The Lavender Scare

Johnson Lavender Scare

Johnson, David K.  The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays & Lesbians in the Federal Government.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 

Watch the trailer for the upcoming Lavender Scare documentary!

Watch the trailer for the upcoming Lavender Scare documentary!

Subject:  An examination of the persecution of homosexual federal employees in Washington, D.C. during the 1950s and 1960s.

Main Points: It’s no big secret that gay men and lesbians working in the U.S. federal government were persecuted during the Cold War.  But, most histories view this persecution as part of a larger Red Scare (purge of Communists) or era of McCarthyism.  But, in this book, Johnson reveals that the Lavender Scare (purge of homosexuals) was a specific & distinct phase of Cold War persecution in which McCarthy played a very small role.  In fact, Johnson shows that more suspected homosexuals were purged from the federal government than were suspected Communists!  As such, Johnson argues that the Lavender Scare should be viewed as central to the story of Cold War American politics.

Johnson builds on the work of scholars like John D’Emilio and George Chauncey in that he shows how D.C. became one of America’s gay cities.  As the nation’s capital, D.C.’s population soared as the federal government expanded under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and again after the successful conclusion of the Second World War.  The enlarged bureaucracies meant more jobs – for white men and women.  Urbanization (autonomy, individuality, money) combined, like in other big cities, to create the perfect conditions for gay and lesbian subcultures, and Johnson argues that D.C.’s gay subcultures thrived.  Therefore, starting from the time of the Great Depression, the District of Columbia became a “very gay city” (41).  Unfortunately, this increased visibility of gay subcultures meant that once the crackdown began in 1950, gay men and women were more easily targeted.

Interesting is how Johnson shows that Republicans (opposing the Democratic administration) made homosexuality a political issue.  Conservative Republicans accused the Truman and Eisenhower administrations of fostering sexual perverts, thus creating an effeminate bureaucracy that wasn’t willing or able to protect America from its enemies.  Key to the use of homosexuality as a partisan tool was the notion of loyalty.  Homosexuals, it was asserted, were used to hiding who they really were and were good at living with secrets.  Therefore, they were more likely to be spies for the Communists and enemies of the American state. Having effeminate and gay men in the State Department also meant that they’d be soft and give in to foreign demands.  Conservative radio personality Walter Winchell even told his listeners that a vote for Adlai Stevenson, Democratic presidential candidate in 1952, “was a vote for Christine Jorgensen,” the first famous male-to-female transsexual (122).

Cold War policies towards homosexuals, Johnson demonstrates, are important, because he argues that the persecution of gays and lesbians was crucial to the development of a national security state.  It shows how the purges, led by State Dept. undersecretary John Peurifoy, Senator Kenneth Wherry, and R.W. Scott McLeod, allowed conservatives to shift the focus from Communists to homosexuals in order to gain support for a strengthening of the national security state (protect America from foreign and domestic enemies) and a gradual dismantling of the soft welfare state.

But Johnson also argues that the purges also had a profound impact on the gay and lesbian communities – and not just because they lost their job or were ‘outed’ from a state-created closet. In order to persecute homosexuals, the state first had to identify and define them.  After trying many different ways to define homosexuals, the government ultimately decided that a homosexual was someone who had ever had even one homosexual experience.  Therefore, Johnson argues that the state played a vital role in the shift from a gender-based notion of (homo)sexuality (based on gender inversion, ie a effeminate man, or manly woman) to a sexual object-defined definition (an individual who ‘chose’ a member of the same sex as their object of their desire).  However, he also points out that this shift was not simple and that the new definition did not simply replace the old gender based one.  Defining a homosexual by who they have sex with was difficult because that made homosexuals hard to identify; as such, picking out “soft and effeminate” men and “manly” women was still the main way government officials identified homosexuals.

But, gays and lesbians were able to create and use a “reverse discourse” (in the words of M. Foucault) to renegotiate a new, political gay identity.  Johnson argues that the persecution forced gay men and women together into a group, a group of individuals who had dedicated their lives to working for their government.  Therefore, the claim that they were somehow un-loyal to their country was preposterous.  Therefore, a new gay political activism emerged in DC (before Stonewall) in which gays and lesbians affirmed their loyalty and patriotism.  Also highlighted in the book is the role of the Mattachine society of Washington and Frank Kameny in organizing gay and lesbian activists for a political cause; thus, Johnson sees this era in DC as incredibly important to the story of gay rights activism.  These men and women who had been fired were now organizing politically to demand protection from discrimination based on their homosexuality (Johnson provides some great pictures of picket lines, pamphlets and fliers).  Such political organizations acted as rallying points for gays and lesbians, further creating a gay identity and subculture.

My Comments: It’s a really fascinating book and helpful in a number of ways.  First, it helps contextualize the beginning of the gay rights movements and shows that Stonewall maybe shouldn’t be taken as the starting point for political gay activism.  Gays and lesbians were organizing and marching in DC ten to fifteen years before the Stonewall riots happened, thus helping to create a homosexual identity in the first place.

I think it also does a great job of showing how gay & lesbian history is directly relevant to larger, political history as well.  Johnson shows that definitions of homosexuality, and gender, and masculinity were linked to loyalty, strength, and security.  Therefore, Cold War politics and sexual politics went hand in hand.

For more books on the history of gender and sexuality, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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