The Lavender Scare

President Dwight Eisenhower ordered a purge of all gay and lesbian federal employees.

President Dwight Eisenhower ordered a purge of all gay and lesbian federal employees.

By Joel P. Engardio

The outrage was instant and widespread when President Trump signed an executive order in January that banned residents of certain Muslim countries from traveling to the United States. Protesters said the act was un-American and so far the courts have agreed by striking down the ban.

One could say it was a good outcome from a bad situation — especially when compared to President Eisenhower’s executive order of 1953 that called for the purge of all gay people from the U.S. government.

Tens of thousands of federal employees suspected of being gay or lesbian were investigated, interrogated and fired over four decades in what has been called the longest witch-hunt in American history. But there was no public outrage. No courts dared to intervene for at least 30 years. No one stood up for the American citizens who lost their careers because of who they loved.

The lives and families that were destroyed by Eisenhower’s action have largely been forgotten. In the canon of LGBT history, the 1969 Stonewall riot and the 1978 assassination of Harvey Milk are well-recognized turning points on the journey to equality. Yet who remembers Executive Order 10450, banning anyone engaged in “sexual perversion” from federal employment?

Filmmaker Josh Howard hopes to change that with his award-winning documentary “The Lavender Scare,” which is playing at San Francisco’s Frameline International LGBT Film Festival. It features the story of Frank Kameny, who was fired from his job as a government astronomer. Some gay and lesbian civil servants chose suicide and most just quietly walked away from their careers to avoid further shame. But Kameny was the first to fight back.

The opening scene of the documentary re-creates Kameny writing a bold and powerful letter for the era: “I was fired not because of a judgment upon me as an individual, but a judgment against an entire group of people,” Kameny wrote. “Every American citizen has the right to be considered on the basis of his own personal merit. I am a ‘Homosexual American Citizen.’ Before I leave this Earth, I will see to it that the second and third words of that phrase — ‘American Citizen’ — are no longer ignored in regard to people like me.”

While Kameny’s fight didn’t get very far at first, he never gave up. When the courts refused to take his case, he picketed in front of the White House with a sign that demanded “First Class Citizenship for Homosexuals.” Decades later, at age 84, Kameny would be invited into the White House to witness President Obama signing an executive order extending benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. 

“This story is a classic tale of both tragedy and triumph,” said filmmaker Howard. “Tragedy because thousands of lives were ruined. But triumph too, because that heartache helped spark the early days of the gay rights movement.”

Howard, 62, is a gay man who remained closeted through much of his career as an award-winning producer at CBS News and the newsmagazine 60 Minutes.

“I worked for Mike Wallace and those old guys came from rough and tumble newsrooms,” Howard said in an article I wrote for USA Today. “The word ‘faggot’ got thrown around.”

Howard said such a workplace atmosphere would be shocking today, but LGBT discrimination is not just a history lesson. It is still very real.

While same-sex couples can marry nationwide, many states still allow employers to fire someone just for being LGBT. Legislation to protect LGBT people from employment discrimination is stalled in Congress. Transgender people are targets of “bathroom bills” in multiple states that seek to define who can use public restrooms. And there is a movement among states to adopt broad “religious exemption” laws that deny all LGBT people access to accommodations and services.

Howard’s film looks back at an untold history. It also reminds us of the Shakespearian quote “what is past is prologue.”

“An important reason to make this film is to understand the struggles and sacrifices of prior generations,” Howard said. “And to also see how commitment and activism can make a real difference.”

"The Lavender Scare" is playing at the Castro Theater on Sunday June 18 at 11am.

Also published in the Bay City Beacon June 16, 2017

LGBTJoel Engardio