When fear and paranoia get their hooks into a society, they can invade people’s minds in revealing metaphorical ways. Donald Trump, in his rise to the presidency, stoked fear and hostility toward immigrants, and also churned up racism against African-Americans. As monumental — and hideous — as both those hatreds are, you can argue that there were times when the former issue became a conduit for the latter: anti-immigrant fervor as a code for anti-black racism. There’s no better example of this than the “birther” issue. That was a pure racist fantasy, yet in spreading the canard that Barack Obama was a Muslim born in Kenya, Trump suggested, in effect, that Obama was an “immigrant.” The two corruptions overlapped and dovetailed and, at moments, became one.
An equally horrific psychological bait-and-switch went on during the repressive 1950s. In the opening minutes of “The Lavender Scare,” Josh Howard’s essential and absorbing documentary about the political repression of homosexuality in America, we see Dwight D. Eisenhower, shortly after he took office in 1953, announcing that our national security demands “the evaluation of derogatory information respecting present employees.”
Is he talking about homosexuality or Communism? Eisenhower had just signed the 1953 federal mandate banning criminals, alcoholics, or “sex perverts” from serving in the government. “The Lavender Scare,” though, is about how the fear of homosexuality and the fear of Communism became entwined and conflated, fusing into a new beast of oppression. It’s about how the Red Scare morphed into the Lavender Scare.
The “logic” went like this. When the Soviets executed their first atomic-bomb test, in 1949, the suspicion was that they couldn’t have gotten the bomb so quickly on their own; there had to be spies in high places. And in a world where Communists were suspected of having infiltrated the top levels of government, homosexual men and women were seen as uniquely vulnerable to being blackmailed into betraying national secrets. In reality, there was never one documented case of that phenomenon. But the two mythologies — anti-Communist paranoia and anti-gay panic — fused in the American imagination and became strange bedfellows.
Of course, the links between them were even more twisted than that, since J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, was a closeted homosexual, and so was Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel during the Army-McCarthy hearings — and so, a number of historians have speculated, was McCarthy himself. That’s a lot of personal self-hatred and public charade driving U.S. policy. (You could argue that much of it was a diversionary tactic: the snuffing of civil liberties as J. Edgar Hoover’s elaborate way to prove that he wasn’t gay.) “The Lavender Scare” documents the lives of lesbians and gay men who were forced to leave their government positions, sometimes in disgrace, and (even if not) often with no place to go. It’s also about how the FBI instructed police stations across the country to commence a crackdown on local gay life, all with the excuse of patriotism.
In a liberal society built around the ideal of “progress,” we tend to think that human rights were more crushed the further back in time you go. But one of the revelations of “The Lavender Scare,” drawn from David K. Johnson’s 2006 book of the same title, is its portrait of gay life during the ’30s and World War II. The movie never claims it was a cakewalk, but the oppression was less virulent than what it became; many lesbians and gay men arrived in Washington to work in the government and encountered no problem in leading active social lives. The gay historian John D’Emilio claims that WWII, in certain ways, was the most “revolutionary” event of the 20th century for lesbians and gay men. The movie unveils an extraordinary gallery of historical photographs of same-sex couples, kissing and hugging, looking as “out” as they can be. This is part of the hidden history of American gay life, and how it worked in the military, especially, hits one with the force of revelation.
But once the repressive paranoia of the ’50s kicked in, homosexuality was newly demonized. In 1948, the first Kinsey report, “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,” had been a bombshell: It claimed that one-third of American men had had homosexual experiences resulting in orgasm. This announcement of reality touched off a cultural hysteria (we see clips of a public-service film called “Boys Beware”) that probably helped Eisenhower to become the first Republican president in 20 years; it’s surely no coincidence that signing Executive Order 10450 — the ban on homosexual federal employees — was one of his first acts in office. Under that decree, shedding the government of gay workers wasn’t difficult (most of them resigned quietly under threat of exposure), and 2,200 men and women lost their careers.
The process, as recounted in the movie, was despicable. They were interrogated without legal representation, with no access to their files or their accusers. And — no surprise — they were asked to name the names of other homosexuals in government. In a tragic irony, the relative (cautious) openness of the ’30s and early ’40s came back to haunt them, providing evidence of gay lifestyles even as it forced people back into the closet. We hear from a woman named Joan Cassidy, who had to give up her dream of being named the first female admiral in the Navy, because the risk of exposure was too great.
Many were even less lucky. Recalling that period in a taped interview, one of the investigators says, “They’d end up on a bread line somewhere. And I didn’t give a hoot.” The movie devotes a haunting section to the story of Andrew Ference, who loved his life as a research aide in the Foreign Service; he was stationed in Paris. After being drummed out of his job in 1954, he committed suicide, at 34, by natural-gas poisoning. The government then lied to his family about why he killed himself (they said he was suffering from a serious illness).
“The Lavender Scare” tells a dark story, and does it solidly and movingly, but a documentary like this one can always use a hero — and, in fact, the film has a superb one: Franklin E. Kameny, the grandfather of the gay-rights movement who become the first person to survey the oppression of homosexuality in America and mount a legal war against it. It began with letters banged out on his typewriter, then moved on to fights in the courts, including the Supreme Court (all of which he lost), and ultimately evolved into picket lines, for which Kameny required his fellow protesters to don suits and ties and (for the women) dresses and pumps. He knew he had to win the war of signifiers.
Kameny has been profiled in other documentaries, like “Before Stonewall,” but this one brings us closer to how his status as a freedom fighter emerged from his irascible personality. He grew up gazing at the stars, wanting to be an astronomer, but the Kameny we see in interview clips (he died in 2011) is an urbane bulldog, like Barney Frank. It simply wasn’t in his nature to present himself to the world as anyone but who he was. He became the first openly gay person to testify before Congress (in 1963), and he was responsible for reframing the oppression of gay Americans as a fundamental issue of civil rights. The original gay-pride organization, the Mattachine Society (founded in 1950), wasn’t activist enough for him, so Kameny formed his own chapter of it in Washington and, in 1965, led a protest outside the White House that lit a spark where there hadn’t been one. It was, in its civilized way, as courageous an action as the Stonewall Riots. And it brought the Lavender Scare to an end by fighting fear with fire.