committee’s intent to “see whether these recommendations are being followed and whether they are comprehensive enough to protect the public interest,” essentially warning government agencies to stay vigilant, aware of the issue, and ready for inspection at any point.
Testimonies, speeches, and official policies continued to gain publicity and public support, inspiring Harry Hay to found the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles, “a ‘homophile’ organization aimed at promoting tolerance of homosexuality.” The Mattachine Society did, in fact, borrow much of its structure from existing communist organizations and members remained anonymous; the group dedicated itself to educating its members on the relationship between social justice and homosexuality and published the first edition of One Magazine in 1953.
Shortly after the federal government announced the successful removal of over 160 queer employees in the first three months of 1952 alone, the American Psychiatric Association published the first copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM1). The DSM1 officially placed homosexuality in the category of sociopathic personality disturbances, with the description stating that queer people were “ill primarily in terms of society and conformity with the prevailing cultural milieu.” This classification lasted for over twenty years and was used to justify discrimination in hiring practices, medical treatments, societal perception, and more across America.
Despite the general perception of queer life in America in the early ‘50s, Christine Jorgenson, a WWII veteran honorably discharged in 1946, became the first transgender woman to achieve fame after receiving gender-confirming surgery. Never one to hide her identity, struggles, or queerness, Christine faced discrimination and persecution as more details of her story and medical history became public, but continued to navigate the press, American culture, and, eventually, international recognition with grace and empathy, becoming a role model for many queer people seeking acceptance and community, and opening doors for the LGBTQ activists and collectives who would eventually organize Pride celebrations, political demonstrations, news publications, and legislation in favor of queer identity across the country.
April 27, 1953
On April 27, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order #10450, titled “Security Requirements for Government Employment,” conclusively barring queer individuals from any job in the United States government by adding sexuality to the criteria used to determine eligibility for security clearances and federal employment. After Executive Order #10450, job applicants and existing civil servants were required to divulge any information regarding “any criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct, habitual use of intoxicants to excess, drug addiction, or [sexual] perversion(s),” to ensure the exclusion of potential employees of “sexual perversion.” This influenced practices in the private sector, as well, due to the threat that “consultants to government agencies could be investigated for adherence to these security requirements,” directing “contractors, and other employers, especially in metropolitan Washington, [to follow] the government’s lead and [adopt] discriminatory hiring and firing practices as well.” While the exact data is imprecise, it is estimated that this policy resulted in tens of thousands of civil servants' dismissal from their jobs, and even more were fired for “guilt of association,” were denied employment, or were unable to apply for a job at all.
The years following Eisenhower’s Executive Action were full of queer contradictions: Daughters of Bilitis, the first national lesbian rights group, was formed in San Francisco in 1955; James Baldwin published his groundbreaking novel, Giovanni’s Room, in 1956; and in 1957, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) declared that “homosexuality is a valid consideration in evaluating the risk factor in sensitive positions,” and advising “lesbians facing official discrimination to become heterosexual.” In 1960, the Daughters of Bilitis held the first “national lesbian convention” in San Fransisco. Two years later, in 1962, Illinois became the first state to decriminalize homosexuality and reverse its sodomy laws.
In July 1975, over twenty years after Eisenhower’s Executive Order, the Civil Service Commission (CSC) announced new guidelines regarding the employment of LGBTQ federal employees– job applicants and current employees could no longer be interrogated and denied security clearances due to their sexuality. However, this policy change was incomplete, as the CIA, NSA, and FBI were exempt from its requirements and continued discriminatory hiring practices for years after, though perhaps less publicly. The State Department also removed its ban on queer employees two years after the CSC, in 1977.
Finally, thirteen years after the CSC’s rule change, President Bill Clinton (who issued the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” act just a few years prior) signed Executive Order #13087, officially banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the granting of security clearances and federal employment.
So… What Does All That Mean? And How Do These Policies Continue to Harm Queer People in the Twenty-First Century?
The Lavender Scare impacted queer communities across the country in a variety of ways; from empowering violent police forces and inspiring similar state-level homophobic legislation, to laying the moral groundwork for hate crimes and individual discrimination, the Lavender Scare and mid-twentieth century politics contributed to a nationwide need for secrecy and obscurity. Policies such as the 1947 Sex Perversion Elimination Act forced people to hide their identities, or risk violent persecution if they chose not to, impacting the mental health and wellbeing of countless individuals, many of whom committed suicide or were murdered in anti-LGBTQ hate crimes after being publicly outed due to Lavender Scare-era policies. The American purge of queer identities proved to queer individuals that they were not wanted, understood, or accepted; they did not intend to eradicate queerness, but to create an environment of fear and shame to quiet the queer community, ultimately forcing many queer individuals to stay ‘in the closet’ for fear of their safety and social wellbeing.
Practices that heavily enforced queer secrecy influenced public perception and understanding of LGBTQ identity as well; these laws confirmed public fear of homosexuality as a secret, subversive threat and linked views of queerness with an innate emotional response. It is this emotional response, backed by official policy and widespread discrimination, that reinforces ideology between generations, gay and straight alike. Even more, fear of being perceived as queer worked to enforce traditional gender roles in the workplace and the home; this works to create a homogenous culture that is quick to spot and punish anyone seen as a threat to traditional cultural values.
McCarthy, the State Department, and other political officials also enforced the idea that homosexuality was a moral corruption and individual failure; discrimination against such ‘perverts’ was thus presented as a “necessary evil” in order to ensure the safety of those considered ideal citizens (namely, those who embodied white, cisgender and heteronormative, middle class, nuclear family dynamics). As these political figures continued to push the ideology of queerness as a moral abnormality, other industries, such as film and television and other private sectors, began to follow suit. Soon, the entertainment industry prohibited depictions of “perceived moral corruption” (common slang for homosexuality), and limited overt depictions of divergent sexualities in film and television. By limiting depictions of homosexuality on mainstream networks, queerness was hidden even further from the eyes of straight America, who continued to define them as a secretive cultural ‘other,’ not to be trusted or believed.
Of course, queer activists, screenwriters, and producers were determined to tell their stories, often creating media that hinted at the idea of homosexuality rather than stating an actor or character’s queerness explicitly. Filmmakers relied on the current perceptions of queerness, creating unfortunate caricatures of stereotypical LGBTQ+ individuals and an echo chamber of ideas. Audiences were influenced by films and governmental policy, and films were influenced by the common perception of queerness– a self-perpetuating cycle that came to create the flamboyant, effeminate, and extravagant gay personalities still maintained in media portrayals today.
Fear of abandonment, persecution, and homophobic violence persists within the queer community today; the lack of queer representation in federal government has limited queer mobility; the disregard for queer life in the ‘50s and ‘60s contributed to the lack of response to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s; queer art and culture is still widely misunderstood and underrepresented; the list goes on. Much of cultural perception of queerness is still heavily influenced by original depictions of queerness in the media, and continues to evolve– recently, we have seen the extreme sexualization of queerness and laws to restrict it emerge in more states than one can count. And, despite the strength and duration of the Lavender Scare, most Americans have never heard of it. One reason, perhaps, is that it allows Americans to falsely believe that queer individuals have been liberated and our struggles are now obscure– both of which are certainly not the case. It is my hope that in spreading knowledge and awareness of the Lavender Scare and queer trauma, we as a community can begin to heal unseen wounds together, and emerge as a stronger, more powerful queer liberation movement that politicians such as McCarthy, Peurifoy, and Eisenhower never dreamed possible.