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.
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
'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
Communists in the State Department."
Alger Hiss had been convicted of
perjury on Jan. 21, just weeks before this now-infamous Wheeling, W. Va.,
McCarthy railed that the Democratic Truman administration was
harboring traitors who were plotting to give away top-secret
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
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
While some politicians labeled the campaign the "purge of the
perverts," some journalists ridiculed it as the "panic on the
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.
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
McCarthy, the middle-aged, perennial bachelor, was vulnerable to
questions about his own sexuality that were to circulate soon
Instead, senior colleagues took up the cudgel, including Senators
Styles Bridges (R-N.H.), Kenneth Wherry (R-Neb.) and Clyde Hoey
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.
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
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
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