The Lavender Scare – America’s LGBT purge

Everybody has heard of the anti-Communist Red Scare in the 1950s – the McCarthyite purge of suspected Soviet sympathisers from the government, professions, and the entertainment industry. Less well known was the concerted attack on LGBT people, referred to as the Lavender Scare. This saw gays and lesbians regarded with the same fear and paranoia as those accused of espionage for the Soviet Union.

I should issue a trigger warning that this article includes language used in the period after the Second World War that was derogatory about gay, lesbian, and trans people. As an LGBT historian, I do believe we need to recognise how LGBT people were treated in the past. Airbrushing it out as if it didn’t happen does nobody any favours. Today’s “culture wars” show these attitudes have not disappeared.

Reds under the beds!

1950 saw an escalation of the Red Scare in the United States. Communist spies were everywhere in America and western Europe. Senator Joseph “Joe” McCarthy (1908-1957) spearheaded a purge of what he believed were underground Communists operating in the government and Hollywood. This was orchestrated through the House Un-American Activities Committee, set up in 1938, and came to be known as “McCarthyism”. It was a huge infringement of civil liberties in the name of national security.

McCarthy conducted what now look like ‘kangaroo court’ trials dragging suspected communists before him and asking: are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party? But rooting out reds wasn’t sufficient. McCarthy expressed the conventional wisdom in government circles that homosexuals presented a security risk and must be fired when discovered.

DISCOVER: LGBT people arrested in 19th century London

The Lavender Scare – dragging LGBT people in government out of the closet

The Republican National Chair, Guy Gabrielson (1891-1976) referred to “sexual perverts” who he claimed had “infiltrated our government” and were “perhaps as dangerous as the actual Communists”. Senator Kenneth Wherry (1892-1951) of Nebraska declared that “you can’t separate homosexuals from subversives…Mind you, I don’t say that every homosexual is a subversive, and I don’t say that every subversive is a homosexual.” But somehow, he went on, they were all tied up together.

A Washington DC Vice Squad officer told a Senate inquiry that thousands of “sex deviates” worked in the government. Hard to believe today but a report from Congress later declared that gays and lesbians were causing havoc in the corridors of power: “One homosexual can pollute a Government office”.

The logic of McCarthy and his cohort was that gay men adopted the same methodology as communists. They both lived in the closet, meaning they were leading false lives. So they were lying all the time. Ergo, communists and homosexuals are subversive liars. However, there was a conundrum at the heart of this argument that all bigots chose to ignore.

Yes, gay men in the 1950s were in the closet and arguably more susceptible to blackmail – even by foreign powers. But that was precisely because they were discriminated against by the law and society, not because LGBT people are inherently treacherous.

Communists and queers – the Lavender Scare gets underway!

By 1952, everybody had got terribly excited about gays running Washington DC. Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois thundered that it was time to remove the “lavender lads” from government offices. It was even claimed that Adolf Hitler had compiled a global roster of homosexuals that the Russians seized in 1945 when they invaded Berlin and now Stalin had that list. Who knew how he would use it? Crazy – but this was believed.

The lavender conspiracy theory went something like this: The levers of power in American government are being operated by a clique of elite educated gay men who are highly networked both within and outside the United States. They pursue their own self-interested agenda and have no loyalty to the flag. It’s not that far removed from the deep-state stuff that is widely believed these days. That there is a state within the state directing everything.

In 1950, the New York Daily News argued that “the foreign policy of the United States, even before World War II, was dominated by an all-powerful, supersecret inner circle of highly educated, socially highly placed sexual misfits in the State Department, all easy to blackmail, all susceptible to blandishments by homosexuals in foreign nations”.

In the post-war era, it wasn’t uncommon to hear right-wingers refer to “commie-pinko-faggots”, a highly offensive term that wrapped communism and homosexuality together. In the heightened atmosphere of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, this made an already grim situation for LGBT people in the 1950s even worse.

Lavender scare results in LGBT suicides

Many LGBT people came under so much pressure that they sought a “cure” for their sexuality. This was a time when homosexuality was listed as a mental illness, as it would be in the United States up until the 1970s. But others who now faced being disgraced in public, legally prosecuted, and barred from working – committed suicide. As had some accused of being Communists.

In January, 1953, the head of the Finnish desk at the US State Department – John C. Montgomery – hanged himself. Aged only 41, his body was found at his Georgetown home. He had used a bathroom sash and “hempen cord” that broke under his weight sending him falling.

The newspaper coverage from the time is appalling to read. There was no sympathy whatsoever. The government claimed he was “lonely and unmarried and discontented with his job”. Republican Illinois Representative Fred Busbey (1895-1966), who supported the Lavender purge, claimed Montgomery had been “very popular and was a bachelor by choice”. A very loaded comment. And he added:

“It may be no more than a coincidence that he worked in a government agency where Communists, Communist sympathisers, and poor loyalty risks have plagued our security…In view of the fact that Montgomery brought his own life to an end, we should not assume that he was innocent of such associations.”

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