Lavender Scare: The Forgotten Side of McCarthyism

As a historian, the two areas of history that have always fascinated and intrigued me have been the Cold War and twentieth-century United States. Studying the Cold War at both GCSE and A-level undoubtedly played a role in shaping this. Yet during both of these, and especially the former, there was one issue that was neglected, either wholly or presented in such a way that managed to be both too vague and too narrow-focused. This was the period of McCarthyism, of the twin scares – Red and Lavender. Whilst many of you I am sure are at least to some degree familiar with what the Red Scare was, the Lavender Scare appears a far more elusive event; one that is glossed over in school textbooks in order to provide a neatly defined and overly simplistic image of the anti-communism of the period.

The significance of this is clear. The Red Scare appears to be a fear of communist insurrection in the United States. On a surface level this is true. This fear did undoubtedly exist throughout much of the period and shaped many American political developments during the Cold War. This is the narrative that most people are familiar with, and which is promoted in textbooks. There is much more to it than this, however. Following the end of the Second World War and the commencement of the Cold War, the United States found itself grappling with what kind of nation it strived to be, and what it meant to be American. I maintain that the real driving force behind the Red Scare was the desire to define ‘the American’, and in doing this had to simultaneously define certain groups as the ‘other’, and communists therefore would be placed in this latter group. The very existence of the Lavender Scare, directed not against communists explicitly but those in the LGBT+ community, is evidence of this. By neglecting this from the narrative, it not only oversimplifies the Red Scare itself, but, more insidiously, ignores the role that the American government played in facilitating homophobia – something that would continue right throughout the latter half of the twentieth-century and even into the twenty-first. This makes it starkly apparent how American nationalism and identity in the post-war period has so often been shaped by ideas of negativity and exclusion.

First, it is important to understand and place the Lavender Scare within the wider context of McCarthyism. By the 1950s, the Cold War was firmly underway and the fear of a communist threat – both internal and external – was ever present. In testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, in March 1947 J. Edgar condemned this supposed communist threat as standing “for the destruction of free enterprise… and ultimate world revolution”. The 1949 announcement that the Russians had conducted its first nuclear test only served to worsen this fear. Everyday life in this period was consumed by this fear; a 1959 Life magazine feature even went as far as depicting a married couple honeymooning in a bomb shelter. By normalising this fear and making it a seemingly inevitable part of postwar life, the extreme reaction towards communism and the behaviour of HUAC felt reasonable, such as its blacklisting of many figures in the arts and entertainment industry.

Undoubtedly the dominant individual within both the Red and Lavender Scares was Wisconsin Republican Senator, Joe McCarthy. During the early 1950s he became the most prominent face of American anti-communism, until his accusation of communist infiltration within the military resulted in the Senate voting to censure him in December 1954. McCarthy’s story is not quite as clear cut as this. McCarthy was also a proponent of the Lavender Scare. As part of this, members of the LGBT+ community were deemed as ‘national security risks’; the thinking behind this was that they were more susceptible to blackmail and manipulation, as well as being communist sympathisers themselves, and thus there were calls for them to be removed from federal employment. The Eisenhower administration responded to this by introducing Executive Order 10450 in 1953 which officially barred gay men and lesbians from federal employment, and this remained in place until 1975. Even before this official restriction, in February 1950, John Peurifoy, the Deputy Under Secretary of State, informed Congress that his department had purged itself of national security risks, including 91 gay federal employees.

Whilst those targeted by the Red Scare and who subsequently lost their jobs and economic security will have undoubtedly found these events distressing, the Lavender Scare was altogether a more sinister, and unfortunately ignored, facet of American anti-communism. The narrative that was promoted was one of overt homophobia. Aside from the equation of homosexuality with national security risk (as well as the comparison with criminals), individuals such as then Vice-President Nixon blamed the collapse of the Roman Empire upon the sexuality of its emperors, highlighting the archaic, yet enduring, belief, that successful governance was viewed in rigidly ‘masculine’ terms. The impacts upon this are clear to see. In his seminal 2004 work which coined the phrase, David K. Johnson has suggested that up to 10,000 people may have lost their jobs, but it is impossible to know exactly how many were affected. The effect that this would’ve had upon the mental health of those impacted by such legislation and attitudes is obvious.

Interestingly, McCarthy’s role in promoting the Lavender Scare ended up hurting him. McCarthy himself faced attacks from the press surrounding his sexuality, and the image of him in whispered conversation with his chief counsel Roy Cohn was condemned as him engaging in ‘feminine’ behaviour. Furthermore, the media derided the European tour of Cohn and Schine as their ‘honeymoon’. The very fact that the United States’ leading anticommunist figure found himself, to some extent, a victim of the Lavender Scare, is indicative of how the broad McCarthyist movement was not one purely concerned with communism. It was directed against those viewed by society as ‘other’ and who posed a threat to a specific idea of the typical American.

Whilst McCarthy’s fame dissipated almost as quickly as it emerged, the long-lasting impacts of the Lavender Scare could be felt throughout the twentieth-century. One of the co-founders of the Mattachine Society, Franklin Kameny, was dismissed from his position as an astronomer in 1957 due to his homosexuality, and during the 1960s would work with other organisations in picketing organisations such as the United Nations and the White House itself. Similarly, alongside Barbara Gittings, Kameny fought for the overturning of the American Psychiatric Association’s classification of homosexuality as a mental illness. This would be accomplished in 1973. The Lavender Scare of the 1950s would give way to the gay liberation that emerged in the 1960s.

Harry Hay, the founder of the Mattachine Society, described the LGBT+ community as “the one group of disadvantaged people who didn’t even think of themselves as a group”. Thus the Lavender Scare occurred alongside the establishment of more openly queer organisations. Yet the real legacy of the Lavender Scare was not the fact it indirectly facilitated later protest movements.

Even today the ideology of the Lavender Scare can be keenly felt. Even if 1975 witnessed the overturning of Executive Order 10450, this didn’t signal the end of this. Those working in agencies that involved employees having security clearance continued their discriminatory policies, with individuals such as Jamie Shoemaker – an NSA linguist – facing investigation over his homosexuality in 1980 and had to fight to keep his job. The Clinton administration would prove to be a mixed bag on this issue, with discrimination on the basis of sexuality being banned in government employment in 1998. But this was countered by the implementation of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy in 1994. The Trump administration would then go on to implement a ban on transgender individuals serving in the military.

For an event that is so often ignored, it is even more distressing that its impact continues to be felt. The idea that members of the LGBT+ community are ‘security risks’ is one that unfortunately pervaded through much of American political discourse. 2021 proved to be a record year for anti-trans legislation in the United States, with more than 100 bills being introduced across thirty-three states. This legislation disproportionately affects young people. Florida is currently in the process of implementing a ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. The importance of understanding the Lavender Scare should be clear to see. Too often, it seems people can consign this vilification of the LGBT+ community to the history books; yet it is exactly this study of the Lavender Scare that can help to elucidate contemporary political developments.