The Lavender Scare

In February 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy made the accusation, in a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, that 205 card-carrying Communists were working for the State Department. This is considered the event that truly sparked the early 1950s “Red Scare” in America and is one of the defining events of the Cold War era.

The Truman administration denied McCarthy’s charge, but in the course of denying it, mentioned that a number of employees who were considered potential security risks had been fired from the State Department, among them 91 homosexuals. This public admission sparked outrage, mostly but not exclusively among Republican politicians who had been looking for ways to discredit the Truman administration. Sen. Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska, one of the driving forces behind public hearings, asked “Can you think of a person who would be more dangerous to the United States of America than a pervert?” and told journalist Max Lerner, “You can’t hardly separate homosexuals from subversives.” There were congressional committee investigations, and by the end of 1950, more than 600 federal civil servants had been fired on suspicion of homosexuality. Historian David K. Johnson, who brought this panic to greater public attention in a 2004 book, has dubbed it “The Lavender Scare.”

The popular belief was that homosexuals were security risks. They were not necessarily being accused of disloyalty, as Communists were, but it was argued that gay and lesbian federal employees, because of their engaging in sexual actions that were both illegal and widely morally condemned, would be highly susceptible to blackmail by foreign powers. (In fact, there is no known record in American history of any gay or lesbian federal employee revealing state secrets under pressure of blackmail.) But beginning in 1953, the federal government enshrined the idea of homosexuals as security risks when President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450 into law. This executive order was not technically exclusive to homosexuality—it also defined alcoholism or drug addiction, for example, as factors that could make an employee a security risk and lead to their dismissal from government employ. In practice, however, this executive order was only used to expel gay and lesbian federal employees. As David K. Johnson has pointed out, in official circles, the term “security risk” was frequently used as a euphemism when talking about homosexuals. Furthermore, it didn’t matter if an employee identified as being gay or lesbian: any instance of same-sex sexual contact was seen as evidence that an employee was unfit for government service, and even those who were suspected to be gay without any evidence, or who associated with someone who was known or suspected to be gay, could be dismissed.

It is unknown exactly how many people lost their jobs, but these anti-gay policies were enforced for over 20 years. Untold numbers of federal employees were pulled aside by investigators and told, “Information has come to the attention of the Civil Service Commission that you are a homosexual. What comment would you care to make?” In a town like Washington, D.C., so heavily dependent on government employment, and where even private sector jobs often required security clearances that gays and lesbians could not legally receive, the 1950s and 1960s were a time of deep and justifiable paranoia. Feeding into that paranoia were the actions of the FBI, led by long-time director J. Edgar Hoover.