Gay History: March 1950 – The Lavender Scare: McCarthy and Cohn Hunt Homosexuals in the United States
The Lavender Scare blew wide open in the nation’s newspapers in late March of 1950 when arch-conservative columnist George Sokolsky, an early admirer of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) and Roy Cohn, (pictured above) took to his column to blast the U.S. State Department, once again, for harboring “known Communists” and worse. HOMOSEXUALS!
When Maximillian Harden, the German journalist, called attention to a similar camarilla in the Kaiser’s court, involving Prince Eulenburg, it shocked and astonished the world. Yet, in this generation, in the United States, a charge that 91 employees of the state department were dismissed for being homosexuals passes with little excitement.
And so the Lavender Scare began.
The Lavender Scare is a rarely talked about but is an important part of our history. In the 1950’s during the anti-communist campaign known as McCarthyism. Gay men and lesbians were often considered “fellow travelers” of the communists, with McCarthy also charging not only that the government had been infiltrated by homosexuals, and that they posed a threat equally as grave to national security because gay men and lesbians could be blackmailed into revealing state secrets. The lavender scare began “may be seen as the time when homosexuals became the chief scapegoats of the Cold War because of fear, bigotry and hatred.
In 1950, the same year that Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed 205 communists were working in the State Department.
On April 19, 1950, the Republican National Chairman Guy George Gabrielson said that “sexual perverts who have infiltrated our Government in recent years” were perhaps as “dangerous as the actual Communists”.
The State Department at first denied that it employed any suspected communists. But under intense questioning from McCarthy’s Republican allies, they did admit that they had fired 91 homosexuals as “security risks.” This seemed to substantiate McCarthy’s otherwise wild charges and increase his popular support. Soon outraged citizens, newspaper editors, and members of Congress were calling for an investigation. In the summer of 1950, a committee of the US Senate investigated “the employment of homosexuals and other sex perverts in the government.” Although they could not uncover a single example of a homosexual American citizen who had betrayed secrets as a result of blackmail, they wrote a highly circulated and influential report that asserted that gay men and lesbians exhibited weak moral character and had a “corrosive influence” on their fellow employees. “One homosexual can pollute a government office,” the Senate report concluded. Based on little evidence, the attacks represented a way for Republicans, the minority party at the time, to attack the Democrats and the New Deal agencies they had created as centers of immorality.
McCarthy then hired Roy Cohn –later exposed as being a homosexual himself and who died of AIDS in 1986, as chief counsel of his Congressional subcommittee. Together, McCarthy and Cohn were responsible for the firing of scores of gay men and women from government employment and strong-armed many opponents into silence using rumors of their homosexuality. In 1953, during the final months of the Truman administration, the State Department reported that it had fired 425 employees for allegations of homosexuality.
McCarthy often used accusations of homosexuality as a smear tactic in his anti-communist crusade, often combining the Second Red Scare with the Lavender Scare. On one occasion, he went so far as to announce to reporters, “If you want to be against McCarthy, boys, you’ve got to be either a Communist or a cocksucker.” Some historians have argued that, in linking communism and homosexuality and psychological imbalance, McCarthy was employing guilt-by-association if evidence for communist activity was lacking.
On April 27th, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower that year declared homosexuals a threat to national security and ordered the immediate firing of every gay man and lesbian working for the U.S. government using an Executive Order which would stay in effect until President Clinton on May 28, 1998 finally signed Executive Order 13087 banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in federal hiring practices and in the granting of security clearances.
The Lavender Scare ended many gay men and women’s promising careers, ruined lives, and pushed many to suicide. It is a darker side of our history that is rarely talked about and one that we should never forget to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.