Interrogations of suspected queer people were a regular thing for federal employees in the 1950s and 1960s, with questions like: “Do you identify as a homosexual or have you ever had same-sex sexual relations?”. This era is now known today as The Lavender Scare.
Post-World War II, LGBTQ Amercians from small towns and rural areas began moving to cities where they could keep their anonymity while meeting others that were like them. This sense of community, however, was rudely interrupted when the United States Park Police created the Sex Perversion Elimination Act of 1947, primarily targeting gay men congregating in parks. At least five hundred people were arrested that first year.
Just a part of the bigger “Red Scare” that targeted suspected Communists, the Lavender Scare’s development came about with the always charming Senator Joseph McCarthy and his famous blacklist with names of 250 federal employees, two of who were gay. The Red Scare rhetoric invoked the ideas of morality connected with queer people to those of communists. In this epoch, LGBTQ people were considered sinful and perverted and public perception of homosexuality shared similarities with the public opinion of communists, who were also seen as lacking both moral and mental strength. For the federal government, LGBTQ employees posed a security risk: if they were living double lives, they probably couldn’t be trusted to keep government secrets.
In March 1952, the federal government announced it would remove 162 government workers suspecting of being gay. A year later, President Dwight Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, expanding federal employment regulations with a statement to exclude federal employees of “sexual perversion”. Because of this Executive Order, at least 10,000 federal employees lost their jobs.
The Lavender Scare made being out of the closet nearly impossible without staggering consequences. Not only were LGBTQ federal employees fired, but many others were also fired for “guilt of association” for just knowing someone who was gay. Because of the resulting stigma, many firings lead to dismissed employees’ suicides, most of which were later covered up by the federal government. Andrew Ference, an administrative assistant at the U.S. embassy in Paris, killed himself after two days of interrogations. The State Department covered up the cause of his death and lied to his family.
Some LGBTQ people stepped up to challenge federal government’s “sexual perversion” components, including civil servant Frank Kameny who was fired from his position as an astronomer in the U.S. Army’s Army Map Service. Kameny took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. He lost, yet a few federal courts began ruling in his favor by 1969 and Gay Rights organizations sprung up, such as the Mattachine Society (1950) as well as the Daughters of Bilitis (1955). The Lavender Scare’s effects, unfortunately, are still felt today.
The Lavender Scare quieted American cities’ queer communities who were afraid of employment discrimination and hate crimes; it also brought a considerably conservative culture within the government. While many federal organizations slowly began overturning their policies on LGBTQ discrimination, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and National Security Alliance (NSA)’s bans on gays lasted into the 1990s, until they were overturned by President Bill Clinton in 1995. In 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry apologized to the LGBTQ community on behalf of the federal government stating:
I apologize to those who were impacted by the practices of the past and reaffirm the department’s steadfast commitment to diversity and inclusion for all our employees, including members of the LGBTQ community.
Now Democratic lawmakers are trying to make amends for this dark period in U.S. History. The reintroduced Lavender Offense Victim Exoneration Act, or LOVE Act, would redress the harms done during the Lavender Scare.
Bob Menendez, Senator from N.J., one of the bill’s sponsors and the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relationships Committee, wrote:
It is long past time for the U.S. government to recognize the stories of the LGBTI members of the State Department who were treated unfairly during the Lavender Scare, and to offer them and their families a measure of justice.
If passed, the legislation would have the State Department “review all employee terminations that occurred after January 1, 1950, to determine who was wrongfully terminated owing to their sexual orientation, whether real or perceived”. The LOVE Act contains several provisions to address the wrongful termination of employees perceived to be gay. It calls on Congress to issue a formal apology to these employees, and it establishes a reconciliation board that would contact them or their families and correct their employment records
The bill would also create a permanent museum exhibit about the Lavender Scare in the U.S. Diplomacy Center and would establish a board to review difficulties facing current LGBTQ diplomats and their families. It would mandate a review of countries that currently refuse to issue visas to the same-sex spouses of Foreign Service personnel.
The LOVE Act was first introduced in 2017. The bill has more co-sponsors this time around: 19 Democratic senators, including Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Michael Guest, the former U.S. ambassador to Romania Guest, the first openly gay ambassador to be confirmed by the Senate, said that even when he entered the State Department in the 1980s, fears lingered that something like the Lavender Scare could return, and that many still believed that being known as gay or lesbian could hurt their careers.
Guest told NBC News that he was “disappointed” that no Republicans had signed onto the bill and that it has a “very slim chance of moving forward”. Guest said the government was deprived of expertise, and the Foreign Service became further entrenched in white male conservatism during the Lavender Scare.
Under the Trump administration, the State Department has reversed course on many LGBTQ issues. Last year the department ended a policy implemented by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that allowed unmarried same-sex partners of staff from U.S.-based international organizations to obtain a spousal visa.
Only a few days ago, the State Department announced it would appeal a California court’s ruling to grant U.S. citizenship to a married same-sex couple’s child.
Our nation is at its best when we live up to our values and highest aspirations. With this legislation, Secretary Mike Pompeo and every Member of the Trump administration can make certain that our LGBTQ diplomats and development professionals are fully respected as full members of the State Department family.
The State Department declined to comment.