The Lavender Scare May Have Affected Your Relatives

Pride flag by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

The National Archives posted an article titled “These People Are Frightened to Death”. It was written by Judith Adkins in 2016. The article is about the Lavender Scare that caused harm to people who who were “in the closet” in the 1940s. Some of your relatives or ancestors may have been negatively affected by this.

Here are some excerpts from the article:

…Beginning in the late 1940s and continuing through the 1960s, thousands of gay employees were fired for forced to resign from the federal workforce because of their sexuality. Dubbed the Lavender Scare, this wave of repression was also bound up with anti-Communism and fueled by the power of congressional investigation. 

The purge followed an era in which gay people were increasingly finding each other and forming communities in urban America. During World War II, many men and women left behind the restrictions of rural or small-town life for the first time. After the war, young people poured into cities, where density and anonymity made pursuit of same-sex relationships more possible than ever. 

By the late 1940s, even the general public was becoming aware of homosexuality. Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, published in 1948, became a bestseller and drew attention for its claim that same-sex experiences were relatively common.

This publicity did not, however, make homosexuality more acceptable, in part because virtually no gay people were open about their sexuality. Also, the country was in the midst of a more general sex-crime panic, stirred up by a few highly publicized cases. In this context, the greater public awareness of homosexuality coincided with growing unease and, in many parts of the country, an increase in official repression…

…In 1947, the U.S. Park Police initiated in the city (District of Columbia) a “Sex Perversion Elimination Program,” targeting gay men for arrest and intimidation. A year later, Congress passed an act “for the treatment of sexual psychopaths” in the nation’s capital. That law facilitated the arrest and physical punishment of people who acted on same-sex desire and also labeled them mentally ill. Homosexuality was perceived as a lurking subversive threat at a time when the country was coping with tremendous social change as well as rising anxiety about another lurking subversive threat: Communism. 

Enter Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose rhetoric explicitly associated Communists and gay people, turning the slow burn of repression into a firestorm. On February 9, 1950, McCarthy delivered his now-famous speech in which he claimed to have a list of 205 known Communists working at the State Department.

On February 20, McCarthy spoke at length on the Senate floor, offering more specifics about some of these individuals, this time characterizing them more broadly as “unsafe risks”. Two cases concerned homosexuality…

…Just over a week later, Deputy Undersecretary of State John Peurifoy, testifying before a subcommittee of the Senate Committee of Appropriations, revealed that the State Department had ousted 91 homosexual employees as security risks…

…In 1975, the Civil Service Commission announced new rules stipulating that gay people could no longer be barred or fired from federal employment because of their sexuality. The Lavender Scare was finally official over (at least for civilian workers….

It is possible that some of your relatives or ancestors were negatively effected by the discrimination that connected to the Lavender Scare. It may be difficult for you to be certain about what they experienced during that timeframe unless you find old love letters, old photos, or a hand-written diary, that fills in the gaps. 

The National Archives has plenty of resources about LGBTQ+ Pride Month. It includes information about The Stonewall Riots, a video about the “It Gets Better” project, and blog posts about Harvey Milk, Sally Ride, and milestones to marriage equality.

The silencing of LGBTQ+ people has caused entire histories to become secret, in an effort to prevent job-loss or worse. It is wonderful that the National Archives has preserved – and shared – some of what happened. 

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