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The Lavender Scare

A review of the new documentary directed by Josh Howard.

Emma Griffiths PR
The Lavender Scare
Source: Emma Griffiths PR

The Lavender Scare, by Josh Howard

Reviewed by Lloyd I Sederer, MD

I had the opportunity to screen an exceptional documentary, beautiful, carefully constructed and inspiring, about human dignity and rights: The Lavender Scare (75 minutes; directed by Josh Howard and narrated by Glenn Close). It will be released to the general public in New York and Los Angeles on July 7 – timed for the 50th Anniversary of the famous Stonewall raid and protests, where homosexuals brought the injustice done to them to the streets of New York City.

The documentary tells a story too few know about. Using extensive archival images as well as contemporary interviews with a host of those who were there, we witness a world where homosexuality is anathema, and a source of profound shame because of the inhumane discrimination imposed upon some (actually many) “American citizens” who happened to be gay men and women.

Homosexuals became the targets of the second witch hunt of the 1950s, on the heels of the Red Scare (of Communism), championed especially by Senator Joe McCarthy. The Cold War mentality was of spies everywhere, blacklists, and extrusion or persecution, and had reached its apogee at that time.

Allegations of national security threats (spying was a favorite), with no proof whatsoever, were clandestinely foisted upon gay men and women working for the federal government. A 1953 Executive Order from President Eisenhower trumpeted the “danger” posed by homosexuals, and well over 10,000 employees in government, including the military, were coerced into resigning from their jobs.

Resignations were extracted from government workers by federal agents who threatened to expose their sexual orientation (then typically considered a disgrace). Those in the military faced dishonorable discharge — unless they resigned. Other members of the federal government, heterosexual men and women, were pressured into revealing who might be gay. It was their “patriotic duty” to inform on their co-workers, even their friends.

Dr. Alfred Kinsey had published Sexual Behavior in The Human Male in 1948. He reported that 37 percent of American men had homosexual relations to the “point of orgasm.” McCarthy and others used this information and exploded it publicly by declaring that homosexuality was the “predominant National disease," stunningly adding that this disease overshadowed cancer, heart failure, and infantile paralysis (polio). Homosexuality was regarded as a “disease of the mind," and legions of gay men and women in government were identified and effectively fired. They had no way to explain their job loss, and the disgrace it ushered in. The taint they were painted with extended to their families and friends. Many experienced chronic unemployment and unending depression; for some suicide was their way out.

One of the many heroes throughout the years that followed was Franklin Kameny, Ph.D. (1925-2011), a Harvard educated astronomist who was also Jewish. He was forced to resign from his work as an astronomer in the US Army Map Service in Washington, DC, a job he had ably earned. But Frank Kameny would not go quietly into the toxic ozone of shame. He was the first to speak out about what was going on, to assert the utter bigotry that had been leveled against him and so many others, for no viable reason other than unvarnished discrimination. He called himself a “Homosexual American Citizen."

Over time, Kameny’s actions drew many others into speaking out, to going to the streets to peaceably protest. He came to be dubbed the grandfather of the movement he founded and inspired over decades. In his Congressional appearance, related to the Mattachine Society of Washington he established for this cause, he likened the treatment of homosexuals to that of the “Negro population.” He proudly declared that the government was wrong, not him, and he would get the government to think like him.

And as Bob Dylan said, “…the times they are a’changin'." The 1960s arrived: Speak up, speak out against the “Establishment." Power was returning to the people—slowly of course, and hard won. Gay rights and gay pride, also known as LGBT and LGBTQ pride, were born. Then, in 1969, came the raid on The Stonewall Inn, a gay club in Greenwich Village. Protests erupted, and the media transmitted the cause to everyone who bought newspapers, watched TV, or listened to radio. The Stonewall became an icon for LBGTQ pride, and this film’s release commemorates the 50th anniversary of the raid and the powerful social movement it spawned.

The film celebrates Kameny and many other brave and determined activists, women and men, whose dignity was abused and who suffered the injustices delivered simply because of their sexual orientation. But, as we know, and the film carefully portrays, political and government change came slowly.

Emma Griffith PR
Frank Kameny leading a protest
Source: Emma Griffith PR

It was not until August 1995 that President Bill Clinton barred the federal government from terminating homosexuals in its employ. President Obama advanced the social and political narrative on gay rights. He invited Kameny to attend the December 22, 2010, ceremony where the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010 was signed.

Living in New York City, working with diverse groups of people of different colors, ages and sexual orientations, I often see the hard-won gains we have achieved — the justice owed to the “rainbow” of people who constitute our neighborhoods and country. But not always. This film elegantly shows how many gay-rights advances were fought for and achieved — and the relentless determination it required. We still have more mountains to climb in cities and small towns throughout our country. While we are not yet where we need to be, watching this film left me hopeful and inspired. I felt like I was back in the 60s, when I came of age, and anything seemed possible if we tried.