Lavender Scare: The Historic LGBTQ Witch Hunt You Might Not Know About

Thousands lost their jobs during the 'Lavender Scare'

Madeleine Tress was 24, working her first real job after college.

Sitting at her desk one day at the U.S. Department of Commerce, she was interrupted by two men, flashing IDs at her.

They were from the FBI. They said they had evidence she was a lesbian.

Tress lost her job.

When you think about LGBTQ rights movements, you might think of the Stonewall riots, Harvey Milk or the more recent fight for marriage equality.

But Tress was just one of thousands of people in the U.S. who were fired or kept from jobs because of their sexual orientation during the 1950s — a crackdown that’s now called “The Lavender Scare.”

Long before marriage equality was a political issue, LGBTQ folks were fighting for the right to keep their jobs. And that kicked off the modern LGBTQ rights movement as we know it.

Tress is one of several people profiled in an upcoming PBS documentary “The Lavender Scare,” premiering June 18.

[ICYMI: Why Some Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans People Still Don’t Feel Safe at Work]

A witch hunt

The Lavender Scare happened at the same time as a better-known “scare:” “The Red Scare,” championed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who claimed that hundreds of Communists were spies in the federal government.

It was post-World War II, and the U.S. was in an arms race with the Soviet Union. McCarthy claimed that gay and lesbian people would be more vulnerable to blackmail from the Soviets, and were therefore a security risk.

This wasn’t just something championed by outsiders or extremists. It was supported by the president.

President Dwight Eisenhower signed an executive order in 1953 barring gay and lesbian people, who he called “sexual perverts,” from government jobs and security clearance. Headlines shouted the news: “Begin Purging Government of Homosexuals.”

The Lavender Scare wasn’t flashy. Most people weren’t publicly outed. Instead, they were forced to quietly resign. But the effects were long-lasting.

Many gay and lesbian people simply didn’t apply for jobs in the public sector, for fear they’d be outed. Others passed up promotions, scared they’d be in danger of more scrutiny in a more prominent position.

So even though we know how many people ultimately lost their jobs, the actual impact — in terms of wasted talent and human potential — is harder to measure.

Grandfather of LGBTQ rights

The documentary puts names and stories on a previously ignored chapter in history.

After losing her job, Tress won a Fulbright scholarship to Myanmar, but couldn’t go. The government vetoed her award because of her sexual orientation.

Instead, she became an employment lawyer, fighting for workers’ rights.

Some government workers fought back.

Like Frank Kameny. He was an astronomer working with the U.S. Army’s map service when he was fired in 1958.

Kameny is now recognized as the grandfather of the LGBTQ rights movement. He didn’t see his dismissal as a security issue. He saw it as a civil rights issue.

Like all great activists, Kameny was stubborn.

“If the world and I differ on a matter, I will give the matter very careful second thought,” he once wrote in a letter to his mother. “If the world and I still differ, then I am right, and the world is wrong. If one side has to change, it will be the world that will change, because I won’t.”

Credit: Courtesy of The New York Public Library
Frank Kameny leads a picket line in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1965, four years before the Stonewall uprising.

Kameny hosted demonstrations in front of the White House, wearing business attire and carrying placards, four years before the Stonewall riots, which made gay rights a mainstream issue.

“I am a homosexual American citizen,” he once wrote. “Before I leave this earth, I assure you that 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.”

Still no universal protections

Kameny was successful. As the documentary covers, he saw incredible change before he died in 2011.

In 1975, the Civil Service Commission announced new rules allowing gay and lesbian people to work in the government and barring termination based on sexual orientation.

But it wasn’t until 1995 that President Clinton ended the ban on security clearance for gay and lesbian folks.

Gay people weren’t allowed to serve in the military until 1993, when Clinton signed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” bill into law. But the military continued to discharge service members who revealed their sexual orientation in any way.

In 2010, President Obama repealed the policy, allowing anyone to serve, regardless of sexual orientation.

But there’s still a ways to go.

President Trump has since banned transgender people from serving in the military.

Credit: Courtesy of Official White House Photo
Frank Kameny is honored by President Obama in the Oval Office, 54 years after being fired by the federal government because he was gay.

Secretary of State John Kerry formally apologized on behalf of the government for The Lavender Scare in 2017.

Last month, Democratic lawmakers reintroduced the Lavender Offense Victim Exoneration Act, or LOVE Act, which would review wrongful employee terminations from the 1950s and offer reconciliation.

Even though federal government workers now have protection against wrongful termination, the majority of LGBTQ workers in the private sector don’t.

There’s no federal law protecting all gay, lesbian and trans people from workplace discrimination. Just 22 states offer that kind of protection.

Gretchen Brown

Gretchen is an editor for Rewire. With past stints in public radio and at a rural daily newspaper, she’s passionate about public media as a public service. She’s also into music and really good coffee. Follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.