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1950: 'Lavender scare'!

Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series part 27

Published Feb 17, 2005 11:32 PM

Life got a whole lot harder in the U.S. during the late 1940s and early 1950s for people who were attracted to others of the same sex, who were considered gender-different, or who lived in a sex other than the one assigned them at birth.

The domestic witch hunt of the McCarthy era, whose main purpose was to crush any opposition to the Cold War, also led to the firing, red-listing and publicly outing of people who didn't fit the straight-jacketed classification of "straight." And anything considered "queer" was branded "subversive."

As early as 1947, some congressional Republicans veiled their partisan political attacks against the State Department with claims of "concern" about homosexuals working there.

In 1948, a public attempt to link anti-capitalists and homosexuals was promulgated in blaring media coverage that suggested Whittaker Chambers had an amor ous fondness for Alger Hiss.

Chambers, a Time magazine editor and journalist and former Communist Party member, was accused of collecting intelligence information for the Soviet Union. Chambers flipped and offered "evidence" for the anti-communist campaign. He implicated Alger Hiss, who headed the Carne gie Endowment, in Soviet espionage. Chambers also allegedly told the FBI that while a member of the Com munist Party he had been sexually active with men.

But the "Lavender Scare"--like the other hue of terror and repression, the "Red Scare"--began in earnest in 1950.

Before it ended, the two had become inextricably linked as one vicious slur: "pinko f-g."

While this kind of language is painful to reprint, it is important to get a feel for the tenor of that period.

'Panic on the Potomac'

On Feb. 9, 1950, notorious red-baiter Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) waved a piece of paper before the cameras that
he claimed contained a list of 205
"card-carry ing Communists in the State Department."

Alger Hiss had been convicted of perjury on Jan. 21, just weeks before this now-infamous Wheeling, W. Va., speech.

McCarthy railed that the Democratic Truman administration was harboring traitors who were plotting to give away top-secret information.

John Peurifoy, undersecretary of state, denied the charge in February before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing investigating "subversives." But he did raise the specter of a sinister "homosexual underground" in Washington that was in cahoots with the "Communist conspiracy." ("Becoming Visible: A Reader in Gay and Lesbian History")

He said that 91 "sexual deviants" were among those who had been dismissed from the State Department as "security risks."

This sounded a tocsin, observes
David K. Johnson in his book "The Laven der Scare: The Cold War Perse cution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government."

"Members of Congress demanded to know who hired the 91, whether they found jobs in other government departments, and if there were any more. Seeming to confirm McCarthy's charges about subversives in the State Depart ment, Peuri foy's revelation prompted concern and outrage throughout the nation, heated debates on the floors of Congress, congressional committee investigations, countless newspaper articles and numerous White House meetings.

"It eventually led to the ouster of thousands of government employees. It marked the beginnings of a Lavender Scare."

While some politicians labeled the campaign the "purge of the perverts," some journalists ridiculed it as the "panic on the Potomac."

McCarthyism, not just McCarthy

While the domestic witch hunt of lesbian, gay men and gender-variant people was an integral component of McCarthy ism, Joe McCarthy himself was not the mover and shaker behind the anti-homosexual frenzy, and perhaps for good reason.

True, the senator from Wisconsin did pep per his tirades with references to "Communists and queers." (The Lavender Scare)

But as the political crusade took off, McCarthy was nowhere to be seen. "Though he was a member of the congressional com mit tee that spent several months examining the homosexuals-in-government issue, McCarthy mys teriously recused himself from those hearings," Johnson notes.

McCarthy, the middle-aged, perennial bachelor, was vulnerable to questions about his own sexuality that were to circulate soon enough.

Instead, senior colleagues took up the cudgel, including Senators Styles Bridges (R-N.H.), Kenneth Wherry (R-Neb.) and Clyde Hoey (D-N.C.).

In April 1950 Republican National Committee Chair Guy Gabrielson charged that a "conspiracy" was underway. Gab riel son's statement read in part, "Perhaps as dangerous as the actual Communists are the sexual perverts who have infiltrated our government in recent years."

While Gabrielson claimed the media was not doing enough to alert the population to the "homosexual menace," this was merely self-serving demagogy. The media helped whip the frenzy to a fevered pitch. The New York Times took the lead, running at least seven stories promoting this anti-homosexual campaign in May and June of 1950.

In May 1950, Wherry quoted "reliable police sources" that 3,750 homosexuals were ensconced in federal jobs. A month later, the Senate authorized an official investigation, the first of its kind in U.S. history. It was popularly dubbed the "pervert inquiry." (glbtq)

The politically motivated results of these hearings, issued in December, charged the Truman administration with indifference toward the danger of homosexuals in government. The official "justification" for this witch hunt against gay and lesbian employees was cited as "lack of emotional stability" and "weakness of ... moral fiber" that allegedly made them likely victims of Soviet propaganda and recruitment.

By November of that year, close to 600 federal civil workers had lost their jobs. In the State Department alone, security officials bragged that they were firing one homosexual per day, more than twice the rate of those charged with political disloyalty to capitalism.

Wherry concluded in December, "You can't hardly separate homosexuals from subversives. ... Mind you, I don't say that every homosexual is a subversive, and I don't say every subversive is a homosexual. But [people] of low morality are a menace in the government, whatever [they are], and they are all tied up together." (New York Post, December 1950)

Next: Publicity dies down, anti-gay witch hunt does not