Spreading fear is one of the hallmarks of the far right in the U.S., a way to divide people by demonizing an “other.” From colonial times, the “other” was invoked: red savages, Catholics, witches, Quakers, immigrants (of all ethnicities), Blacks, Asians, communists, etc. And then there was the “Lavender Scare,” a wave of anti-homosexual panic that swept through the federal government—and nation—during the 1940s and 1950s and only began to wane (incrementally, to be sure) after the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in the U.S. and the Wolfenden Report in the UK.
The “Lavender Scare” doesn’t have quite the ominous vibe of the “Red Scare,” does it? Nonetheless, the Lavender Scare and the Red Scare occurred at roughly the same time (1940s-1950s) and place (USA! USA!), and both were whipped up by the same institution (U.S. Congress). However, in some ways, the Lavender Scare did more lasting damage to the lives of those impacted by it than the Red Scare.
While the likes of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.), Rep. Richard Nixon (R-Calif.), J. Edgar Hoover and the extraordinarily vile Roy Cohn, Sen. McCarthy’s chief counsel (and, later, Trump mentor) created an atmosphere of paranoia over the (mostly overblown) danger of domestic Communism—the so-called “Red Scare”—their Congressional colleagues were going after homosexuals under the rubric “sex perversion.” Somehow, they missed the real perverts in plain sight—Hoover and Cohn—but that’s another story.
This was a time, if one were gay, of secret meetings in parks, restrooms, bath houses, back alleys and street corners and in those few venues in America’s big cities where kindred spirits, including lesbians, bohemians and, God forbid, those who might have been gender fluid at that time, could safely meet. This need for secrecy played out against a backdrop of Communist witch hunts.
Washington, D.C., in particular, became ground zero for the resultant Lavender Scare. This was due, in part, to an increase of homosexuals who worked in the Civil Service. They were part of the influx, from all points and persuasions of the American compass, of young people looking for government jobs during World War II, and then sticking around thereafter (tasting the forbidden fruits of the big city cured them of homesickness for their childhood closets). But the main reason Washington became the test ground for anti-homosexual legislation was that the U.S. Congress directly lorded over the District of Columbia. This sad state of bureaucratic affairs did not change until 1973, when the District obtained “home rule,” which allowed for an elected mayor and city council but no voting Congressional representation—an outrage that continues to this day, denying nearly one million Americans the right to voting representation.
The first real signal of “Lavender” fear-mongering in Washington came in 1947, when the U.S. Park Police enacted a “Sex Perversion Elimination Program” in the District of Columbia. Officers patrolled Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House (where, 70 years later, Roy Cohn’s acolyte would have his photo op with an upside-down Bible) and Franklin Park, between 14th and 13th streets, K and I streets, near present-day McPherson Square. If you were a male walking through these parks at night, looking even slightly suspicious or furtive, you were subject to arrest, fine, fingerprinting and photographing, this information kept permanently in what was called a “pervert file.” By early 1950, 700 men had been detained, 200 of whom were arrested. Most were federal government workers.
Soon thereafter, the U.S Congress passed Public Law 615 (aka the Miller Act), signed by Pres. Harry Truman on June 9, 1948. This law targeted “sexual psychopaths” in Washington, D.C. It called for the apprehension of any “sexual psychopath”—defined as “a person, not insane, who by a course of repeated misconduct in sexual matters has evidenced such lack of power to control his sexual impulses as to be dangerous to other persons because he is likely to attack or otherwise inflict injury, loss, pain, or other evil on the objects of desire.”
The Miller Act gave complete discretion to the U.S. Attorney to initiate proceedings against whoever they believed fit the above definition. This led to men, most of whom had not committed crimes, being committed indefinitely to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital until the doctors there determined that the patient “has sufficiently recovered so as not to be dangerous to other persons.” It also allowed for vindictive co-workers or supervisors to target troublesome colleagues, spread malicious rumors, not to mention making extortion demands for compromising photographs or stolen love notes. Because this was all enacted in civil court, the “patient” did not have the constitutional guarantees against self-incrimination that a defendant in a criminal case would have.
Needless to add, the law was vague enough to practically guarantee abuse. Indeed, according to one scholar of that time, “habitual practicing homosexuals” were clearly being targeted. On March 1, 1950, for example, 24 patients were housed in St. Elizabeths maximum security ward, “including 2 non-coercive homosexuals and 1 aggressive sodomist” (sic).
In Feb. 1950, Sen. McCarthy (and Cohn, who was a “practicing homosexual” himself) began linking Communism with homosexuality. In his endless series of accusations of the “Red” infiltration of the State Department, McCarthy cited “Case 14,” who was, he said, a “known homosexual” working there, as was “Case 62.” Furthermore, pontificated McCarthy, “Practically every active Communist is twisted mentally or physically.” Case 14 and Case 62, he said, both possessed “peculiar mental twists.” Largely due to McCarthy’s wild accusations, the State Department fired 91 homosexuals in 1950 as “security risks”. Their lives, careers and reputations were permanently ruined. Some committed suicide.
McCarthy and Cohn were responsible for the firing of scores of gay men from government employment; and strong-armed many opponents into silence using rumors of their homosexuality. Former U.S. Senator Alan K. Simpson wrote: “The so-called ‘Red Scare’ has been the main focus of most historians of that period of time. A lesser-known element … and one that harmed far more people was the witch-hunt McCarthy and others conducted against homosexuals.”
Writing in Prologue magazine in 2016, National Archives historian Judith Adkins, now a researcher at the Center for Legislative Archives, noted: “Many assumptions about Communists mirrored common beliefs about homosexuals. Both were thought to be morally weak or psychologically disturbed, both were seen as godless, both purportedly undermined the traditional family, both were assumed to recruit, and both were shadowy figures with a secret subculture.”
But McCarthy had other allies in Congress. Indeed, the real heavies in this Lavender Witch Hunt were Senators Kenneth Wherry (R-Neb.) and J. Lister Hill (D-Ala.), who led Congressional investigations of homosexuals in the federal government. Wherry told the press, “Only the most naive could believe that the Communist fifth column in the United States would neglect to propagate and use homosexuals to gain their treacherous ends.”
Wherry and Hill undertook a Senate investigation from March to May 1950. Among its unverifiable findings were that 5,000 homosexuals lived in the District of Columbia, 3,700 of whom worked for the federal government. They bragged about ridding government of “moral perverts.”
The revelation that there were homosexuals in the civil service caused a public uproar. The U. S. Senate reacted by passing Senate Resolution No. 280 in June 1950 directing the Senate Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Department to “make a thorough and comprehensive study and investigation of (a) the alleged employment by the departments and agencies of the Government of homosexuals and other moral perverts, and (b) the preparedness and diligence of authorities of the District of Columbia, as well as the appropriate authorities of the Federal Government, for the protection of life and property against the threat to security, inherent in the employment of such perverts by such departments and agencies.”
An Investigations Subcommittee was set up, chaired by Senator Clyde R. Hoey (D-N.C.). The so-called “Hoey Committee” was tasked with determining “the extent of the employment of homosexuals and other sex perverts in Government; to consider reasons why their employment by the Government is undesirable; and to examine into the efficacy of the methods used in dealing with the problem.”
The Hoey Committee sent letters to all federal government departments to provide the names of the homosexuals on their staffs. Though some departments complied, many others told them to piss off—these now anonymous bureaucrats proved to be real American heroes.
The final Hoey report, entitled “Employment of Homosexuals and other Sex Perverts in Government,” made such statements as, “One homosexual can pollute a Government office.” This report had devastating impact for many years thereafter, essentially giving Congress the stamp of approval on a policy to fire gay people. And it led to President Dwight Eisenhower issuing Executive Order # 10450: “Security Requirements for Government Employment,” which effectively banned gay men and women from all U.S. government jobs, a stain that lasted for 20 years and led to 10,000 people losing their jobs. No doubt many had trouble finding other jobs, some victims committed suicide. “The total fallout in terms of ruined or truncated lives and wasted human potential is ultimately immeasurable,” writes Adkins.
It did not help that, in 1952, the very first edition of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a standard reference book for psychiatrists) designated homosexuality to be a “sociopathic personality disturbance”. This stigma lasted 20 years as the medical conventional wisdom.
The real hero who turned the tide in Washington, ultimately, was Franklin Kameny, an astronomer for the U.S. Army’s Army Map Service. He formally appealed his 1958 firing to the U.S. Civil Service Commission and, though he was not successful in being reinstated, his was the first known civil rights claim based on sexual orientation filed in an American court of law. He organized a picket line in front of the White House in 1965—one of the first gay rights protests in U.S. history—and continued to file lawsuits on behalf of government employees who’d been fired for being homosexual.
It was not until 1975 that the Civil Service Commission declared gays could not be denied government jobs.
THE LAVENDAR SCARE IN BRITAIN
The situation in the UK was equally grim. The case of Alan Turing, who helped create the Enigma machine that broke the German codes, shortened World War II and saved thousands of lives, was hounded to death for his homosexuality as was, more famously and long before Turing, Oscar Wilde, whose health was broken by his stay in Reading Gaol for homosexual relations.
This now famous exchange took place during Wilde’s trial:
Wilde: “The love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as “the love that dare not speak its name”, and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”
Such prejudicial fervor raged in Britain until 1967, when the Sexual Offences Act was passed, decriminalizing homosexuality. Among the many things that raised awareness leading to this change was Basil Deardon’s 1961 film, The Victim, starring Dirk Bogarde. In the recently reissued package for The Victim, Criterion Films notes, “The Allied Film Makers production was one of a handful of cinematic responses to the 1957 Wolfenden Report, which recommended the legalization of homosexual acts in Great Britain, which had been outlawed since 1885. The Victim was the most important of these films, because it reached the widest audience, with Dirk Bogarde a marketable star…”
Also paving the way for change, according to Criterion: “A series of mid-Fifties events (including the post-Kinsey Report cases of John Gielgud and Lord Montagu) had made the British public increasingly receptive to the decriminalization of homosexual behavior.”
CODA ON ROY COHN:
Following his “coming out” party as Sen. McCarthy’s chief counsel, Cohn continued his career as an attorney in New York. Among his clients over the years was a rogue’s gallery of nasty people: besides Trump, these included George Steinbrenner, Aristotle Onassis, mobsters Tony Salerno, Carmine Galante and John Gotti, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager (Studio 54 owners), the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York (fending off all those molestation lawsuits) and shady businessman Richard Dupont. Cohn’s career was peppered with accusations of theft, obstruction, extortion, tax evasion, bribery, blackmail, fraud, perjury, and witness tampering. When he died in 1986—of complications from AIDS—the IRS seized all of his assets to partly pay off his tax debts.
Cohn was buried in Union Field Cemetery in Queens, where his tombstone describes him as a lawyer and a patriot, whereas the AIDS Memorial Quilt describes him as “Roy Cohn. Bully. Coward. Victim.” Most famously, he plays a central role in Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1991).
Thanks to Athena Angelos for help with photo research.