“THE LAVENDER SCARE”

Learn about the little known story of the government’s purge of gay and lesbian workers, and how that paved the way for LGBTQ equality today.

For more information on “The Lavender Scare,” click here. 

Aired on June 18, 2019. 

TRANSCRIPT

THE RED SCARE AND PURGE OF SUSPECTED COMMUNISTS DOMINATED MUCH OF AMERICAN LIFE DURING THE $1950.

BUT THERE WAS ANOTHER SCARE OF A DIFFERENT COLOR UNFOLDING LARGELY BEHIND THE SCENES.

ONE THAT SAW THOUSANDS LOSE THEIR JOBS SIMPLY BECAUSE OF THEIR SEXUAL ORIENTATION.

IN 1953, PRESIDENT DWIGHT EISENHOWER ORDERED THE FIRING OF GAY AND LESBIAN FEDERAL WORKERS AN BHID FEARS THEY COULD BE BLACKMAILED BY THE SOVIET UNION.

THAT FUELED A WITCH HUNT THAT LASTED FOR DECADES AND HELPEDITION NIGHT THE MODERN GAY RIGHTS MOVEMENT.

WE'RE LOOKING BACK AT THIS PERIOD IN OUR HISTORY WHICH IS NOW THE FOCUS OF A DOCUMENTARY AIRING ON PBS CALLED 'THE LAVENDER SCARE.'

HERE'S A LOOK.

WE HAVE YOUR FRIEND IN THE NEXT ROOM.

SHE'S ALREADY TOLD US THAT YOU'RE GAY.

YOU GIVE US THE NAMES OF OTHERS AND WE'LL GO EASY ON YOU.

THE UNTOLD STORY OF A VICIOUS WITCH HUNT.

TENS AND TENS OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE FIRED FROM OR KEPT FROM JOBS.

AND THE COURAGEOUS FEW WHO FOUGHT BACK.

TENNED UP BECOMING SOMETHING MUCH LARGER, THE RITSDS OF ALL GAY MEN AND LESBIANS.

'THE LAVENDER SCARE.'

AND JOINING US NOW IS JOSH HOWARD, THE DIRECTOR OF 'THE LAVENDER SCARE.'

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US TODAY.

YOUR FILM IS FASCINATING IN A VERY IMPORTANT STORY.

BUT I HAVE TO CONFESS THAT IT'S A STORY I DIDN'T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT AND MY BET IS A LOT OF AMERICANS DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT IT EITHER.

WHY IS THAT, IF I'M RIGHT?

I DIDN'T EITHER.

I CAME ACROSS A BOOK CALLED 'THE LAVENDER SCARE' BY DAVID CAY JOHNSTON AND I WAS AMAZED READING THIS.

IT'S A STORY THAT HAS NOT REALLY BEEN TOLD.

THE REASON IS WHEN THIS WAS GOING ON, THE GAY PEOPLE WHO WERE BEING FIRED DIDN'T WANT TO TELL FRIENDS AND FAMILY, FUTURE EMPLOYEES WHY THEY HAD BEEN FIRED BECAUSE THEY WERE IN THE CLOSET AND THEY HAD TO GET ON WITH THEIR LIVES.

AFTER SOME INITIAL PUBLICITY ABOUT THIS, THE GOVERNMENT DIDN'T WANT TO TALK ABOUT HOW MANY HOO SEXUALS WERE BEING FIRED BECAUSE THEN THE QUESTION BECAME WHY DID YOU HIRE THEM IN THE FIRST PLACE AND BECAME AL EMBARRASSMENT FOR THE GOVERNMENT.

IT WAS THE CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE AND OVER THE YEARS, TENS OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE WERE FIRED.

IT TOOK YOU TEN YEARS TO DO THIS FILM.

DID YOU ENGAGE IN THIS ODYSSEY BECAUSE IT WAS SUCH AN IMPORTANT BUT LITTLE KNOWN STORY?

THAT'S WHY I WANTED TO EMBARK ON THE PROJECT.

IT TOOK TEN YEARS BECAUSE IT WAS TOUGH TO FIND THE FINANCING FOR IT, FRANKLY.

BUT WE WOULD RAISE SOME MONEY AND SHOOT AN INTERVIEW AND RAISE A LITTLE MORE MONEY AND DO NOT EDITING.

NOT THE MOST EFFICIENT WORK FLOW.

THE PURGE OF GAYS AND LESBIANS FROM THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT AND THE MILITARY, AS WELL BACK IN 1953, THE JUSTIFICATION WAS AS I SAID IN THE INTRODUCTION, THE FEAR THAT GAY AND LESBIANS COULD BE BLACKMAILED BY THE SOVIET UNION OR AN ENEMY POWER.

WAS THERE ANY JUSTIFICATION FOR THAT, THAT THAT WAS SUCCESSFULLY HAPPENING?

THERE WASN'T A SINGLE CASE.

WHEN THIS HAPPENED, THEY COULDN'T COME UP WITH A SINGLE EXAMPLE OF THIS AND EVEN IN RETROSPECT, THERE'S NEVER BEEN A SINGLE CASE OF A GAY MAN OR LESBIAN SUBMITTING TO BLACKMAIL BY A FOREIGN AGENT.

BUT YOU COULD ARGUE THAT THERE WAS SOME BASIS FOR THIS BECAUSE OUR GOVERNMENT ITSELF WAS BLACKMAILING THESE PEOPLE.

WHEN AN AGENT WOULD GO HAVING SOMEONE IN FRONT OF SOMEONE, THEY WOULD SAY CONFESS, RESIGN, GO AWAY OR WE'RE GOING TO EXPOSE YOU.

WE'RE GOING TO TELL YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS AND FUTURE EMPLOYERS.

SO IN THE EVENT OUR OWN GOVERNMENT WAS BLACKMAILING PEOPLE.

BY THE WAY, MOST OF THE OUTINGS, I DON'T KNOW EXACTLY WHAT THE WORD WOULD BE OF THE GAY AND LESBIANS IN THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT, WERE BY ANONYMOUS SOURCES, BY CONFIDENTIAL SOURCES.

DO WE KNOW WHO THESE PEOPLE WERE?

NOT NECESSARILY.

CERTAINLY THE PEOPLE WHO WERE ACCUSED DIDN'T KNOW WHO THEY WERE.

YOU WERE NOT ALLOWED TO FACE YOUR ACCUSER.

YOU WERE CALLED IN, PUT UNDER OATH, NOT GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY TO HAVE A LAWYER BECAUSE THESE WEREN'T CRIMINAL PROCEEDINGS.

THESE WERE ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS.

AND A LARGE NUMBER OF PEOPLE DIDN'T EVEN BOTHER GOING THROUGH THE INTERROGATION WHEN THEY WERE TOLD THEY WERE BEING CALLED IN BECAUSE THERE WAS EVIDENCE THAT THEY WERE GAY, THEY JUST WENT AND RESIGNED.

SO HOW LONG DID THIS LAST, AND DO WE KNOW HOW MANY PEOPLE WERE AFFECTED BY THIS.

WELL, THE POLICY OF DENYING SECURITY CLEARANCE TO GAY MEN AND LESBIANS WAS IN EFFECT TILL 1995.

IT WAS PRESIDENT CLINTON WHO REVERSED THE EISENHOWER EXECUTIVE ORDER.

AND IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO KNOW HOW MANY PEOPLE WERE AFFECTED.

THERE WERE CERTAINLY THE RECORDS OF PEOPLE WHO WERE FIRED.

THEN THERE'S SOME RECORDS OF PEOPLE WHO RESIGNED AND IF YOU LOOK AT THE PERSONNEL RECORDS YOU CAN GET A SENSE IF THEY WERE UNDER INVESTIGATION.

BUT WE'LL NEVER KNOW HOW MANY PEOPLE WERE DENIED EMPLOYMENT BECAUSE DURING PRELIMINARY BACKGROUND CHECKS THEY WERE FOUND TO BE GAY.

THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE WHO NEVER APPLIED FOR JOBS BECAUSE THEY KNEW THEY WERE GOING TO BE FOUND OUT.

GOVERNMENT REQUIRED PRIVATE COMPANIES DOING BUSINESS WITH THE GOVERNMENT TO FIRE THEIR GAY AND LESBIAN EMPLOYEESES.

NO WAY OF EVER KNOWING HOW MANY PEOPLE THERE WERE WERE FIRED.

THROUGH NATO WE DEMANDED OF OUR NATO ALLIES THAT THEY CONDUCT PURGES IN THEIR COUNTRIES, AS WELL.

DID THEY.

AND THEY DID.

YOU TELL THIS LARGER STORY, LARGELY THROUGH THE LIVES OF INDIVIDUALS WHO ILLUSTRATE THE STORY.

THERE'S ONE AMAZING CHARACTER FEATURED IN YOUR FILM.

FRANK KAMANI.

AMAZING GUY.

IMPORTANT AS COULD BE.

ALSO NEVER HEARD OF HIM.

TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT HIM.

FRANK WAS WORKING FOR THE U.S. ARMY MAP SERVICE.

HE HAD A P.h.D. IN ASTRONOMY FROM HARVARD.

HE WAS BRILLIANT, SINGLE-MINDED, DETERMINED, AND HE WAS AT WORK ONE DAY AND TWO AGENTS CAME IN AND SAID WE HAVE EVIDENCE THAT YOU'RE A HOMOSEXUAL.

WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY TO THIS?

AND HE SAID WHAT'S THE EVIDENCE?

AND THEY SAID WE'RE NOT GOING TO TELL YOU.

HE SAID WELL I HAVE TO COMMENT BUT THE FACT IS HE WAS FIRED BECAUSE HE WAS GAY.

WE ESTIMATE PROBABLY 5,000 PEOPLE HAD BEEN FIRED OR FORCED TO RESIGN BEFORE FRANK.

HE WAS THE FIRST PERSON TO STAND UP AND SAY, THIS IS WRONG.

THIS IS NO REASON THAT I SHOULD LOSE MY JOB AND HE BEGAN TO FIGHT THIS POLICY AND HE FOUGHT IT ADMINISTRATIVELY, THROUGH THE COURTS.

WHEN NO LAWYER WOULD CONTINUE TO REPRESENT HIM, HE FILED HIS OWN BRIEF TO THE UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT WHICH WASN'T GRANTED.

BUT HE EM PARKED ON A LIFETIME.

AND HE FOUGHT IT ON THE STREETS.

HE ORGANIZED I THINK THE FIRST DEMONSTRATION OF GAY AND LESBIANS OUTSIDE THE WHITE HOUSE?

AT LEAST IN WASHINGTON, RIGHT?

TO PROTEST THIS.

EXACTLY.

FOUR YEARS BEFORE STONEWALL?

1965.

HE GOT 11 PEOPLE TOGETHER TO PICKETT IN FRONT OF THE WHITE HOUSE.

YOU KNOW, STONEWALL IS OBVIOUSLY A MAJOR EVENT, MILESTONE IN THE HISTORY OF THE MOVEMENT.

BUT ONE OF THE REASONS I WANTED TO MAKE THE FILM IS REALLY TO PAY TRIBUTE TO A SMALL GROUP OF VERY BRAVE PEOPLE WHO YEARS BEFORE STONEWALL REALLY GOT THE BALL ROLLING.

WE'VE GOT ABOUT A COUPLE MINUTES LEFT.

I WANT TO TALK ABOUT JOAN CASSIDY, AN EXAMPLE OF THE FACT EVEN IF YOU DID NOT GET FIRED OR WERE FORCED TO RESIGN, YOUR LIFE WAS DAMAGED AS A RESULT OF THIS POLICY.

TALK ABOUT HER A LITTLE BIT.

JOAN CASSIDY CAME FROM A UNABLE FAMILY.

HER FATHER, HER MOTHER, BOTH OF HER SISTERS AND BROTHERS WERE ALL IN THE NAVY AND SHE WANTED TO BE IN THE NAVY TOO AND SHE DID ENLIST AND ROSE TO THE RANK OF CAPTAIN IN THE NAVAL RESERVE WHICH IS THE HIGHEST RANK A WOMAN HAS EVER HELD IN THE RESERVE BUT SHE WAS OFFERED THE OPPORTUNITY TO GO FOR ADMIRAL.

SHE WOULD HAVE BEEN THE FIRST FEMALE ADMIRAL IN THE U.S. NAVY.

AS SHE TOLD US IN THE FILM, SHE THOUGHT ABOUT IT AND SHE THOUGHT BUT WHAT IF BLEW WHEN I DID GORE THAT, THEY DISCOVER WHAT I'VE BEEN HIDING ALL THESE YEARS AND SHE GAVE UNDER THE OPPORTUNITY.

IT'S A GREAT EXAMPLE HOW THIS POLICY WAS SO WIDESPREAD AND AFFECTED SO MANY PEOPLE IN SO MANY DIFFERENT WAYS.

WHAT ARE THE LESSONS OF THIS DARK MOMENT IN OUR HISTORY FOR US TODAY?

WHEN I STARRED WORKING ON THE FILM, I SAW IT AS A MOMENT IN HISTORY AND NOW I REALLY SEE THAT THERE ARE BROADER MESSAGES TO IT.

THE HOMOPHOBE YAST 1950s, WAS A DIRECT BACKLASH AGAINST AN EARLIER TIME THAT WE TALK ABOUT IN THE FILM IN WHICH BEING GAY WASN'T SUCH A BIG DEAL.

AND I THINK AS MARK TWAIN THAT HISTORY DOESN'T REPEAT ITSELF BUT IT OFTEN RHYMES, AND I DO FEEL THAT WE'RE IN IN SOMETHING OF A SIMILAR TIME TODAY.

TO THE 1950s.

YOU KNOW, WE'VE MADE ENORMOUS PROGRESS IN THE FIGHT FOR EQUALITY OVER THE PAST DECADE AND MORE.

BUT THERE IS AN EBB AND FLOW TO HISTORY.

AND WE ALREADY SEE SOME OF THE -- SOME OF THE PROGRESS WE MADE BEGINNING TO ERODE A BIT.

SO I THINK THAT IS AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE OF THE FILM.

JOSH, THE FILM 'THE LAVENDER SCARE' APPEARS ON PBS.

THANKS FOR JOINING US TODAY TO TALK ABOUT IT.

THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

JUST A REMINDER FOR MORE HOW TO WATCH 'THE LAVENDER SCARE,' HEAD OVER TO OUR WEBSITE @METRO FOCUS.ORG.

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

WNET

© WNET All Rights Reserved.

825 Eighth Avenue

New York, NY 10019