Directed by: Josh Howard
Produced by: Josh Howard
Narrator: Glenn Close
The Lavender Scare is an excellent, thoughtful documentary produced and directed by Josh Howard (25 years in the news and documentary field, with no fewer than 24 Emmy awards to his credit). Partly based on the book by David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare reveals the systematic way in which American federal agencies attempted to purge all homosexuals from the government workforce in the 1950’s. With the United States gripped in the panic of the 1950s Cold War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower deemed homosexuals to be “security risks” and vowed to rid the federal government of all employees discovered to be gay or lesbian. Over the next four decades, tens of thousands of government workers would lose their jobs for no reason other than their sexual orientation. These mass firings, however, had an unintended effect: they stirred outrage in the gay community, helped ignite the gay rights movement, and thrust an unlikely hero into the forefront of the LGBTQ history. The Lavender Scare illuminates this reprehensible (and little-known) chapter of American history; with today’s political climate it also serves as a timely reminder of the value of vigilance and social action when civil liberties are under attack.
Beginning with World War II, the film explains how wartime was one of the most revolutionary periods for gays and lesbians, as men fought alongside men (and women worked alongside women). Gays and lesbians were mobilized in same-sex living arrangements. This all changed after the war, as conservative post-war America flourished. Soon Russia created its own atomic bomb, Senator McCarthy began his investigations into “communist subversives” and suddenly anyone outside the norm became a target; “Commies and Queers” became persona non grata in the government. It didn’t help matters when Alfred Kinsey released his “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” study in 1948 which claimed 37% of men revealed they had had homosexual relations. Suddenly gays and lesbians became the enemy.
The Lavender Scare also delves into the life of Frank Kameny, an astronomer who was fired from the Army in 1957 because of his homosexuality (he would later become the first openly gay person to testify before Congress; today he is considered the “grandfather of the gay rights movement”). Kameny was not only fired but was also encouraged to out others gays and lesbians. He was told it was his “patriotic duty” to do so. The gay community lived its life in the closet in the 1950’s (invisibility was key to survival), and there was little help from the ACLU, as it did not fight for the rights of gay Americans at the time (only blacks). The threat of job loss, physical harm and social alienation led most gays and lesbians to meet in secret. One woman in the film states bluntly, “You didn’t come into my house unless you had as much to lose as the rest of us did.”
The Lavender Scare is a well-intentioned, considerate documentary that casts a much-needed light on a time forgotten by most in the annals of LGBTQ history. Director Josh Howard has taken good source material and fashioned it into a solid, compassionate documentary. There are a few missteps, such as the obvious use of the song ‘True Colors’ near the end of the film (the song has been overused as a gay anthem). Employing the song ‘Lavender Dilly Dilly’ paints a more poignant stroke. But this is a minor quibble. The Lavender Scare is an exemplary film about the important place we “undesirables” have in American history…at a time when such reminders are growing painfully necessary.
From the Back Row, Left of Center…