Imagine: It’s an average day. You head into the office, greet your co-workers, sit down at your desk, and maybe begin some paperwork. Then, out of nowhere, a supervisor is at your shoulder. They are alarmed. In an urgent whisper, they call you to an office where two stern looking government agents stare you down. These strangers say they know about you. They know who you hang out with. They know where you go at night. They ask with leers and sneers what sexual positions you prefer. They call you “pervert” and “degenerate” and tell you that you will resign from your job or they will tell everyone about you. This is the horrid experience that thousands of queer Americans went through once the Lavender Scare began. Now, over 60 years later, their stories are told in the informative and infuriating PBS documentary, The Lavender Scare.
Based on David K. Johnson’s history book of the same name, The Lavender Scare traces LGBTQ+ history from World War II to the Clinton era, detailing the systematic prejudice that forced queer Americans out of government employ and into joblessness, terror, and even suicide. Director Josh Howard ushers viewers through the timelines of several Americans who were affected by the Lavender Scare, by sharing their letters, diary entries, personal photos, and filmed interviews with them and their loved ones. He also interviews historians and even one of the government investigators whose job it was to unearth closeted homosexuals and bully them into resignations.
In just 52 minutes, audiences will learn how WWII had an unexpected silver lining for the gay youth in America. Military service gave many a way out of smalltown life and heteronormative conformity by putting them in a same-sex environment where many found themselves and their first loves. But as years past, Cold War paranoia infected America. Fear of Russian spies led to exposing presumed communist threats with the Red Scare. The Lavender Scare followed, and its logic is profoundly flawed while the politics are predictably enraging.
Suspicions arose that Russian spies might seek out queer government employees to blackmail, threatening to expose their “homosexual lifestyle” unless they gave up government secrets. There’s no evidence that such a thing had ever happened in the US. But national security blah blah blah. Of course, if there weren’t such a life-shattering stigma attached to being queer in the US at the time, this wouldn’t be a concern. But rather than address the homophobia in society, the Republicans decided to exploit it to win their bid for the presidency. It was a successful move the GOP still employs. And once President Dwight D. Eisenhower was sworn into office in 1953, he signed Executive Order 10450, which basically made it legal to fire queer people from any government job. And so the hunt to bring down these supposed threats to national security begun.
The former investigator spoke matter-of-factly and even smugly about his job as a gay-hunter, saying, “It was like the police investigating murders. You had to put the pieces together.” This sometimes meant stalking a suspected gay person to a nightclub, where you might see them dance cheek-to-cheek with someone of the same sex or perform as a drag queen. Over the four decades this executive order stood, thousands would lose their jobs. Many had to switch careers as they’d been blacklisted from their industry. And all of this is deeply depressing to hear about. But The Lavender Scare eventually shifts focus to this bleak era’s heroes, those inspiring individuals who thrived and fought back.
When confronted with a blurry snapshot of himself in drag, postal worker Carl Rizzi quipped to his interrogators that it was a terrible photo. He added, “And if they wanted, I could give them a better one for their file.” One ousted lesbian gave up her career in economics to become a civil rights attorney. But the big hero at the center of this doc is the late Frank Kameny, an astronomer who dreamed of being an astronaut, but whose ambitions were thwarted by bigotry. After he was expelled, Kameny became a political activist. He doggedly wrote letters to congressman criticizing this oppressive Executive Order. He picketed in front of the White House, and he became the go-to advocate for other LGBTQ+ government workers being forced from their jobs. In its end credits, The Lavender Scare proclaims him the “grandfather of the gay rights movement.”
For being just 54 minutes long, this is a hell of a history lesson. Howard packs in information and personal stories to give a solid overview of the Lavender Scare. However, what The Lavender Scare chooses to brush over is troubling. For one thing, the Stonewall Riots, which are generally accepted as a major breakthrough in the gay rights movement, are covered in about 30 seconds. Considering this is chiefly a movie about the Lavender Scare, that might be fine, if this New York City rebellion wasn’t presented as the result of Kameny’s D.C. protests. That suggestion gives a cisgender white man credit for a groundbreaking rebellion that was ignited by trans women of color like Marsha P. Johnson, who are too often overlooked, even the history of LGBTQ+ people. As such, this documentary about America’s oppression of queer people becomes narrowed in its focus to being about the oppression of white and cis queer people. Which is reflected in the interviews, which only feature white people.
This frustratingly exclusive focus is further narrowed by a brief story about how the Kameny insisted people dress to participate in his picket lines. Men must wear suits. Women must wear skirts and pumps. One interview subject laughs in recollection that even lesbians who typically dressed more androgynous would femme it up to march with Kameny. “If you want to be employed,” he told them, “Look employable.” Which seems to mean dress like straight people so they’ll accept you. The irony is that the film commends Kameny for his outspokenness and unapologetic tone, which was ahead of his time for the gay rights discourse. But it refuses to dig into how his own views are have grown outdated. By not questioning the late activist’s standards, it suggests there is nothing problematic about them.
The last obfuscation that frustrated me concerns a historic moment the doc chooses to paint an outright victory for Kameny and (white, cis) gay people across America. The Lavender Scares proudly declares that in 1995, Eisenhower’s odious Executive Order 10450 was finally rescinded by Democratic President Bill Clinton. But hey, don’t sound the victory horns too soon, because what’s not mentioned is that Clinton replaced 10450 with the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. Basically, he made it legal to be queer in America’s armed forces—as long as nobody knew about it.
Progress is never a straight line. Heroes are not saints. History is messy. And such nuances are very difficult to express under an hour. So, The Lavender Scare is a decent intro to a pivotal part of gay rights movement. However, Howard’s transparent efforts to streamline its story and give this terrible time an outright hero ends up erasing the courageous acts of other queer heroes and pardoning half-stepped allyship. Still, it’s a doc worth watching, because within it Howard offers several stories of real, brave, queer American people who had to become heroes just to live their lives. But as you watch, please be mindful of its limitations and the stories it chose not to explore.
The Lavender Scare aired on PBS on June 18.
Header Image Source: PBS