Scapegoating queers

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Wednesday October 18, 2017
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After viewing the new documentary "The Lavender Scare," there's no doubt that the 1950s were the worst time to be LGBTQ in this country. "Lavender" played this year's Frameline festival to huge applause, and in a return engagement will be screened free to the public tonight, Thurs., Oct. 19, at the Roxie Theater, 7 p.m. It's for anyone who wants a tutorial on the birth of the gay rights movement in the US. It's the first film to tell about the decades-long witch-hunt that began with Pres. Eisenhower's Apr. 27, 1953 executive order demanding that all gay and lesbian government employees be fired immediately. This edict was carried out in the mistaken belief that during the Cold War hysteria against Communism, LGBT workers would be easy prey to blackmail. In a 1991 Dept. of Defense study of 117 cases of spying for foreign governments since WWII, homosexuality wasn't a factor in any of them. No gay or lesbian person ever betrayed our government, yet thousands of lives were destroyed for no reason.

"The Lavender Scare" makes clear this panic was a perfect storm of two fears gripping the country during the 50s: Communism and queers, the latter due primarily to Kinsey's 1948 finding that 37% of American men had homosexual experiences to the point of orgasm. Even when the Communist frenzy abated, the purge of gay people continued. Every person interrogated wasn't allowed to have a lawyer present, see the evidence against them, or confront their accuser(s).

Many co-workers thought it was their patriotic duty to inform on their associates. ("My feminine intuition tells me Mr. Hand is a homosexual. He has a jellylike handshake.") Two stories highlighted are poignant. One involved Joan Cassidy, a captain in the Navy Reserve. Approached to consider becoming the first woman Admiral, she said no because she feared her secret, being lesbian, would be exposed. The second involved Drew Ference, who had a job in the Foreign Services and a lover. Investigated for homosexuality, rather than having to tell his close-knit family why he had to leave, he committed suicide.

One man fought against his dismissal, igniting the gay rights movement. Frank Kameny wanted to join the space program, but was denied a security clearance. Believing the Mattachine Society was ineffective, he formed his own, more confrontational group in Washington, DC, writing letters to legislators correcting myths about gay people. He took his case to the Supreme Court, but lost. But he helped Jamie Shoemaker, a linguist in the NSA, become the first openly gay man to retain his security clearance. Kameny also led the first-ever public gay protest in 1965 by picketing the White House. He lived long enough to witness Pres. Clinton rescind the employment ban in 1995, and be praised by Pres. Obama for his courage in 2009. Kameny was the godfather of gay rights. Without him, there never would have been a Harvey Milk.

Writer/director Josh Howard, adapting David Johnson's book of the same name, uses archival footage and interviews with FBI agents who spearheaded investigations, and with victims of the purge. One agent remarks chillingly about one case, "I don't give a hoot about him. Get rid of the son-of-a-bitch. Put him on the bread line." Others call LGBT people "perverts" and "undesirables." Fortunately some of the survivors went on to lead full lives despite these traumatic events. The final frame announces that in 2017, Sec. of State John Kerry officially apologized for the government's actions. Yet two days after he became President, Trump ordered any mention of the apology removed from the State Dept. website. Without vigilance, hard-fought rights can easily be rescinded.

Scene from writer-director Josh Howard's "The Lavender Scare."