- The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government
Two declarations by U.S. government officials captivated the public in February 1950. The first, Joseph McCarthy’s infamous Wheeling, West Virginia, speech regarding Communist infiltration in the U.S. State Department, served as a catalyst for widespread political repression and has never been forgotten. The other has entirely escaped public memory: Deputy Under Secretary of State John Peurifoy informed a congressional committee that his department had purged itself of numerous security risks, including 91 homosexuals. A moral panic ensued, during which gay men and lesbians, perceived as security risks because of their alleged susceptibility to Communist blackmail, were expelled by the thousands from the federal government over several decades.
In The Lavender Scare, David Johnson examines the roots and consequences of Peurifoy’s revelation, persuasively arguing that it ultimately carried a longer-lasting impact than the brief flare of McCarthyism and that historians have failed to take sufficient note of the scare not because it disappeared, but because its institutionalization into the bureaucracy of the national security state normalized it to the point of invisibility. The intersection of Cold War history and the history of sexuality has proven fertile ground for historians, and Johnson’s contribution to the field is a valuable one that will be appreciated by scholars of disparate interests.
Another reason for the invisibility of the Lavender Scare, Johnson argues, is that historians have subsumed it under McCarthyism, writing it off as a relatively insignificant corollary. The Wisconsin senator frequently peppered his speeches with jibes at “Communists and queers,” but, as Johnson shows, McCarthy himself took a minor role in the Lavender Scare, which acquired a life of its own. Although the scare served similar conservative ends and operated within an overlapping discursive matrix, it was separate from McCarthyism. Beginning with State Department purges in 1947, it exploded into the public consciousness with Peurifoy’s revelation in 1950, strategically elicited by Republican senators eager to discredit the Truman administration. The ploy worked. As Johnson notes, the public in 1950 displayed more concern with gay civil servants than with Communist ones, and conservatives maximized their exploitation of the moral panic, deploying pointed tropes of the “Fairy Deal” and Dean Acheson’s “Homintern” and more subtly inviting speculation about liberal leaders such as Adlai Stevenson through coded language. Indeed, the phrase “security risk” itself became nearly (and implicitly) synonymous with “homosexual.” With the advent of the Eisenhower administration and Executive Order 10450 in 1953 came the official barring of gays and lesbians from federal employment, a situation that persisted until 1975 and whose legacy lives on today.
Johnson masterfully dissects the mechanics of the Lavender Scare. He carefully shows how facts were suppressed and fabricated to perpetuate the scare, offering specific [End Page 158] examples rather than assuming his audience necessarily sees the inherent hypocrisy of this manufactured homophobia. The methods used by a District of Columbia vice squad leader to calculate the number of homosexuals in Washington, DC, would be laughable if their consequences were not so tragic. The oft-repeated claim that gay employees were open to Communist blackmail had no basis in fact, and Johnson shows how the one historical precedent cited by proponents of the scare, the World War I–era case of Austrian Colonel Alfred Redl, was deliberately misconstrued and distorted. Even internal government documents reveal the spurious basis of the scare. Within the State Department the logic of homosexual purges was framed as one of morale rather than national security, and a 1957 Navy report admitted the lack of evidence for categorizing gay men and lesbians as security risks. The report was concealed until 1976.
Nonetheless, the Lavender Scare carried tangible consequences, not just in the individual lives of those persecuted but also in the conceptualization of the federal government. Paralleling the conservative Red Scare image of New Deal welfare programs as socialistic, the Lavender Scare helped frame the bureaucratic “Fairy...