“The Lavender Scare” Tackles the Gay Witch Hunt That Swept 1950s America

"At one point there were over 1,000 FBI agents assigned to do nothing but investigate the lives of gay people," says director Josh Howard.

Forget the communist Red Scare: In 1950s America, homosexuals were considered an even more dire, dangerous threat to U.S. security. Part of a nearly forgotten chapter in American history, the “Lavender Scare” saw the state department eagerly exposing and firing thousands of gay and lesbian workers from their government jobs, obliterating hard-earned careers and literally destroying lives. Even after Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt faced public backlash and went down in flames, the American Civil Liberties Union stood behind this anti-gay policy, a shocking revelation brought to light in the new documentary The Lavender Scare.
Directed by Emmy-winning producer Josh Howard (60 Minutes) and based on David K. Johnson’s 2004 book of the same name, the film features narration by Glenn Close; voiceovers by Zachary Quinto, Cynthia Nixon, David Hyde Pierce, and T.R. Knight; and interviews with surviving key players including the late Dr. Frank Kameny, an astronomer who was fired from his government job but went on to become a game-changing LGBTQ activist whom President Obama honored in 2009 (we witness him receiving his accolade in one of the doc’s happiest tear-jerking moments).

In 2017, a federal bill, the Lavender Offense Victim Exoneration Act (a.k.a. the LOVE Act), was introduced to formally make amends. It is now working its way through the government with the support of co-sponsors like Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Cory Booker.

Howard, who dedicated The Lavender Scare to his late husband, composer Richard Burke, spoke with NewNowNext about bringing the story to the screen and why it feels more relevant than ever.

How did you first learn of the Lavender Scare?

I had retired from a career in TV news and was not necessarily looking for something to do, but I came across David’s book and was shocked by the story. I knew the 1950s were not a great time to be gay in America, but I had no idea about the systematic way the U.S. government went about persecuting people. I figured a documentary had been made on this subject that I had missed, and I tracked down David, who teaches at the University of South Florida, in 2010, but he said no, one hadn’t been done, so let’s do it.

Was it a challenge to find interview subjects and archival materials?

We did have a problem locating key figures who are still alive. Luckily we interviewed Frank Kameny, and he’s a central figure. The other reason it was hard is so much of this happened in secret. Unlike the Red Scare and McCarthy hearings, which were televised and public, these firings took place in secret. There really was a conspiracy of silence on both sides. The people being fired didn’t want to reveal to family and friends why they had been fired because they were in the closet. And after a while the government was embarrassed to say how many gay people they were firing because the question became, “Why did you hire them in the first place?” It’s one of the reasons people don’t know this story.

Full Exposure Films
Frank Kameny leads a picket line in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1965.

Has anyone who was involved on the government side expressed remorse?

We were able to interview three people: two senior investigators for the government and the No. 3 guy in the state department who was responsible for instituting and carrying out this policy. One of the investigators we interviewed says he still wouldn’t hire gay people even today. He said, “I’m sure you can find someone to fill the job who doesn’t have that mental defect.” My cameraman asked me, “Didn’t you want to punch this guy?” I said as a filmmaker I wanted to give him a hug. That’s what you want as a filmmaker: someone to tell the truth and share their feelings, even if they’re unpopular or controversial.

What did you learn that really surprised you?

At one point during the height of the Lavender Scare there were over 1,000 FBI agents assigned to do nothing but investigate the lives of gay people. Another fascinating aspect of this story is that in the 1930s and ’40s homosexuality was much more widely accepted in the U.S., or at least it wasn’t condemned. It was really in the years after WWII, when society got a little more conservative and politicians seized on this issue of morality, that the government had a central role in demonizing homosexuals. The Lavender Scare—the actions of the government—set off this wave of homophobia throughout the country. Localities followed the government’s lead and did their own purges of their workforces, and private companies said, “Well if the government says homosexuals are bad, we need to get rid of them, too.”

Full Exposure Films
The U.S. government’s witch hunt of gay men and lesbians was front-page news in the 1940s and 1950s, but as the firings continued into the 1980s and ‘90s they drew less and less attention.

The film initially played some festivals in 2017. Did that help you get people like Cynthia Nixon and Zachary Quinto to lend their voices and names to the current version being released?

It was something I wanted to do from the beginning. There were a number of small roles for voiceover artists, and I tried to reach out to people, but this was my first film and I wasn’t getting much interest or responses. It was only when it made the rounds at festivals that it got some attention, and once they could see it was a serious project those people agreed to lend their names to it.

Do you think Trump has started a Lavender Scare 2.0 with his aggressive anti-transgender and “religious freedom” policies?

Definitely. It’s one of the lessons of the film. The anti-gay feeling in the 1950s was a backlash against an earlier time when society was more accepting. It’s important to remember that social change doesn’t happen in a straight line. It’s one step forward and two steps back. We’ve made such great progress in the past few decades, but nothing is guaranteed and we have to be vigilant. There are 29 states where it’s legal to fire someone solely based on sexual orientation. There is no legal protection for them in 29 states. I think people believe there is federal legislation that protects gay people, but there isn’t. Interestingly, the Supreme Court is going to take up this question of whether the 1964 Civil Rights Act extends to sexual orientation.

And are you concerned about that given our conservative-leaning, Trump-ified SCOTUS?

Very much concerned. I’m concerned about all the social issues coming before the court. A woman’s right to choose is being whittled away by state legislations, and that will make its way up to the court. Marriage equality seems to be settled law at this point—but who knows.

The Lavender Scare opens June 7 in select theaters and premieres June 18 on PBS.

Lawrence is a New York-based travel and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Time Out New York and The New York Post.